Class-Action Lawsuit Against Seagate Built On Questionable Backblaze Reliability Report

The Hagens Berman law firm is filing a class action lawsuit against Seagate that, for now, lists one plaintiff. The lawsuit contends that Christopher Nelson, a natural person and citizen of South Dakota, purchased a Seagate Barracuda 3 TB HDD and a Seagate Backup Plus 3 TB HDD in October 2011, and summarily both HDDs died and Seagate replaced them with inherently faulty products. The lawsuit also states that Seagate's hard drives failed to live up to the advertised promises, in violation of federal consumer laws and Seagate's own warranties, after delivering faulty replacement drives. 

Perhaps most interestingly, the lawsuit cites the Backblaze reliability reports as proof that the units were faulty (only the 3 TB Barracuda models).

We reached out to the law firm for comment on several topics, but first, we need to get up to speed on the Backblaze reliability reports.

Backblaze "Reliability Report"

The Backblaze HDD reliability "study" consisted of a little-known cloud storage company's internal observations of the failure rates of HDDs in its own unique environment. The Backblaze study has been both widely embraced for its open sharing of field failure rates that is typically hidden by vendors and customers alike, and also criticized because of the nature of the environment. 

In short, by its own admission, Backblaze employed consumer-class drives in a high-volume enterprise-class environment that far exceeded the warranty conditions of the HDDs. Backblaze installed consumer drives into a number of revisions of its own internally developed chassis, many of which utilized a rubber band to "reduce the vibration" of a vertically mounted HDD.Backblaze setupBackblaze setup

The first revision of the pods, pictured above, had no fasteners for securing the drive into the chassis. As shown, a heavy HDD is mounted vertically on top of a thin multiplexer PCB. The SATA connectors are bearing the full weight of the drive, and factoring the vibration of a normal HDD into the non-supported equation creates the almost perfect recipe for device failure.

Backblaze has confirmed it still has all revisions of its chassis installed in its datacenters and that it replaced failed drives into the same chassis the original drive failed in. This could create a scenario where replacement drives are repeatedly installed into defective chassis, thus magnifying the failure ratio.

Backblaze developed several revisions of the custom chassis due to its admitted vibration problems with the early models, and the company shared the designs with the public. However, Backblaze did not indicate which type of enclosures each drive failed within, leaving speculation that the chassis may be the real root of the problem (among others).

The Backblaze environment employed more drives per chassis and featured much heavier workloads (both of which accelerate failure rates tremendously) than the vendors designed the client-class HDDs for. This ultimately helped Backblaze save money on their infrastructure. The Seagate 3 TB models failed at a higher rate than other drives during the Backblaze deployment, but in fairness, the Seagate drives were the only models that did not feature RV (Rotational Vibration) sensors that counteract excessive vibration in heavy usage models -- specifically because Seagate did not design the drives for that use case.

While the ongoing Backblaze disclosures propelled it into the public eye, the damage from the information dealt Seagate an almost immeasurable blow in the eyes of many consumers -- this, in spite of the fact that Backblaze issued numerous disclaimers about the applicability of the findings outside of its own unique (and questionable) use case. In fact, the company still has 17,000 Seagate drives in service.

The Backblaze client HDD operation was borne of necessity; it began during the Thailand floods when HDDs were excessively high priced. It is interesting to note that Backblaze has since migrated to drives that are actually designed for NAS and enterprise usage scenarios. Seagate cited information from third-party outfit Warranty Week, which examined SEC data and concluded that Seagate's drives are among the most reliable in the industry, with a 1.2 percent warranty claim as a percentage of its sales volume.

Does It Make Sense?

The conditions of the Backblaze failure data, even by the company's own admission, are far beyond the warranty claims of said hardware, which begs the immediate question of whether that data will pass the sniff test in court. I am no lawyer, but it should be relatively easy for Seagate to parry in this case; the results are essentially worthless to measure any practical consumer client application within the warranty guidelines.

We submitted several questions to the Hagens Berman law firm in regard to the technical merits of the case, and specifically whether the firm feels that the Backblaze report is relevant to the case. A law firm representative could not comment on whether or not the firm has retained some sort of technical council to help them navigate the relevance of the failure data, but that individual indicated that the legal team will follow up later this week, at which point we should have an update to share with readers.

The Hagens Berman law firm was founded in 1993 and has 10 offices around the country, which includes 75 attorneys, partners, associates and staff attorneys. The firm focuses on class-action lawsuits and claims to be among the top ten law firms in the country. The company is currently representing plaintiffs in NCAA concussions, Volkswagen and Apple Wi-Fi cases.

The lawsuit names only one plaintiff, which may seem to be below the requirements of a class-action suit. The Hagens Berman representative indicated that most of its class-action suits begin in this manner and that it files additional suits with additional plaintiffs as the case continues and other states' consumer protection laws come into play. The process typically culminates in a Multi-District Litigation (MDL) court.

"Seagate promised purchasers reliable hard drives that would safeguard their important documents and cherished photos, but consumers report that these Seagate hard drives fail sometimes just days after their first use,” said Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman. “These hard drives failed to deliver on Seagate’s promises, and replacements from Seagate were just as defective, amounting to loss of data and wasted money for thousands of purchasers – something we believe to be direct violation of federal consumer-rights laws.”

The lawsuit contends that Seagate replaced faulty units under warranty with defective devices, which subjected them to further data loss and left the warranty promise unfulfilled.

In many respects, it appears as if the Hagens Berman press release, which is sure to enjoy heavy rotation in tech circles, is geared to search for additional clients. The law firm said that anyone who experienced similar failures with the Seagate Barracuda 3 TB HDD or Backup Plus 3 TB External HDD may be subject to damages, including replacement costs and damages from lost data and data recovery services.

Seagate Response

We reached out to Seagate representatives for comment on the case.

Seagate is aware of the filing of a class action complaint on February 1, 2016, by plaintiff Christopher A. Nelson, in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. Seagate has received a copy of the complaint but has not yet been served. Seagate is reviewing the complaint and will respond to it in due course.

We will continue to track the situation as it develops and more information becomes available, but it appears the legal engines are starting to rev up.

Paul Alcorn is a Contributing Editor for Tom's Hardware, covering Storage. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

Follow us @tomshardware, on Facebook and on Google+.

Create a new thread in the News comments forum about this subject
This thread is closed for comments
100 comments
    Your comment
    Top Comments
  • ardoon
    I don't normally comment on articles, but this one annoyed me quite a bit.

    The Backblaze report is hardly "questionable" as the author of the article claims. It's well sourced, with a huge sample size (40K drives), and the initial report has been followed up several times with further information - one of them even with the raw data so you can do your own number crunching. Subsequent reports have dispelled the concerns that their chassis revisions, drive sourcing (drives removed from USB enclosures vs. outright purchased bare), and other anomalies.

    Additionally, I see zero mention on Backblaze's site that they've switched to NAS or Enterprise drives, simply that they've tested them. The author of this Tomshardware article may have misinterpreted their followup posts, badly.

    Where a lot of the consternation about the Backblaze reports come from is that people assume the testing is somehow flawed by using the drives in their environment. That's anything but true. The flaw is how people interpret it.

    I work in automotive part reliability and testing, previously I worked for Raytheon doing testing for clients such as NASA.

    Backblaze's methodologies are not too far out of whack for what gets done with automotive testing. Parts are subjected to the worst scenarios, under 24/7 load, totally outside of their design parameters. Think taking a Toyota Corolla and driving it at maximum speed around a street circuit for 96 hours straight. Way outside of typical usage, and way outside of what it was designed for.

    The failure rates are calculated. *Then* a decision is made what to continue using - often it's not the part that fails the least that is chosen, but all factors are considered - cost, manufacturing time, materials, etc. Reliability is just a factor. But when it all comes down to it, if you have two identically priced parts, and one is more reliable than the other, even completely outside of their design parameters - you're going to go with the more reliable one.

    Backblaze has done much the same. The drives in their data center all are subjected to the same workload. They fail at different rates. Why not make decisions based on that? It's stupid not to for Backblaze, and they're showing their methodology for us to get a glimpse at what they do. If end users make decisions based on that as well, that's their own issue.

    Finally, Backblaze's data is the only set of data like it out there. No other company (including Google) has had the balls to outright state what drive brands and models have been more/less reliable for them. They're too busy avoiding upsetting the drive manufacturers to actually give the rest of us data. So while the Backblaze data may not equate directly to the hard drive I stick in the next PC I build, it's better than completely blind or anecdotal evidence, as was the world before Backblaze released their data.

    It's the same reason Goodyear advertises on NASCAR. People think it's good enough for NASCAR races at 200mph, it's good enough for their Chrysler around town.

    If anything, the article should be titled "Questionable Class-Action Lawsuit Against Seagate Built On Backblaze Reliability Report" rather than the current way, though I'm in no way qualified as a lawyer, but I am for reliability testing. Keep up the quality writing Toms. I think some editorial review is order on this article.
    15
  • amk-aka-Phantom
    It was almost universally agreed a long time ago that Seagate's excuse of their drives failing due to "not being designed" for these workloads is rubbish. It doesn't matter what tech they allegedly lacked, competitors' drives of the same tier and pricing turned out to be more reliable, and that's all a buyer needs to know.

    Backblaze's testing was great precisely because it wasn't aiming to mask the drives' faults by some artificial "workload intentions" - they took the drives, trashed them with heavy workloads and saw which came out in top. Should we also stop paying attention to SSD reliability benchmarks or the Skylake Prime95 bug or proper cooling because "typical consumer workloads" will not trigger any of these issues?
    14
  • Ghan_04
    I'm not sure that this is lawsuit-worthy, but I can say that I have been burned by Seagate drives in the past. I used 3 x 3 TB Barracudas + 1 spare in a NAS, and boy am I glad I had a hot spare. I had one drive fail followed by another shortly after the RAID had rebuilt. I have since switched to 4 TB HGST drives at the recommendation of the BackBlaze report and haven't had an issue yet. I've been running the HGSTs quite a bit longer than the Seagates already as well.
    11
  • Other Comments
  • lhsbrandon
    I can tell you from my own experience that Seagate drives do in fact have poor reliability. I work in a school with hundreds of computers and I have had many Seagate drives fail especially laptop ones. I had a new hybrid drive of theirs fail after 2 months of use.
    8
  • amk-aka-Phantom
    It was almost universally agreed a long time ago that Seagate's excuse of their drives failing due to "not being designed" for these workloads is rubbish. It doesn't matter what tech they allegedly lacked, competitors' drives of the same tier and pricing turned out to be more reliable, and that's all a buyer needs to know.

    Backblaze's testing was great precisely because it wasn't aiming to mask the drives' faults by some artificial "workload intentions" - they took the drives, trashed them with heavy workloads and saw which came out in top. Should we also stop paying attention to SSD reliability benchmarks or the Skylake Prime95 bug or proper cooling because "typical consumer workloads" will not trigger any of these issues?
    14
  • koga73
    Seagate aquired Maxtor... that should say something about their reliability. Personally I have never had much luck with Seagate nor Maxtor. Now I only buy WesternDigital and have had virtually no problems.
    9