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How I got My Data Back
A personal account of Data Recovery - customer testimonial by Zyra, affiliate and satisfied customer of Kroll Ontrack Data Recovery
This story proves that you should never assume data is permanently lost. Data can generally be recovered from a hard disc drive which has failed, died, or suffered extreme misfortune. This is what happened to me. My hard disc drive which had been reliable for years suddenly failed catastrophically. It failed suddenly, becoming invisible to the computer even at the BIOS level, and yet in the end I got almost all the data recovered. Here's what happened:
2002/02/17 I bought the biggest hard disc drive I could get at the time. It was a good make, a Maxtor. These are usually reliable. I'd got over 140 thousand files stored on the drive, in various Linux and DOS 6.22 partitions. As I'd got the biggest drive, there was nowhere to back it up onto!
Two years of faultless service followed. The drive was in use every day as the largest of four drives on a computer which was The Business.
2004/03/24. Suddenly and without warning, the disc drive failed. It happened one afternoon when I was accessing a file. One minute the drive was there, and the next it was gone!
I checked the drive interface card and I checked the connections, and everything was ok. I took the disc drive out of the multi-boot machine and put it on the new Linux machine. It wouldn't even start and just hung the BIOS.
I've seen this kind of "everything's lost" sort of behaviour before with computers and hard disc drives and all kinds of newfangled technical gadgetry, and although instinct suggests throwing it all up in the air and leaping about all over the place and howling at the sky, logic suggests instead a more rational approach, so I phoned the expert. In fact I phoned several.
The first expert I phoned was Doctor Laurence Tyler, a friend of many years, computer genius, pioneer in robot science, and grandmaster at the art of not getting upset when everything has gone to pieces. He graciously took time out from finishing the final touches of his thesis and we carefully went over the options versus the disc drive problem. But in the end, the inescapable conclusion had to be that the problem was internal to the drive. That's really not good.
It was about four o'clock in the morning that I phoned Xyroth the Wizard, a friend who as well as being semi-nocturnal, knows about the madness which goes on here.
The day 2004/03/25 is all hazy as I woke up in the afternoon having taken too many tablets. Such is the nature of data loss that it's like bereavement and can't be rationally quantified from a perspective of sensibleness. The rest of the day went on hunting around for solutions to the desperate problem.
One of the best discussions that day was with Mike of MRL Networks .co.uk (was www.mrlnetworks.co.uk ) , who went over various electronic related possibilities. He was very considerate about this and went into considerable detail about the known problems to do with IDE drive cables, mistaken link master/slave options, etc. He also exploded various myths which had been told by some well-known computer selling places, places that really should know better. In particular, the belief that you can't swap the circuit board on a hard disc drive. In Mike's many years of experience, notions that boards are somehow "glued" to hard disc drive mechanisms or made customised to each drive, are unfounded, and you can usually swap the circuit boards with some success.
2004/03/26 Xyroth arrived and installed some new blank drives, so at least the partitions were in place, although blank. About a quarter of a terabyte was connected up all across the table.
2004/03/27 (Saturday) The whole day went on seeking a hard disc drive circuit board replacement. Bearing in mind this was for a Maxtor D540X, a 60 gigabyte drive which was two years old at the time, it was not easy. To seek out a circuit board to swap on the drive required an exact match. Either a circuit board, or an identical drive, was required. However, someone had said that a Maxtor Diamondmax 16 80Gb was compatible.
Someone at Maxtor was quite helpful, although the Maxtor company themselves in a corporate sense was not so helpful, not until much later. [More about Maxtor here]. Still, it's not an easy job being a hard disc drive manufacturing company, a bit like being a weatherman or a football referee, taken for granted when things go well but noticed when something goes wrong. And, for any hard disc drive manufacturer, nomatter how unsinkable they make the disc drives, the fact is that they can fail, and they do fail, and sometimes they fail catastrophically and without warning.
2004/03/28 (Sunday). Gloom.
2004/03/29 In the quest for an exact disc drive I phoned around. Many technical folk in computer shops told me about in-the-know things going on to do with hard disc drives. This was about the time Fujitsu had a misfortune resulting in many hard disc drive failures. Most of the computer shops had a stack of dead Fujitsu drives which had data which could be recovered but the electronics had failed.
A 60Gb Maxtor hard drive was located. Although not a perfect likeness, it was a Maxtor Diamondmax 16, and this was ordered from SJR Computers of Peterborough. It was a special order, so was worth paying extra for.
2004/03/31 Thud! A hard disc drive arrived through the letterbox. It had survived, and on testing showed it was completely working. However, the circuit board was not the same. Still, it was pin compatible, and someone somewhere had said a while ago that the D540X and the Diamondmax were compatible. So, I swapped the board.
This did not work. Simply, it was not compatible. No-one's fault. It's just that a D540X and a Diamondmax aren't compatible. Neither one works on the other.
So, the hunting continued. Later that afternoon I had some luck and located probably the last Maxtor D540X still on the shelves at a computer hardware stockist. After establishing it really was precisely a Maxtor D540X 4D060H3 BLUE FISH NAPA BUF CUK RP, those friendly people at Eurosimm soon had the drive in the post.
2004/04/03 The drive arrived. It was precisely the right model. To the letter this was an exact twin of the failed drive.
I swapped the board.
Now it has to be stated, I'm no fool with computers, and whilst I'd not advise anyone to go swapping hard disc drive boards around ad-hoc, I knew at this point that the electronics board being swapped was the same, and that as the failed drive made the right noises on start-up yet was invisible to the Bios, it had to be the electronics. This is not a "deleted" problem, the sort of thing which data recovery software can get back. Swapping the board should work.
But it didn't.
Of course the temptation is to open the drive. This is precisely not what to do! Although I have heard astonishing stories of disc drive platters being transplanted, head actuators being carefully deselected and put back on, and other tales reminiscent of seafaring stories of old, I know that one of the things that ye shall not do, is to open the drive. So I opened the other drive. The idea being to examine the possibility of swapping the internals. At this point I was only taking the gambling risk with money as per the cost of a drive. Unfortunately I lost. Inside the drive were powerful magnets, and even with considerable care, the result was the excruciating mangling of the drive heads. The last purchase I made on this ill-fated voyage of disc drive exploration was a set of those special precision bolt tools from the Pound Shop.
The value of data goes beyond money, so can't be risked. I still had the old drive, still in exactly the condition it was in when it failed. I put the drive into an anti-static bag and then into a padded box and I wrote "Fragile" on the box, although the term would probably have been more applicable to my head!
I took the old hard disc drive along to the Post Office and sent it registered post to Kroll Ontrack Hard Disc Drive Data Recovery Services, in hopes of resurrection. At the Post Office they asked "How much is that worth?" and in honesty I replied "Priceless". It has to be said that Kroll Ontrack is not cheap. But then again, when it comes to data recovery, the job has to be done properly. It's like cosmetic surgery - it's got to be exactly right. It's worth paying to get it done to absolute precision with the best expertise and the best equipment. I knew it would be expensive.
2004/04/05 The drive was reported arriving at Kroll Ontrack. Examination of the disc drive under laboratory conditions began.
2004/04/07 Good News! Most of the data was found to be OK! The experts at Kroll Ontrack had got the disc drive in a space-age "clean room" and had operated on it with specialist electronics.
2004/04/08 An e-mail arrived with a complete list of all the recoverable files that were on the disc. All but one of the 140 thousand files were there.
I received a fax with the official authorisation thing on it, and I duly signed it and paid by card. I sent the fax back and then made sure it had been received.
The people at Kroll Ontrack were very friendly and helpful, and were happy to put up with my somewhat eccentric request for an extra copy of the raw data, the remains of the old drive back, and a few other things. This sympathy with the customer is a good sign, something that goes beyond merely having an efficient service. There was in essence a willingness to help.
Plus, the recovered data was to be returned on a new hard disc drive, which of course would have a cost to it. But how much? In the manner in which some hotels charge an unnecessarily high price for the extras, Would the company charge a premium for the drive as they had the customer over a barrel? No! They did not. In fact the drive was included for a reasonable and competitive rate, no more than drives cost at the time. This is another good sign. I can tell a company is good by clues like this.
2004/04/14-15 I was away on business, during which the recovered hard disc drives arrived back at base.
2004/04/16 Starting of the Restoration of the data. Restore the data? But surely the data had already been recovered? It's not obvious, but the story doesn't end with the arrival of the data on drives. It has to be restored onto the computer in workable condition. Ontrack had done a great job of recovering data from a hard drive which was dead and impossible to even get the computer to recognise as existing. They'd got all but one of over 140,000 files in 4 DOS partitions and 7 Linux partitions recovered onto a new hard drive. But unfortunately they'd used a funny Microsoft format called "NTFS" which is unreadable by the new Linux computer here which had not got support for deprecated systems. Also, NTFS has no proper symbolic links or chmod permissions and there are a few other problems, for example the mangling of the file dates. But let's not blame the data recovery heroes at Ontrack for the mistakes of NTFS. So, the drive had to be mounted here on the old computer in read-only mode and the data syphoned off onto another drive and then the restoration could begin.
The data had been arranged by Ontrack into directories representing the original partitions, and there were neat reports about any parts found "bad". Also, a virus scan had been done, which helped to show archived virus e-mails. It was easy to use this information to rebuild the correct partitions here and to put almost all of the recovered files back into place.
Next, what about the one critical file which was "missing"? This, and another important file which had somehow been corrupted in the initial disaster, were apparently lost. It was quite important to get these back as they contained information about the stock control, appointments, and the contact file. It now becomes apparent that as the data disaster happened when I was accessing a file, that file was somehow deleted/lost.
When Ontrack salvage a disc drive, they recover all the good files they can find and store them on the recovered disc. But also, they sweep up any bits and pieces of broken files that are strewn about on the old disc and put them into a directory of sweepings called something like dir000001.chk , which is very good of them and very much understated. I can write computer programs and use various techniques to sift through the sweepings and to piece together the remains of the lost files. In the end I managed to recover even the file that was missing/deleted/lost! I also recovered another file which had been corrupted, as the sweepings contained fragments which matched up to each other. It's a bit like repairing a broken china teapot, where the pieces can be found in the sweepings and pieced back together. The difference is that the glue is digital and you can't see the joins!
There was also some work to be done on reconciling the old versions of projects frozen in time with new work which had been done since the disaster, but various programming tricks made this easier than it might have been, and even the thousands of files in the website development ended up being reconciled with their other versions within a day.
2004/04/18 Completion! Everything significant has been recovered and restored! A total success! From an original hard disc drive disaster which was unprecedented and seemingly unsolvable, impossible, and hopeless, to a situation of having everything on the computer working again!
* Yes, it was expensive. But worth it.
* If you have a problem like this, I recommend you visit Kroll Ontrack. If you think they're too expensive, you might like to see if ESS Data can offer you a data recovery more affordably. And if you think they are too expensive, you might like to try Palmer and Xytron Data Recovery
* If you would like to take easy free steps in advance to have happy endings on such stories in the unlikely event this happened to you, get a sticky label and apply this advance precaution
* If time is money or time is of the essence or you need your data back immediately and it's an emergency, it's worth knowing that Kroll Ontrack can perform emergency surgery on your disc drive and have it back to you within a day or two. (I opted for the slowest option (5 working days)). And if it's a dire emergency or vitally important, they can sometimes perform something close to a data recovery miracle by remote control, by networking to your computer. Even recovering terabytes of data in half an hour is not out of the question. More about this at terabyte.htm
* Don't panic, and never assume data is permanently lost, even in case of flood or fire!
* Critics who say "well you should have backed it up" are assuming that you should always have at least twice as much storage as you ever need. Plus, as disc drives generally don't fail catastrophically (and unrecoverable by circuit board swap), but more often have warnings such as minor errors long before they pop their clogs, it seems there are more likely things to guard against. However, if we're going to take the "should have" route, then other unlikely things need to be backed-up against, for example: fire, lightning, tsunami, nuclear war.
* On this matter of "I sifted through the sweepings and pieced together lost files", it's worth pointing out that although I've not really got intentions of a career in the data recovery business, I may be able to help in some cases and I'm probably worth contacting if you feel it's important enough. I know a few techniques which are generally not known. However, there's a very good section on Data Restoration at Kroll Ontrack - Other Data Recovery places are available.
Summary: A Success Story!
This was in 2004, and there is a Sequel in 2008