Or Mistakes I See Every Day That Can Be Easily Avoided
A Diatribe by Rob Armstrong, Memofix Data Recovery Engineer
Every day in Data Recovery labs across the globe, hard drives (HDDs) are received from people who were convinced they knew what to do when their HDDs failed. Unfortunately, most have been horribly misinformed by friends, family, sweaty nightmare, rumor and/or innuendo, or even worse poor Search Engine results written by non-professionals who think they know HDDs inside and out. The truth is, I have been in the Data Recovery industry for close to seven years, and I learn more about hard drives and each manufacturer and model EVERY DAY. It is not a simple or straightforward undertaking, and is unfortunately one of those things in life that is best left up to the professionals…for no other reason than most, if not all, Data Recovery Labs have a free evaluation service. If you attempt to “fix” your HDD at home, you could conceivably damage the drive beyond the point where it can be recovered – even by an accredited lab.
So here is the advice of a Data Recovery Tech who just wants the public to be better informed as to what they should do when the unthinkable happens (and yes, I am aware that if people heed my advice, we will be receiving fewer cases for recovery):
1. If the HDD is Dropped or Physically Traumatized in Any Way
Whether the device is running or not, once dropped, you should not apply power again. If you are truly concerned with not losing your data – send it in to a data recovery lab right away. Some would advise to apply power just once to see if you can get access – even for a short window of time – to copy off everything on there before it fails for good. Here’s the problem with that thinking: if you dropped the drive and the heads inside the drive physically bent due to the impact, then when you apply power, the heads now come into physical contact with the platters (whereas before the trauma they floated above the surface by several microns) and your data is scraped off at 7200 rotations per minute – becoming unrecoverable.
2. If You Have Sporadic Access to Your HDD
While working, you see the “hourglass” icon come up…too many times…or it takes waaaay too long to save, or sometimes your HDD boots to Windows OK, sometimes it doesn’t. Your HDD defaults to the “blue screen of death” sometimes – but not every time – you boot. These could be indicators that your drive is failing either physically or logically as bad sectors proliferate (reported as “Read Errors”) or your hardware may be slowly failing. In any case, the next time you have access to your HDD, COPY IT! All of your critical files and folders, profiles, e-mail documents, anything you deem important. You may never get another chance, and I’ve heard of many instances where consumers just kept rebooting until they had access – then did not back up once they have it. And no – putting your HDD into a refrigerator is not going to help.
3. If a Drive Fails in Your RAID Array
Hard drives can fail at any time without any type of warning (I know – you didn’t want to hear that), and therefore quite often, one drive in a RAID array will fail well before the others. Obviously, the way in which the data is written to a RAID makes it extremely simple to rebuild should one drive fail (with parity, each drive’s contents are re-buildable using the other drives). However, when multiple drives fail simultaneously – send the array into a Data Recovery lab. Once again, you will get a FREE evaluation, which will determine EXACTLY what is wrong with the RAID and what it will take to recover the data. Too many times have we seen RAID arrays where the consumer has replaced too many drives, kept the power on damaged drives too long, or “accidentally” reformatted the whole RAID after rebuilding didn’t work right away. Again, how important is your data?
4. If You Use One External for Both Mac and PC
Stop it. You just stop that right now. In this day and age, external HDDs are cheap enough to buy one for each of your O/S’s, and moving your HDD from one system to the other and back can cause your HDD to fail. In the end, it comes down to filesystem difference and the incompatibility of the two O/S’s. The way data is stored and written in a Mac environment is VERY different from the way a PC writes, and most systems have a difficult time resolving both O/S’s. You can’t mount a Mac drive in Windows (unless using a third-party program), and vice-versa, so you shouldn’t be using the same HDD with both systems. I’m sure some of you will yell and scream after hearing this advice, and have used one external HDD for both Mac and PC without any problems – but if the possibility exists that you will lose everything, isn’t it worth two externals?
5. If You Use Your USB Device for Storage
Again, stop it. Years ago, I assisted a Data Recovery company with customer service while also working in their lab, and many an argument was had with consumers over the definition of a “backup”. A backup is a secondary copy of your data. That means it exists not only in two locations or folders, but on two completely separate drives. This is the only way to become completely secure in the knowledge your data is safe from loss. As such, USB devices (aka thumb drives, USB sticks) should be used only for transferring data from one HDD to another immediately. Too many USB devices have been received that were smashed because it ended up forgotten and on the bottom of the purse, or lost and chewed up by the family dog (no, really). Do not store any data on your USB device that is critical for any extended period of time – unless you have a true backup on another HDD.
So there you have it. The early days of Data Recovery were a lot like the introduction of Science into public discourse hundreds of years ago. There were scientific methods we were using along with basic computer know-how to recover data – proven methods – but there was also a “fringe” element to recovery, mixing science and…guesswork. We would adjust the lid on a drive, believing that by doing so, the airflow inside the drive or magnetic field would affect the voice coil to get better results. I even remember sitting at my workstation all day and holding a drive, because I believed that if I let go of the drive it would stop working – some superstitious nonsense about my personal electromagnetic field affecting the HDD. Basically if the method worked for one person, we would all try it – regardless of how little sense it made. That was then.
Now, we as Data Recovery Technicians know exactly how to recover data from any HDD, using proven scientific method – no more guesswork. And that is why you should ignore rumor and poor forum scuttlebutt when it comes to the recovery of your critical data, and just send the drive in for a free evaluation. When the unthinkable happens. Which it shouldn’t, now that I’ve given you 5 ways to avoid it!
© 2012, Robert Armstrong. All rights reserved.
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