Data Recovery Tips and Tricks

Recovering lost data has become one of those great-to-have survival skills in the 21st century, and I’ve had to do it so much I’ve gotten kinda used to it. One thing I’ve noticed is most people aren’t aware of their options when faced with a drive crash. The result is many have just gotten used to losing data and have accepted their fate. Folks, don’t be like those people. You might be surprised to learn that many of your crashes could have been recoverable, or preventable.

My first drive crash happened when I was 14 years old, and I learned a tough lesson from it. My entire 1.5GB (woah, huge) Western Digital Caviar HDD decided to clonk out and take all my art, source code, etc. out with it. It was a pretty sad day, and to this day I wish I had at least kept the drive now that I know what I do about recovery. Oh well. Since then, if I ever have a drive that has trouble booting, makes noises, freezes, fails a SMART test, or corrupts my file system, I immediately send it to the retirement pile… once they become flaky, they just aren’t worth the risk.

All that said, I have had more successes than failures in data recovery, thanks to great software and improved stability of drives. However, just because we live in a world of SSDs doesn’t mean crashes don’t happen. Don’t buy into the lies about SSDs “failing gracefully”. Flash media does fail, and the results can often be nastier than an HDD. I’ve had flash drives decide to wipe my files on a couple of occasions, and they do an amazingly good job at it, I might add. When trying to recover from a flash media failure, it’s not uncommon to see zeroed out hex where your file used to be. “Failing gracefully”, my foot. A virus couldn’t have done a more thorough job of file destruction.

As for HDDs, the best tip I can give you, is keep trying. Sometimes the drives will take 10 tries or so before they finally boot. Sometimes they only stay alive for 5-10 minutes. But either way, that’s more than enough of a window to retrieve your files. Obviously, if it’s in an enclosure, take it out… more often than not it’s overheating, or the controller board is fried. As a last resort, sometimes you can wake it up with a kick or a drop, or give it a few minutes in the freezer. You’d be surprised that this does occasionally work. Most of the time, though, if the drive at least attempts to boot, you’ve just got yourself a corrupt file system. These are unbelievably easy to recover from. My favorite software for this is Ontrack Easy Recovery (worth the price tag, BTW), but there are also a few free options out there that may work well enough. The first thing to do is attempt to read the file system with the recovery software. Ontrack can do this without even scanning the drive, which can save days worth of time. If you’re lucky, you’ll see your files and will have the ability to copy them to another drive. Sometimes, though, the file tables are borked and you’ll have to do an advanced or raw recovery. These methods suck, but they will be able to get your files back, even if they lack folder structure. It will also take a day or more to complete the scan, but it will be worth the effort to have your files back. Finally, check your cables to make sure they’re not crimped or loose, or just plain not working. This was a big problem in the IDE days, but no so much for SATA, although I’m sure it can still happen.

Recovering from optical media introduces other unique challenges. Instead of worrying about a mechanical arm or PCB going bad, you simply have to get the laser beams to bounce correctly. You know those cheesy disc buffering devices? They actually do work. Follow the instructions and buff out the disc, and you should get a more reliable read. If the disc is cracked, you can still recover most of the data, even though there will obviously be some file integrity damage. What you do for a cracked CD is add a label to the front to help keep it in place, then set your drive on the lowest speed setting. If the drive spins too fast, it will likely explode and ruin your drive (oh yes, it will). At any rate, your OS will probably pitch a fit trying to copy files, so there’s a special recovery tool I recommend, called Unstoppable Copier. This tool can take days (or weeks!) to use, but the end result is it can copy any file, even if the CRC doesn’t check out (AKA some bytes have been damaged). You might also want to check the drive itself by trying another disc, as more often than not the whole drive has just gone bad.

Recovering from floppy and ZIP disks (remember those?) have similar challenges to optical media. Again, Unstoppable Copier is your best friend, as it is extremely common for floppies to develop bad sectors. Not too long ago, I discovered a cache of old floppies from a source code backup I made on my 386 at age 12. This turned out to be my biggest challenge yet. The backup itself was never completed (ended up taking more than 20 floppies and I gave up), the files were PKZIP’ed into one file and spanned across the floppies, and some of the disks were corrupted. So what I did was this: 1) I copied all partial ZIP files off the floppies, using Unstoppable Copier on the ones that gave me trouble. 2) I used a file splitter/merger utility to merge all files together as if they had been split, 3) I used Ontrack’s ZIP repair tool on the merged file. Incredibly, this method actually yielded results, and I now have some old games I made from back in the day. At some point when I’m not busy, I’d love to dig through them and share some findings with everyone.

Recovering from flash drives. I don’t have much input to give to this, besides that if you can’t access the files through Ontrack, there’s probably something mechanically wrong. Open up the case and re-solder the connection between the PCB and the USB connector. Sometimes this connector breaks from extensive use and just needs to be jumped.

As far as future data loss prevention, here are my best recommendations: 1) Buy an external RAID, and set it for RAID 1 mirroring (if one drive dies, you still have the other). Keep all your documents, projects, and media on here. Make sure the external enclosure has a fan and is made of aluminum, otherwise it *will* suffer a quick death. 2) Use an SSD as your internal drive, and back it up to the external RAID often. 3) Buy a Blu-ray drive, they’re cheap these days. Use it to back up important stuff. Why back up to both Blu-ray and RAID? Because RAID isn’t really a substitute for backup, but is definitely a safer option. That and they survive the elements a little better. 4) Use a cloud backup system. Even in 2013 though, they still aren’t the best option. They take up tons of bandwidth, they often block you from backing up media, space is lacking, and they cost you money every month. If anyone knows of any good cloud systems, lemme know.

So there you have it. If you ever have a drive crash, don’t freak out, you’re probably all right, but the best way to avoid crashes is to have a backup plan. As someone who has been through nearly a dozen storage media crashes, I can’t really stress that enough.

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