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The Tragedy of Data Loss...
and How to Recover

J. Cruz | Contributing Writer

John and Jennifer were married in the Bahamas on a warm, breezy Autumn evening.  Everything was perfect... the weather, the setting, the ceremony, and the friends and family who'd traveled to the islands to share in the couple's happiness.  John's friend Henry, a professional photographer, offered his services as a wedding gift, and shot hundreds of pictures with one of his high-resolution digital cameras.

The moment John and Jennifer returned home, before they even unpacked, they were sitting at Jennifer's computer uploading Henry's images, each image a precious moment in time and a masterpiece to be enjoyed for years to come. As they looked at photo after photo, Jennifer reminded John to back up the hard drive as soon as possible, and John assured her that he'd buy an external hard drive and back up the data before she could say "quitchabellyaikin."

Three months later Jennifer's hard drive crashed and everything was lost.  Not just the wedding photos, but all their financial files and the most recent draft of John's screenplay, which he hadn't yet backed up onto his flash drive.

John and Jennifer's nightmare could very well be your own.  Every day, all over the world, thousands of people lose their data, even if they've been meticulous about backing up to flash drives or DVDs.  Fortune 500 companies that employ highly-paid computer experts are just as vulnerable to hard drive crashes, and even when they do back up their data, they seldom test their backups.  When it's gone, it's gone.  And there's nothing that can be done about it.

Or is there?

Data recovery is big business, and there are thousands of companies out there that can recover material from a burned out drive.  But how to find a company that's trustworthy and competent?

An inexperienced data recovery engineer can easily make matters worse.  Data recovery is as much an art as it is a science, and only someone with years of experience should be entrusted with your valuable data.  Only a few companies offer the high level of first-tier, full service expertise required for consistent success.

The first thing John and Jennifer need to do is get on the net and call up their favorite search engine.  If they type in "data recovery," they'll get thousands of hits, and like most people John and Jennifer will focus on the listings within the first two pages.  They've got their work cut out for them, but here are some guidelines that might help:

  • How long have they been in business?
  • Do I get a live person on the phone or a recording?
  • Do I recognize any of the data recovery company's past clients?
  • What is the level of expertise?  Can the company handle more complex cases such as hard drives that have been contaminated by fire or flood?  Can the company handle operating systems such as Unix or Linux?  How about the extreme complexity of a RAID array?
  • Does the data recovery company have it's own cleanroom?
  • Does the company have a success rate of 92% or better?
  • Has the company successfully "aced" their high-profile competitors, i.e., recovered data from a hard drive after another data recovery firm said the data was non-recoverable?
  • Does the data recovery company offer computer forensic services?

Positive, clear answers to these questions can be pretty good indications that the level of expertise on the high end of the scale.  For more ideas on choosing an excellent data recovery service: CLICK HERE!

John and Jennifer should be prepared to give the following information when they make their first call to a data recovery service:
  • The capacity of the drive.
  • The operating system (i.e. Macintosh OSX, Windows 7, Windows XP, Linux, etc.)
  • The situation (what happened when the drive failed)

Like MicroCom, most first-tier, world class companies will give you a range of cost.  A range from "best case", low-end, to "worst case" not-to-exceed value.  Some companies base that range on the capacity of the drive.  No one can predict what condition your drive is in, nor can they determine what it will take to recover the data in terms of time and labor without first looking at the drive and performing a diagnostic evaluation.

Don't choose a company that offers a flat fee.  If the problem is a complex one, your drive will be rushed through in order to save time and go on to the next job.  If it's a simple one, you may be paying more than you need to for a simple, obvious solution, while if it requires high expertise and extended labor time, you'll be told that your drive is not possible to recover — even if they had the ability, of course they will not afford spending more to perform a service than a low, predetermined fee amount.

Many companies boast a no recovery, no charge policy, and this is typical of most companies.  It's easy for them to offer this because once the diagnostic process is complete, the company will present you with the recoverability prognosis as well as a firm cost.  The actual data recovery process will commence only with your approval.  If you elect not to proceed, you don't pay.  If any data recovery company expects you to pay up front without first advising you what the odds of a successful recovery are, head for the hills.

The data recovery company should also be honest about the risk involved.  But before we can understand the risks, let's first look at the reasons why a hard drive fails.

There are two main reasons why hard drives fail, physical and logical.

If the BIOS does not detect the hard drive, then there's a good chance your issue is a physical one.  Physical failures are typically either mechanical or electronic.  Mechanical failures usually result from a failure of the high precision moving parts or a head crash.  You may get some kind of warning that a mechanical failure has – or is – about to occur.  If your hard drive makes a clicking, clanking or grinding noise, shut it down immediately and call a data recovery firm.

The other most common physical issue is an electronic failure. All hard drives have a circuit board, and this board allows the drive to communicate with the computer and vice-versa. Electrical failures are common and can occur just as easily on a new drive as it can with an old one. Heat can cause the electronics to fail so always keep your computer cool and well ventilated. Don't keep your CPU next to a window where the sun is going to beat down on it all day.

Logical failures are typically the result of file-system corruption. Common causes are accidental formatting of the drive, deletion of important registry keys or critical files and viruses. Typically, when this is the case, your drive will still be recognized by the BIOS but it will not boot.

Another form of logical failure can occur just from normal wear and tear of the recording medium. The drive's media is used to store magnetic impressions, which the drive electronically converts to the ones and zeroes we call data. This means that the magnetic plating on the platter(s) which spin inside your drive, and upon which data is recorded, has been subject to corruption or physical damage. Physical deterioration of the magnetic medium is inevitable on all drives.

Now that we have some idea of what can cause a drive to fail, let's look at how data is recovered.

Once a hard drive is received, a diagnostic evaluation is performed to determine the condition of the drive and it's data. The evaluation process allows the data recovery engineer to predict what steps will be necessary for recovering the data.

Logical failures require that the drive undergo a rebuilding process. Depending on the condition of the media, this process can be extremely time-consuming. In some cases, the file system or a partition may need to be reconstructed.

If the nature of the failure is a physical one, especially in the case of a head crash, the problem at hand becomes more challenging.  The first thing a data recovery engineer must do is move the heads away from the media to prevent further contact and damage.  This type of procedure should only be conducted in a cleanroom (Class 100 or better) by a highly skilled data recovery engineer.

The media may then be scanned, and the ones and zeroes extracted. This raw data is then rebuilt and copied to stable media. In most cases, a brand new hard drive is the most cost effective but some people elect to go with flash drives or DVD's.

If your failure involves a bad circuit board, replacing the circuit board with an identical board will seldom yield positive results. The electronic circuitry on a hard drive is too complex and not within the scope of this article.

The evaluation process typically takes 24 hours while the actual time frame for recovery generally takes 3 to 5 days for basic service. Most, if not all data recovery firms will offer rush and weekend service at substantially higher cost.

Lastly, data recovery at its highest level is very, very expensive. The old adage, "you get what you pay for," I'm afraid is true with data recovery. It is a very specialized and time consuming service that only highly skilled professionals can perform with any level of accuracy and success.

Good Luck to all you Johns and Jennifers out there!

About the Author...
      J. Cruz is a technical writer for MicroCom Worldwide Data Recovery, a provider of world-class, first-tier, full service data recovery service.

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