Whether it’s caused by a disaster like a fire or flood, by malicious corruption, or purely by accident, magnetic data can often be retrieved. It takes an expert using sophisticated, state-of-the art technology, but data recovery specialist firms claim success rates of more than 90%.
“If the data is there, we can get it back,” asserts Jeffrey McDonald, UK business development manager for the U.S.-based Hard Drive Recovery Associates or HDRA. It’s only when it isn’t there, for example when a [SAVE command] has not worked, that we have to tell the client we can’t do it.”
Not all “drive failures” are real, however. Often, they are just file system issues. Sites like Prof’s Components, Tom’s Hardware, Refresh Software and HDD Guru offer great tips on recovering from these file disasters.
Similarly, Torstein Engen, product manager for Norwegian data recovery specialist, IBAS Laboratories, claims that data that seems to have been irretrievably lost can be recovered almost every time with the right equipment and skills.
Contained environments like this clean room are the safest place for failed drives.
Mechanical failures are a fact of life. Increasing demand for speed and capacity have forced disk vendors to design smaller and smaller components that operate in hair-splitting distances from one another. Head crashes-when read/write heads collide with storage platters, damaging themselves and the magnetic layer-are serious. But, they’re not always fatal. For around $250 to $300 dollars, a data recovery company will analyze the damage and tell you how much data can be retrieved.
It takes recovery specialists anywhere from a few hours up to a couple of days to diagnosis a disk after a disaster. “Most people get an answer in 24 hours, on our standard service,” says McDonald. A preliminary diagnosis usually makes it possible to estimate the proportion of data recoverable to within 5%, he says. It’s then up to the user to decide whether the cost of the recovery procedure is worthwhile.
If the diagnosis is hopeful and a user decides to go ahead with recovery, the experts proceed to retrieve the data, which could take a further three days or more. Sometimes, however, if even just part of the data is irrecoverable, it may not be worthwhile. A single missing bit can sometimes wreck an entire database.
Granted, not all computer data is valuable, and most systems are backed up. But for those times when your backup fails or is also damaged in a disaster, or when a disgruntled employee throws his laptop off a bridle-along, with last month’s sales orders-data recovery may be worth the price.
WHAT YOU SHOULD DO
When a wave of error messages and unpleasant noises signal a head crash and warn you to switch off the power, do it. Trying to fix the problem yourself may cause further damage.
Many disks will react to a head crash by switching themselves off and locking the user out, sometimes reallocating data to an undamaged segment. Experts with special equipment can get around this barrier and find the missing data.
“When it happens, turn off the computer,” says Engen. “Don’t try to access the data with utilities. They could harm the logical structure of the data which is left.”
Recovering data from a head crash is complicated. The disk must be removed to a clean room that meets the U.S. and international Class 100 standard for a sterile environment. The air in a clean room is about 50,000 times cleaner than the air we breathe. HDRA provides such facilities at its headquarters in Irvine, CA. IBAS has clean rooms that meet S10 as well as the S100 classification.
Opening a hard disk, except in a clean atmosphere, can let in dust particles that can do even more damage than the crash. Also, fingerprints left on a disk can prevent it from working.
In most cases, it’s up to the user to supply disk to the data recovery company’s premises for analysis and treatment. However, in some cases-for example, where the disks are simply not allowed to leave the user’s site-it may be possible to carry out a diagnosis and even a full recovery over a network using special software tools. “Every case is different,” says McDonald. “We would not make any promises on this, but it can sometimes be done.”
The average recovery time is three to five days, says Engen. Even this could mean a catastrophic loss of business if the system involved is mission critical. In the worst case, recovery could take a month to six weeks.
So long a time without critical data can put an organization out of business. It’s important to run a parallel system or some form of fault tolerance for your data whenever you can, advise data recovery specialists. If backup exists, restoration will probably be successful. Unfortunately, many users never test the restore function of their backup systems and find they are unable to access their data when they try to restore during a crisis (see “Patrolling Database Backups, November 15, 1995). Even if they can restore the data, a time lag usually exists between the backup and the failure. Restoration can’t recover data entered during the delay.
Buying the most modem technology does not remove the risk of system failure, but it can help. RAID technology, for example, provides some fault-tolerant storage. Data recovery specialists argue that some investment in RAID is advisable for systems on which users depend heavily. The sharp drop in disk prices has made RAID a feasible option for many more organizations.
RECOVERY METHODS ARE SECRET
Methods for lost data retrieval are wholly proprietary, and the few companies that have developed them are extremely reluctant to discuss how they do it. Some software packages suitable for recovering data in different situations are commercially available, but they are not the sort of highly sophisticated software required to cope with head crashes or other major upsets.
Data recovery specialists use special software tools that enable them to override normal data deletion procedures; they also manufacture some of their own hardware for these processes. We have hundreds of instruments that assist us in this task, many of them developed in house,” says HDRA’s chairman and chief executive officer Tony Weathers. “It is a matter of applying our understanding of drives and their operating systems to identify the problem and, having recovered the data, to transfer it to a new medium for the user.”
Engen explains that the magnetic media has to be removed from the disk and put into a special machine to rotate it so that the data signals can be read. The very weak magnetic flux changes of the analog data signals, which form the physical basis of data storage and are unavailable to the user, can be copied to a new hard disk, and their logical structures can be rebuilt using proprietary software tools.
HDRA claims to be two to three years ahead of its competition in developing this complex recovery technology and is therefore unwilling to jeopardize its position by talking about it publicly. “The technologies are trade secrets,” says Weathers. But he does say that the techniques are built on HDRA’s experience in data storage dating from its founding in 1985 by three engineers who were formerly with Control Data, which was a leading disk manufacturer in the 1980s.
Privileged relationships with many of the leading disk drive manufacturers, including Conner, Digital, Maxtor, Quantum, Samsung, Seagate, and Toshiba, allow HDRA and IBAS to break seals without invalidating product warranties. Contracts with these companies also inhibit the data recovery specialists from disclosing their retrieval techniques. But should you need their services, data recovery companies offer high success rates. They support most operating environments, and their services are offered worldwide.
HDRA’s charges are determined by the amount of data stored and time involved. McDonald says recovery of a disk containing 300 to 600MB costs from $450 to $1,350. Bigger disks could cost a lot more, of course. Against this he points out that a gigabyte of sales and marketing data could be worth $20,000 or more to the user.
IBAS’s Engen says a job involving a day or a day and a half’s work might cost $1,500, while one that takes two weeks to a month could cost $15,000 or more. He adds that he’d rarely promise a user 100% or even 99% recovery of data, because the proportion could be calculated in various different ways. However, it is not unusual to be able to reclaim over 90% of lost data, he says, adding that estimates given at the diagnosis stage are usually very accurate.
HDRA and other firms also offer emergency service, which, of course, is more expensive, since engineers may have to work through nights, weekends, and holidays to get the data back as soon as possible.