A hard drive’s adventure through data recovery

Every day, we create and consume data, and over the years, we accumulate these pictures, documents, and other media on storage devices with near endless capacity. These days, storing and backing up these files with online services in the cloud is easier than ever, and external drives are getting cheaper.

For myself, a decade of photos is my record of everywhere I’ve been, from concerts to parties, conventions and castles. I use this collection as my stock photography resource for Nephrus. So, what happened when my drive failed in September?

Panic

Up until early last month, I wasn’t aware of any issues with the 1.5TB drive that is my image repository. For the longest time, I put off backing up this drive using the excuses “I’ll do it next month.” or “I don’t have enough space on another drive, I’ll wait a bit longer when I can do a proper clean-up to make space.”

Then it happened. After a Saturday out in Stanley Park, the drive was reading and writing files imported from my camera more slowly than usual. I took this as a sign of an imminent failure, even though a recent SMART test reported the drive was OK. I set about purchasing another hard disk and went on the rest of my day thinking of a plan I needed to get my data off that drive and onto its replacement before catastrophe hit. The hard drive, an eight year old Western Digital device, had other plans, however.

During the week, I carefully started up my desktop, careful not to engage the drive during my normal activities so I could preserve it until the new one was delivered. Windows 10, though, through its normal routines, decided it would check all drives during boot and hung when it had trouble reading the second drive where my photos are kept. Start-up that took less than 30 seconds instead turned into two hours before I could actually get into Windows.

Upon opening Task Manager, the hard drive was displaying a constant 100% activity and Windows Explorer failed to browse into it when clicked on. Built-in utilities like Check Disk declared the drive was unformatted. My existing file recovery software couldn’t detect the drive. This was bad.

The good news was the disk itself was not making a clicking noise, usually indicative of a physical failure. The bad news, was that the logs in Event Viewer had a terrible front line view of what happened. If you’ve ever watched Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece The Shining, the event log recreated the scene where Jack’s wife Wendy discovering he’s typed over and over the line “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” except instead with: The device, \Device\Harddisk\DR2, has a bad block.

Trial

There’s a number of available data recovery tools online that can work with accidental deletions, restoration from corruption and viruses and so on. I knew the Internet had my back, so I downloaded a copy of TestDisk Friday afternoon and let it run over what was one of my most sleepless nights in a while. By 6:00 am on Saturday, TestDisk had alerted me that it couldn’t find any missing files on the drive, which was still showing a 100% read rate in Task Manager. The disk was toast.

After consulting a friend, he suggested I send the drive out to a professional for a full recovery. I balked at the potential few thousand dollars it would cost to perform this operation. He assured me that given the ailments I described him, it shouldn’t total more than $1,500 CAD. He recommended OnTrack.

At this point, I was cursing myself for not buying another external drive earlier and making semi-regular back-ups. Most external drives are so cheap it’s such a damn good idea, or even, dependent on Internet connection speed and bandwidth, using a cloud storage service.

I bit the proverbial bullet and reached out to OnTrack. They quickly described the recovery process and outlined that if they weren’t able to restore my lost data, I would incur no costs. They even provided a free shipping label so all I had to do was pack up the drive and send it out.

Resolution

Mailing a hard drive proved quite comical for me since I didn’t have any appropriate sized boxes to send it out with. And it didn’t help that my printer gave up the ghost at the same time, fortunately after I had printed the reference sheet to include in my shipment. Luck would be on my side as the Naruto Sage of Six Paths Nendoroid I ordered months prior had just arrived from Japan. Retailer AmiAmi uses these neat small boxes with flexible cardboard inserts to steady the figure inside during transit. With the defunct drive encased within the anti-static bag from its replacement and nestled inside another box in a style not unlike a matryoshka doll, it was off to Canada Post.

A few days later, OnTrack notified me they received the disk and would begin their initial evaluation. While free, I could then determine if I wanted to continue with their service or, if they revealed the drive was bad enough no data was recoverable, have it shipped back or disposed of. I was hoping for the former instead of the latter.

OnTrack offers different services and speeds depending on how valuable the data and your time are. If I were a large corporation and had sensitive information for a new product in development, I’d definitely dole out the big bucks for the quickest option possible. Unfortunately, I’m not a big organization with deep pockets, so I went for their more affordable service which could take up to two weeks. I wasn’t in a rush and wouldn’t bug them for updates, of which I could easily monitor progress online.

They came back and explained that the drive would need to be taken into one of their clean rooms for further evaluation. My heart sank, so much for a quick and cheap restoration. My fears were allayed when my representative advised me they could recover most if not everything and I’d need to sign off on the cost before they would begin. Seeing the quote broke my impression on how pricey data recovery could be. That said, being mindful that my drive isn’t missing platters or had the miniscule read/write head physically impact the platter or, even the unthinkable, a fried portion of electronics, the price provided was reasonable. While I won’t share the exact amount, think of it less than what I thought would be a few paragraphs above.

Now that I’ve settled my bill with OnTrack and waiting upon a copy of my data which should arrive by mail early next week, it’s imperative to remember a few things from this experience: back-up important data regularly and test those back-ups often. A back-up copy is nowhere good enough if it’s not done correctly and not validated. And lastly, there’s always hope, just set aside some cash for it.

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