Your Hard Drive Just Died — Who You Gonna Call?

By Lauren Simonds | Posted December 01, 2004

Not only did your hard drive just die, it took your company's financial data with it — along with your customer contacts, the presentation you were preparing for next week's client meeting and all of your e-mail, too. Oh, and you never did get around to installing that data backup system, did you? Now what?

Fortunately, there is a step between freaking out and filing for bankruptcy. You can send your drive to a company that specializes in lost causes, er, recovering data from damaged hard drives (or floppies, Zip disks, USB Flash drives, memory cards or just about any kind of storage device). We spoke to one such company — DriveSavers — to learn how it's done, what SMB owners can do to avoid trouble in the first place and how to minimize the damage in the event of a crash.

The Road To Recovery
DriveSavers, a Novato, Calif.-based company with 54 employees, has been in the business of recovering data for nearly 20 years. Should you ever require the company's service, in all likelihood you'd first talk to someone like Kelly Chessen, one of DataSaver's data crisis counselors.

"Most people usually call their own tech support or IT guy first," Chessen said. "By the time they get around to calling DriveSavers, they're pretty frantic about getting their data. We get the whole range of emotions," she said. "Dead calm, tears, yelling — all of it." Chessen said her previous employment has proven invaluable in her current position — she once worked at a suicide prevention hot line.

Chessen lets them vent the feelings, knowing that for most people, their livelihood or family memories are often at stake. "After that, I explain the process and help them understand how we're going to try and get their data back," she said. "It doesn't hurt that we have a 90 percent success rate."

One time a non-profit called — frantic because the computer containing all of its data had crashed. According to Chessen, the engineers discovered abundant physical evidence that a mouse had taken up residence in the PC — and since liquid and electronics don't mix, the hard drive short-circuited. Happily, all of the data was recovered.

Diagnosing A Failure
When good drives go bad, the problem usually falls into one of two camps: physical or logical failures. A physical failure means that something went wrong with the mechanics of the drive. A power surge or dropping a drive could damage the electronics, the motor, or the drive's actuator arm (the part that carries the reading mechanism across the surface of the drive).

Logical failures are problems that have to do with the structure of the data on the drive. Viruses can cause structural problems, deleted files or other corruption issues. Chessen noted one of the more common logical failures they see involves a reverse ghost. Instead of copying the contents of a populated drive to an empty drive, someone (in a company's IT department) accidentally copies the empty drive to the populated one, erasing all of the data.

The first step in the recovery process involves determining whether it's a physical or logical failure. Data recovery engineers — like John Christopher — physically open the drive (inside DriveSaver's Class 100 clean room) and work with the internal components. The company keeps over 10,000 different kinds of hard drives in stock — many of which are no longer manufactured.

Christopher, a 10-year veteran the company, confirmed that prior to a drive arriving in his hands, it's usually gone through several attempts at recovery, and that those rescue attempts can make it harder to recover the data.

"The more time a drive spends spinning when it's clearly not working properly, the greater the risk of not being able to recover the data," he said. "Once we open the drive, we look for any physical problems and try to repair them. We use a lot of specialized hardware and software tools that the company developed to help us get the job done. The idea is to get the drive working just long enough to pull off the data and clone it." The cloned data (a mirror image of what was on the original drive) is then checked for logical problems.

What's It Gonna Cost?
According to Christopher, the pricing depends on the size and type of the drive and how fast you want your data returned. "The average cost is about $1,000," he said. The company offers three levels of service, and the price increases with the speed of return:

  • Priority Service — 24 hours
  • Standard Service — Two business days
  • Economy Service — Five to seven business days

While most people opt for the economy service, Chessen says it all depends on the timing and the type of data you're trying to recover. "If a drive fails when a company's payroll is due, you can't wait five or seven days to get it back," she said.

Five Steps To Avoid Trouble
You can take simple precautions to reduce the chances of ever needing DriveSaver's services. According to Christopher, these five steps will help keep your data safe and your hard drive happy and healthy.

  • Back up your data every day — Install a backup system that automatically backs up your data every day. Christopher also recommends that the solution you choose should include keeping copies of your data offsite to protect against fire or other natural disasters.
  • Check your automatic backup — Don't just assume the automatic backup is working and don't simply rely on the log file. Restore a file every now and then to confirm that it's working properly.
  • Turn off your PC at night — Unless your business requires 24 x 7 uptime, shut down the computers to avoid damage from power spikes.
  • Use a high-rated surge protector or UPS — This will protect your PCs from power spikes and brownouts. Look for a product that has a high joule rating.
  • If your drive starts making strange noises, turn it off — Repetitive noises like clicking, grinding or ticking usually indicate a serious problem. Leaving the drive on and spinning causes more damage and decreases your chances of recovering the data.

Lauren Simonds is the managing editor of SmallBusinessComputing.com

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