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This first rule is to remain calm - acting rashly might be the greatest danger to your data. The fact that you are unable to access data via Windows Explorer as usual does not necessarily mean that your data is lost for good. Only overwriting bits, physical damage to the drive surface or destruction of the magnetization will cause irreversible loss of data. In most cases, we are dealing with a malfunctioning circuit board or failure of a mechanical component, two cases that still offer a variety of rescue methods.
You can avoid a lot of headache if you setup your system properly, schedule backups and monitor them on a regular basis. The best backup is useless if the user does not notice the error message giving the reason for a failure. Also remember that sometimes disaster recovery simply will not work, so please test run your backups. If necessary, restore them to another hard drive and see if it works as expected.
Here are a few precautions you should take with regard to hardware. If you use multiple drives, you should number the drives as well as the cables and removable frames. Do not rely on the existing numbering of removable fames and their front panels: they might start at 1, while your controller most likely starts at 0. Since assembly of such hardware as well as drive LEDs is always manual work, the whole process is yet another potential source of trouble. A little piece of tape bearing a drive number will help you avoid accidentally removing the wrong drive.
We assume that all hard drives will be handled with care, so they should be installed in suitable drive bays. If you use multiple drives, we recommend removable drive frame solutions, which help reduce vibration transfer onto the computer chassis and even back to individual hard drives. Make sure that your system has sufficient ventilation, so high speed hard drives won't overheat. Also avoid any kind of shock: you should make sure to position your system, so it won't get bumped by your knee, your dog, or your cleaning personnel. Servers belong in separate rooms, far away from any kind of everyday interference.
Make sure to defragment your data on a regular basis as well. Defragmentation will take file fragments that are distributed all over the hard drive and write them sequentially in one piece. This offers two advantages: better performance and easier file recovery in the case of an emergency. If data fragments are scattered all across a defect medium, recovery companies will have a hard time putting them back together. The same applies for RAID setups.
In case of error, verify if the malfunction might be caused by the hard drive controller. Ideally, you can connect all drives to another controller in the same order. If the error keeps showing up, it might not be the controller. Be careful with using more options: if you start a RAID initialization instead of a rebuild, parity data will be created, which most likely leads to overwriting healthy data!
Also be careful with software such as Partition Magic or Drive Magic. These are powerful utilities - powerful enough, in fact, to move data out of your reach. If you rampaged partitioning partition you might be able to help yourself through the use of data recovery software. Data is usually unharmed and can be found and recovered from your drive. Kroll Ontrack offers EasyRecovery, and Norton SystemWorks (System Utilities) provides another possibility. But be careful with those tools if a hardware malfunction seems to be the most likely case: In a worst case scenario they do more harm than good.