Data Recovery Services: Selection Advice
Jeff Pederson, manager of data recovery operations for Kroll Ontrack, says consumers and small to midsize businesses often call the reseller where they purchased their computer or look in local directories first for a repair depot. Rather than spending the time calling around town, he says, their first call should be to the drive manufacturer. Often the manufacturer will have agreements with qualified repair depots and be able to advise the user on whom to call.
The first rule of data recovery is to do no harm, Pederson says. If the repair depot for your drive is unable to ensure that it won't harm the drive during the restore procedure, that should be a red flag. The second question one should ask is whom do I trust with my data? The depot should be able to ensure that it never actually opens files on the disk and that its employees have had background security checks. Personal data on a damaged hard disk can be restored, he says, without needing to open any files to confirm the restoration.
Pederson suggests that all data recovery be done on an image of the hard disk rather than on the disk itself. This protects the drive in case more aggressive actions need to be taken later to restore the data. Because of the importance of making sure the original data is safe, clients of a data recovery depot should ask if the depot will work on the original or an image.
There is no aftermarket in disk drive components so repair depots must be able to obtain exact duplicates if parts need to be swapped out from a donor drive. A part from a similar drive or perhaps an older or newer version of the same drive might not have compatible electronics and firmware.
David Zimmerman, CEO of LC Technology International Inc., says the processes a repair technician uses to fix a damaged drive could vary from depot to depot. "Sometimes you have to use unorthodox methods" to fix a drive, he says. These methods could represent the difference between someone who has expertise in data recovery and disk repair and someone who simply follows directions from a book.
Typically, Zimmerman says, his company is able to do nearly all data recovery tasks. However, for those drives that have physical defects, he generally will work with a partner that has a clean room and the technicians capable of doing drive tear-downs and repairs. Repairing physical disk problems in the clean room, such as replacing read/write heads, ensures that no contaminants such as dust, dirt or oil from the technician’s hands, fall on the platters and corrupt the data.
Opening and repairing a hard disk without the benefit of a clean room might work in some cases — it is one of the unorthodox approaches that might be used in an emergency — but he does not recommend it.
However, some of the traditional tricks of the trade are no longer valid, he says. For example, years ago the advice for drives that got too hot to operate was to place them in a freezer. While that recommendation did chill the drives, it also created condensation on the drive platters. While drives from 1990s might have survived this approach, today’s drives cannot, he says, because of changes in disk drive technology, such as high-density disk platters.
Unfortunately, he says, most users do not have current backups of their drives. A backup is easy to create and can end up saving hundreds of dollars or more.
Considering that most of today’s consumer or small business systems run Windows and most repair depots are familiar with the NTFS file system, it is relatively easy to find a shop that can fix those drives using software. The challenge is finding a local depot that is able to fix drives that use different file systems, such as Linux. Unlike the ubiquitous Windows, Linux file structures differ from one vendor’s version to another. On top of that, some repair depots must mount the Linux image into a working Linux environment to work on the data, which is not required in Windows.
Many of the consumer-class desktop NAS devices use a Linux-based operating system that is transparent to the user. While the user might see the drives as Window devices, the underlying operating system in the NAS itself might be Linux. In those cases, the client should ask the prospective repair depot if it has the expertise to recover data from drives that are not from a native Windows system.
Another difference in repairing newer drives is the amount of data at risk for a given problem. In 2000, if a technician was able to recover 99 percent of a hard disk with a capacity of 10 GB, 100 MB of data would be lost. With today’s consumer disk drives in the 4 TB range, that same 1 percent of lost data is 40 GB, or four times the size of the entire drive from just 14 years ago.
If you are looking to find a company that can recover lost data from a hard disk, be ready to open your wallet. Prices vary widely, but generally expect to pay from several hundred dollars to more than $1,000, depending on the complexity of recovery. Also, a higher price might not necessarily indicate that the technician is more accomplished than a lower-priced technician. If you have a faulty drive from a NAS system, the price could increase if the disk is part of an array. If the NAS is configured as JBOD (just a bunch of disks) and not part of an array, you should be able to remove the one bad disk without impacting the rest of the NAS.
The turnaround time for data recovery or disk repair will vary based on the complexity of the repair and if the disk repair needs to be outsourced to a second repair depot with specialized training and tools. It is best to ask up front what the depot’s policy is about fixing a physical drive problem if the company you are contracting cannot perform such tasks. Also, some depots offer turnaround guarantees (often from three days to one week, depending on the repair). Ask in advance what turnaround options are available and if a faster turnaround will add to the repair cost.
Experts agree that the vast numbers of data recovery projects are due to logical errors on the drive, such as a corrupt file system or a problem with the drive’s master boot record. Most of these issues are solved through software without requiring any physical repairs to the drive mechanism. However, if the drive itself has been damaged, that generally means the drive will be sent to a repair depot that maintains a clean room and has technicians capable of opening the drive. If you heard noises coming from your drive when it failed or saw smoke, you should ask your repair depot if has the facilities to repair the drive or if not, to whom it outsources the repair.
Many repair depots that are unable to fix a damaged disk will return it to the customer without charge; some might charge a nominal testing fee. As with any potential repair, the customer should ask in advance what the depot’s fee policy is on drives it cannot repair.
Do your due diligence. Ask questions about the depots references, the technicians’ experience, and the security protocols in place to protect your data.