My first experience with data recovery

About 15 years ago, I was working my first full-time  job, and my phone rang with my first crisis.

“What happened to the K drive?” the caller asked.

I glanced over at my network drive cheat sheet, which listed all of our shares and what server they were on. In those days, most of our servers still had 300-400 megabyte drives and that meant every file server hosted, at most, a couple of shares. There was no K drive on our list. I was afraid this was about to get interesting. Read more

I need a hair dryer, some nail polish, and two clothespins

At least it looked like a clean break.

I commonly run errands mid-evening because strapping my two kids into seat belts is a good way to keep them from tripping over their own shadows and hurting themselves. So we did that one night, and when we got home, my wife logged onto Facebook, where a picture of my sister’s USB flash drive greeted her. It was in pieces.

“Have her call me,” I said.

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Stress test computer hardware with Prime95

Let’s say you’ve just bought a used PC with a short (typically less than 2 weeks) warranty. Or a new PC that’s not the brand you know and trust. Maybe you’ve built a new PC and you want to make sure it’s going to hold up before you start using it every day. Or you have a new server, and you want to make sure it’s going to hold up under heavy loads. What should you do to stress test computer hardware (or burn in computer hardware) like that?

Do what overclockers do.

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Spinrite 6: An overdue review

Spinrite 6: An overdue review

Spinrite 5 is an old friend. It got me out of some jams in the late ’90s, but as new versions of Windows that defaulted to NTFS came into my life, Spinrite 5 ceased being an option, since it only worked on FAT-formatted drives.

I’ve had occasion now to use Spinrite 6, its successor, which still runs under old-fashioned MS-DOS but now understands a multitude of filesystems. Other than that, it hasn’t changed much: It’s an obsessively thorough repair and maintenance tool for hard drives.

SSDs will eventually make Spinrite unnecessary, but there are still a lot more conventional hard drives being shipped each year than SSDs. Read more

Defrag scareware

This isn’t exactly news, as word has been going around for a couple of weeks, but if you haven’t heard about it elsewhere, there are some fake defragmenters going around.

I heard mention of it today, and it reminded me that I saw one last week when I was working on my mother in law’s computer. This was especially obnoxious, considering that at the time, I was running Firefox and I was visiting a mainstream site.

So there are a couple of things you need to keep in mind.
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Operating System Not Found, Missing Operating System, and friends

So the PC that stored my resume got kicked (as in the foot of a passer-by hitting it) and died, and the backup that I thought I had… Well, it wasn’t where I thought it was.

Time for some amateur home data recovery. Here’s how I brought it back.This machine ran Windows 2000. The first trick to try on any machine running any flavor of Windows is to boot from a DOS boot disk containing FDISK.EXE and issue the command FDISK /MBR. This replaces the master boot record. A corrupt MBR is the most common malady that causes these dreaded error messages, and this is the easiest fix for it.

That didn’t work for me.

The second trick is to use MBRWork. Have it back up the first sector, then have it delete the boot record. Then it gives you an option to recover partitions. Run that, then run the option that installs the standard MBR code. I can’t tell you how many times this tool has made me look like I can walk on water.

No dice this time either.

Next I tried grabbing the Windows 2000 CD and doing a recovery install. This has brought systems back to life for me too. Not this time. As happens all too often, it couldn’t find the Windows 2000, so it couldn’t repair it.

The drive seemed to work, yet it couldn’t boot or anything. I could have and probably should have put it in another PC to make sure it was readable. But I didn’t have a suitable donor handy. Had there been such a system, I would have put the drive in, checked to see if it was readable, and probably would have run CHKDSK against it.

Lacking a suitable donor, instead I located an unused hard drive and put it in the system. I booted off the drive just to make sure it wasn’t a hardware problem. It wasn’t–an old copy of Windows 98 booted and dutifully spent 20 minutes installing device drivers for the new motherboard hardware. So I powered down, installed both drives, and broke out a copy of Ghost.

Ghost, as I have said before, doesn’t exactly copy data–what it does is better described as reinterpreting the data. This allows you to use Ghost to lay down an image on dissimilar hard drives. It also makes Ghost a fabulous data recovery tool. Ghost complained that the NTFS log needed to be flushed. Well, that requires booting into Windows (and I think that’s all that’s necessary), but I couldn’t do that. It offered to try the copy anyway, so I chose that. So it cranked for about 15 minutes. I exited Ghost, powered down, and disconnected the bad drive. I powered back up, and it booted. Fabulous.

Now I can use Ghost to copy the now-good drive back over to the drive that was bad in the first place. I’ll do that, but sending out the resume takes much higher priority.

Creative ways to destroy computer data

THe BBC has a feature story on data destruction. Of course I can’t let it go by without comment.

The sidebar provides the tastiest tidbits.One item in the sidebar makes fun of a user who freezed his hard drive. Don’t laugh. It actually is possible to perform amateur data recovery using a fridge and/or a hair dryer. But this is only a last resort, and I must warn you, the freezer trick can prevent a service like Ontrack from getting your data back in extreme cases, and in most cases will make it more expensive.

The idea behind freezing the drive is that if something inside is stuck, the expansion and contraction of the freezing can loosen it. The downside is that if it’s going to work, the drive’s life expectancy is reduced to approximately 30 minutes. So you need to have a computer ready to receive the frozen drive and immediately start copying files from the drive after retrieving it from the fridge, because if this is going to work, you won’t have a lot of time.

This trick only works for certain types of mechanical failures and, I might add, should only be attempted if you are extremely desperate.

A much less desperate method is to try heating the drive up to operating temperature with a household hair dryer. This can remedy a larger number of mechanical problems and presents very little, if any, potential for harm.

One thing I must say about data recovery: You really need to leave it to the experts. At the first sign of trouble, power the system down and call a computer professional. If said computer professional does not have any data recovery experience, the drive needs to be handed off immediately to one who does. As soon as that professional has exhausted his/her knowledge, a determination has to be made whether to bring in a high-priced specialist such as Ontrack.

A year or so ago, one of my clients had a hard drive crash. A number of people messed with it before passing it on to their desktop support person. He almost immediately contacted my old boss, who has done some data recovery. He in turn contacted me. It took us about five minutes to determine it was beyond anything either of us could do. Someone heard about a data recovery place about an hour away, so some executive decided we should send the drive to them because they’d get the data back to us faster. Well, they didn’t even have an answer in the promised timeframe, let alone the data. Finally the drive came back and we sent it to Ontrack. They quickly came back with sad news. Their chances of recovering the data, had they received the drive quickly, would have been very high, but so many people had gotten their hands in it that the drive was completely beyond salvage.

So, if you really need the data back, pay the $600-$900 and wait the week it’s going to take to have Ontrack or Drive Savers do the job. If you don’t have $600-$900, try things like the fridge but be aware it’s your last chance.

As far as driving off with your laptop sitting on your car, one of my former coworkers actually got away with that. He left his laptop case sitting on his trunk and drove off and actually traveled several miles before it flew off. Someone saw it happen, retrieved the laptop, and found his business card in the case. He called the following Monday, and my former coworker opened it up. The CD in the CD-ROM drive was shattered and there was gravel in the system’s various orifices. Remarkably, the screen was undamaged. He shook out the gravel and other debris, powered the laptop on, and it worked.

And his boss did immediately approve the purchase of another laptop right away, no.

I’m sure you want to know the make and model of this laptop. It was a Micron Trek 2. Current-production laptops from MPC (the successor of Micron PC) aren’t nearly that durable.

Both he and I have moved on since then, taking new jobs, so he no longer works with me and he took that laptop with him when he left the company. But it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if it still works.

Floppies, meet your replacement

I must be the next-to-last person in the world to spend significant lengths of time experimenting with these, but for the benefit of the last person in the world, I’d like to talk about USB flash drives, also known as thumb drives (for a brand name), pen drives, or keychain drives, because they’re small enough to fit on a keychain.They are, as that popular brand name suggests, about the size of your thumb. It’s possible to buy one that holds as little as 64 megabytes of data, which is still a lot of Word and Excel files, but currently the sweet spot seems to be 512 megabytes or 1 GB. This is, of course, always a moving target, but as I write, it’s entirely possible to find a 512-meg drive for around $40, although sometimes you have to deal with rebates to get the price that low. It’s harder, but still possible, to get a 1 GB drive for under $90. That will change. Currently a 2 GB drive is more than $200.

I remember when people went ga-ga over a 1 GB hard drive priced at an astounding $399. That price was astoundingly low, and that was only 10 years ago. Progress marches on, and sometimes progress really is an improvement.

The drives are so small because they use flash memory–a type of readable/writable memory chip that doesn’t lose its contents when it loses power. It’s not as fast as RAM, and it’s a lot more expensive, and its lifespan is much more finite, so you won’t see flash memory replacing your computer’s RAM any time soon. But as a replacement for the floppy disk, it’s ideal. It’s fast, it’s compatible, and unlike writable CDs and DVDs, they require no special software or hardware to write.

The drive plugs into a USB port, which is present on nearly every computer made since about 1997. Use with Windows 98 will almost certainly require the installation of a driver (hopefully your drive comes with either a driver or a web site you can use to download a driver–check compatibility before you buy one for Win98), but with Windows 2000, XP, and Mac OS X, these devices should just plug in and work, for the most part. With one Windows 2000 box, I had to reboot after plugging the drive in the first time.

From then on, it just looks like a hard drive. You can edit files from it, or drag files onto it. If the computer has USB 2.0 ports, its speed rivals that of a hard drive. It’s pokier on the older, more common USB 1.1 ports, but still very tolerable.

The only thing you have to remember is to stop the device before you yank it out of the USB port, to avoid data loss. Windows 2000 and XP provide an icon in the system tray for this.

These are great as a personal backup device. They’re small enough to carry with you anywhere–the small flashlight I keep on my keychain is bigger than most of these drives–and it only take a few minutes to copy, so you can copy those files to computers belonging to friends or relatives for safekeeping.

If your only interest in a laptop is carrying work with you–as opposed to being able to cruise the net in trendy coffee shops while you drink a $5 cup of coffee–a pen drive makes a very affordable alternative to a laptop. Plug one into your work computer, copy your files, and take work home with you. Take it on the road and you can plug it into any available computer to do work. It’s not the same as having your computer with you all the time, but for many people, it’s more than good enough, and the drives make a Palm Pilot look portly, let alone a laptop.

So how do you maximize the usable space on these devices? The ubiquitous Zip and Unzip work well, and you can download small command-line versions from info-zip.org. If you want something more transparent, there’s an old PC Magazine utility from 1997, confusingly named UnFrag, that reduces the size of many Word and Excel files. Saving in older file formats can also reduce the size, and it increases the possibility of being able to work elsewhere. Some computers still only have Office 97.

You may be tempted to reformat the drive as NTFS and turn on compression. Don’t. Some drives respond well to NTFS and others stop working. But beyond that, NTFS’s overhead makes it impractical for drives smaller than a couple of gigs (like most flash drives), and you probably want your drive to be readable in as many computers as possible. So FAT is the best option, being the lowest common denominator.

To maximize the lifespan of these drives, reduce the number of times you write to it. It’s better to copy your files to a local hard drive, edit them there, then copy them back to the flash drive. But in practice, their life expectancy is much longer than that of a Zip or floppy drive or a CD-RW. Most people are going to find the device is obsolete before it fails.

The technologically savvy can even install Linux on one of these drives. As long as a computer is capable of booting off a USB device, then these drives can be used either as a data recovery tool, or as a means to run Linux on any available computer. 512 megabytes is enough to hold a very usable Linux distribution and still leave some space for data.

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