HDD Hard Drive Data Recovery

Since 2010 all we’ve been doing is recovering data from faulty hard drives. Over 8,000 successful data recoveries later and we have it down to a fine art. We recover data from SSDs, USB devices, RAID servers and NAS boxes, but hard drive data recovery is still our core business. There are so many aspects that need to come together when performing a successful data recovery:

  • Having the correct tools, both hardware and software. These tools need constant updates to ensure they work with the latest hard drives. And, most importantly, knowing how to use these tools. Giving a man a knife doesn’t make him a surgeon.
  • Thousands of hard drives in stock to be used as donor drives when parts are required. There are endless revisions of hard drive models, and parts need to be matched precisely.
  • The knowledge to know what tool and method to use with which drive. The instinct to know how a drive might react to a certain change or part replacement. The specialist skills gained from year after year of endless R&D, constant upskilling, and dedication.
Hard drives in the lab ready for work to be carried out.

Hard drives are incredibly complex. From the outside, all you might see is a little box that stores your data, but on the inside, there is some mindblowing engineering going on. People might wonder why their hard drive fails when it takes a tumble onto the floor? Well, consider that you have multiple, very delicate read and write heads that are flying nanometers above a platter that is spinning at several thousand times per minute. It’s the equivalent of a Boeing 747 flying a few millimeters above the ground at full speed. The smallest bump that sends it off course and into the ground is certainly going to end badly. 

How do we perform recovery on your hard drive?

Let’s take a look at an example of a data recovery from start to finish. This WD Elements hard drive was booked in for data recovery after it had fallen off a desk and stopped functioning, the client said the drive was making a clicking sound.

Client's hard drive in for data recovery.

Because the drive has been dropped and the client says that it’s making a clicking sound, it’s clear that the hard drive has suffered a mechanical failure. The clicking sound is the repetitive attempt of the read and write head assembly trying to read from the platter surface, failing, and trying again. This action causes even more damage as the heads are now scratching the platter surface instead of flying just above. We take the drive into the lab environment to have a look inside, see if there is obvious damage and do a general assessment of the inner workings.

Opening the drive in the lab to inspect the various components.

All in all it is good news. The head assembly itself is damaged, as expected, but there is no damage to the platter surface. The data is stored on the platter along with the firmware of the drive, so any platter damage is a serious problem. Luckily in this instance, the drive wasn’t powered on too many times after the drop. These mangled heads need to be replaced with an identical set, with matching preamp revision.

Damaged head assembly, as seen on the right. Damaged caused by a fall.

Once the damaged head assembly has been removed and a compatible set installed, we can reassemble the drive. There is still a lot to do, though. Lots of portable hard drives no longer have a native SATA connection, and we need SATA in order to work with the drive’s firmware in order to stabilise things. We therefore have to read the contents of the ROM from the original USB PCB, and program that to a compatible SATA PCB so that we can work with the drive on a manufacturer firmware level with the help of PC-3000.

Programming a compatible SATA PCB with the contents of the faulty drive's ROM.

Now that a compatible SATA PCB has been programmed with the contents of the patient drive’s ROM, we can fit this to the drive in question and have full control over it.

Original USB PCB on the left, compatible SATA PCB on the right now loaded with the required ROM.

We’ve converted the faulty drive to SATA from USB, and we’ve installed a replacement head assembly in the lab. The next step is to check how the drive is functioning after the new parts have been installed. We need to ensure that all of the firmware modules can load up, that all heads are reading and that we have sector access from the first to the last sector.

Hard drive connected up to PC-3000 after the hardware component of the work has been completed.

Everything is looking good. The drive spins up and comes to the ready state, which means that the firmware has been loaded up and the drive is ready to receive commands. We run through some standard diagnostic procedures to ensure all of the vital modules are functioning as they should be, and that we have access to sectors throughout the drive. Once this step is complete we can move on to the actual data recovery process, which is getting a list of all of the files and folders on the drive and extracting the contents. 

A basic report of the main hard drive systems functioning well.

Because the drive was dropped there may be some bad areas, but we can work our way around these. Green sectors indicate ones that were read successfully, red and yellow indicate timeouts and read errors. We set a short read timeout on the first pass so that the drive doesn’t spend a long time trying to read damaged areas, as this could cause the new heads to degrade and fail too. We do multiple passes, getting the client’s most important data first. Each pass will have a higher timeout and different strategy which results in more data being recovered on each subsequent pass.

The data recovery process in action, green sectors are ones that have been recovered successfully.

And there you have it, we’ve gone from a damaged and dysfunctional hard drive, through all of the steps necessary to recover the valuable data. Once the client has decided on a new drive to save the recovered data to, we copy across the recovered data and wrap things up, knowing that we have a happy customer who is now reunited with their data. We’re ready and waiting to help, contact us if you need data recovery Cape Town services.

Another happy client, another successful data recovery.

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