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Data Protection and Recovery Techniques Part 3: Recovering from Data Storage Disasters Beyond Unformat: Non-Destructive Data Recovery the Easy Way

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Data Protection and Recovery Techniques Part 3: Recovering from Data Storage Disasters
Beyond Unformat: Non-Destructive Data Recovery the Easy Way

Because unformatting a drive can destroy any remaining data on the drive if its done incorrectly, youre better off using programs that can retrieve the data from drives which have been accidentally formatted or have damaged disk partitions and copy the data to another drive.

If the drive has been formatted, these programs work similarly to a classic unformat program in that they search the drive for files. Instead of recreating the FAT on the formatted drive, though, they create their own database of recovered files and prompt you for another drive location to which it can transfer them.

Another difference between these programs and classic unformat/unerase programs is that most of them can also work on drives that have more serious problems. For example, the beginning of a hard disk contains the master boot record and partition table, which indicates the location of disk partitions and basic file system information. If the partition table is destroyed (for example, by a computer virus or by running Fdisk) or has incorrect information, programs that depend upon normal disk structures to perform data recovery cant work because they are designed to work within the normal file system of the operating system. However, because the "lost" data itself is not overwritten, it is still possible to recover it. You just need a smarter type of data recovery program.

Many of these automatic data recovery programs are sold by the same companies that specialize in send-in-your-dead-drive data recovery, such as Ontrack Data International, Inc. These companies have developed expertise in dealing with everything from accidentally formatted drives to yanking the data off drives with extensive physical damage, and many of them offer several different software and service options.

For example, Ontrack Data Recovery, Inc. offers these data-recovery products:

  • EasyRecovery Personal - recovers data from DOS and Windows 9x/Me IDE and SCSI hard drives, floppy, Zip and Jaz drives. Can be used with FAT partitions of Windows NT/2000/XP
  • EasyRecovery Professional - all the features of the Personal Edition, plus support for NTFS partitions in Windows NT/2000/XP

For other major data-recovery firms, see the end of this article.

Because most people who have lost data arent interested in paying for a data-recovery program until theyre sure their data can be recovered, most vendors of data-recovery software provide free demo versions you can download. Depending upon the product, the free version might perform only the data location portion of the recovery process, displaying the files it found on your drive, might recover a few files, or recover only files up to a certain size. The idea is that once you see what can be recovered, you will be glad to pay for the full version.

The price youll pay for these types of data recovery programs can vary quite a lot. For example, Ontrack charges about $180 for its Personal Edition, and about $490 for its Professional Edition. Other vendors might charge less than $100.

Understanding What Youre Getting for Your Money

Since most data-recovery software vendors provide, "try-before-you-buy," demos of their products, if you look for a reliable product and vendor, the odds that youll try - and buy - the right product for your data-recovery task can be fairly high. However, it can be frustrating to spend time setting up a spare computer or hard disk to download a demonstration program, running it, and then determining youve downloaded the wrong program. Use the table below to determine the best choice for your data recovery needs. Note that many data-recovery programs are designed to handle multiple types of data recovery.


Type of Software Needed


Youve deleted files bypassing the Recovery Bin, or the Recovery Bin no longer has the file

File undelete

Integrated into utility suites sold at retail such as Norton Utilities, Norton System Works and Ontrack System Suite. Undelete functionality may be limited with NTFS drives. Try a demo of a specialized utility program if you cant find the files you seek with retail utility suites.

Youve accidentally Fdisked or formatted a drive, or the drive has a virus.

File recovery

For maximum safety, download and install the program to another system and create recovery disks -if possible- to use on the computer with the problem drive. If you must use the same computer, install the software to a different drive than the one which has been corrupted/formatted.

If you use EZ-Drive, Disk Manager, or other programs which overcome BIOS limitations, contact the software vendor for specific software products which will work with these so-called disk overlay configurations.

Verify operating system and file system compatibility before you run the program.

Youre trying to recover data from a removable-media drive

File recovery for your specific type of removable-media drive

Check drive compatibility before you run the program; CD-ROM and other optical drives require special recovery software.

Youre trying to recover data from a digital camera or other flash memory storage device

File recovery for a flash memory device

Make sure the program you use is designed to work with your particular type of flash memory.

Youre trying to rebuild a corrupt boot sector or partition table

Partition table repair

Repairing these structures can save you a lot of time over file-by-file data recovery if you can access your data afterwards, but make sure you have access to a file recovery product if the repair doesnt work.

Once youve chosen a compatible data-recovery tool, take steps to make sure you get your data back safely. After all, thats the bottom line.

Assuring Success with Automatic Data Recovery

Automatic data recovery can work very well if you do it correctly; although the software does most of the work, follow these suggestions to help you get your data back with as little stress as possible:

  • Before you start the data recovery process (even with a free demo), make sure you know how the program works. Use a program that is designed to transfer your files to another storage device if youre trying to recover missing (not erased) files, folders, and partitions.

  • Find out what types of storage devices are supported. If youre trying to recover huge partitions youve nuked, you might want to buy another hard disk as a target device for retrieved files (or use a couple of old ones youve saved for emergencies if theyre still reliable). While CD-R and CD-RW drives abound and media is cheap, most data recovery programs cant use them because they require memory-resident software, which can cause problems with data recovery.

  • Check the Internet for user comments and reviews for the data recovery software youre planning to use. I use Google to do most of my searches, because its Cached feature displays a copy of the actual page where it located the search terms. If you find a lot of negative comments about a particular data recovery program, steer clear of it. Take a look at the Cached page as well as the current page, because some review sites periodically clear out comments.

  • Make sure you read both positive and negative user comments about the software. I discovered one vendor had apparently spammed a site with positive comments to try to overcome the extremely negative comments the site had received from actual users.

  • If you cant find user comments, check the vendors website for testimonials and referrals and contact the referral companies if possible.

  • Look for programs that rate the likelihood of recovery success during the data discovery process. If a data recovery demo program just lists filenames and doesnt tell you the likelihood of actual retrieval, watch out! It might not retrieve a usable file. Ontrack Easy Recovery is one that does rate the likelihood of getting your files back, but others may as well.

  • Make sure you use up-to-date programs. Old programs you may have used in the past might not work anymore because of drive size issues, operating system issues, file system issues, etc.

  • Use programs that can retrieve folders, not just individual files. Unless youre trying to retrieve just a few valuable files because everything else is backed up, programs which dont recreate folder structures will drive you crazy when it comes time to get back to work.

The Software Found My Data Now What?

Assuming that youve used the, "try before you buy," feature, look over the results on the screen carefully before you spend your money. Contact the company with any questions you have before you pay for the full version of the software. If youre really skeptical, check with the vendor for a low-cost "Lite" version, which can be used to retrieve a small number of files.

Once you license the program, it might be able to start retrieving files immediately, or it might need to recheck your system again before it can copy files. Be patient.

If you can select which files the program recovers first, go after the files you cant live without. Retrieve large ones first, such as email archives, graphics, and office-suite files. Remember that you can always reload your operating system and applications.

Make sure you copy the files you retrieve to a reliable storage device. Although some files you are trying to recover might fit on a floppy disk, floppy disks arent very reliable compared to hard disks or other storage devices. I suggest using a hard disk.

Check the readability of your files after you recover a few of them. Make sure youre getting back usable files. If youre getting back nothing but garbage, contact the vendor for help.

If automatic data recovery programs cant find your data, you may still have one more chance to get it back.

Send In the Experts: Online and Mail-in Data Recovery

If the free demo/test versions of the vendors software cant locate any data, you can use remote-recovery or send-in-your-drive data recovery. Generally, send-in-your-drive data recovery is necessary only if your drive cant be recognized by the computer because of physical damage to drive. As you can imagine, this level of data recovery can cost thousands; you need to make sure your data is really worth retrieving.

Unless your hard drive sounds as if its ingested marbles or wont spin up anymore, you can take advantage of online data recovery services offered by an increasing number of firms if you can boot your computer and connect to the Internet. While these services cost hundreds of dollars at a minimum, theyre still far less expensive than if you sent in the drive for data recovery.

To use these services, set up a different hard drive on the same computer, install a minimum installation of your operating system, configure it for Internet access, and download the client from the vendors website. Unlike automatic data recovery programs you can download to a different computer to make recovery disks, the computer hosting the problem drive must have a working Internet connection. Depending upon the vendor, there may be a small data evaluation fee that will be applied to the data recovery if you decide to get the data after its been located.

Procedures vary from company to company, but when you use Ontracks Remote Data Recovery service, youll be talking to a technician who will periodically keep you informed on the progress of the retrieval process. The process is a lot faster on a broadband connection than on a dial-up connection, but when an associate of mine used the Ontrack service recently, it took several hours, even with broadband, to analyze the data and determine if it was recoverable. During this process, the contents of the drive were actually transferred to the lab for analysis.

How much more powerful is remote data recovery than the automatic programs? In my associates case, the only computer with a working Internet connection used a different BIOS and hard disk controller chip than the computer which originally hosted the drive. The system BIOS recognized only about 15GB of the 80GB drive. This is far from an ideal situation, but Ontracks data recovery process was able to overcome BIOS and controller limitations to retrieve all the data from logical drives E: and above (the data drives), saving months of work. The C: (Windows) and part of D: (applications) had been overwritten, so only part of the files on these drives could be rescued. After data recovery, the drive was readable on the original system after the drive was reconnected to it.

Do It Yourself Data Recovery with Norton Disk Editor

If you dont mind spending some time to learn how the program works, you can perform many of the same tasks which automatic data-recovery software programs and experts perform by using the Norton Disk Editor, part of the Norton Utilities and Norton SystemWorks programs supplied by Symantec. With Diskedit you can do many things that the automatic utilities cannot, but it requires much more extensive knowledge on the part of the user. Diskedit is like having a surgeon's knife, in skilled hands it can be used to perform miracles, but without the skills required to use it, you can make quite a mess of things as well. In Part 4 of this series, youll learn the types of data recovery tasks you can perform with this program.


Building the Ultimate Photo Recovery Kit

Roger Galbraith tests common data recovery programs against an unusual, but increasingly common problem recovering digital images from flash memory cards as part of this article.


Data Recovery Software Vendors

ACR Data Recovery

Bitmart Restorer2000 (free trial available http://www.bitmart.net/r2k.htm) works on NTFS file systems Windows NT, 2000, XP


Runtime Software

Symantec Norton Utilities

HigherGround Software, Inc.

Data Recovery Service Vendors

Drive Savers

Ontrack Data International

Total Recall

Copyright©2002 Pearson Education. All rights reserved.

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