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Well, So Much for *That* Drive: The Story of Hard Drive Failure and Data Recovery

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Not only has he helped other users to recover from drive crashes, Jake Ludington has lived the nightmare himself. He provides some quick tips to get you on the road to recovery.
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Crossing Your Fingers Doesn't Help

On September 7, 2004, the hard drive on my laptop failed. This computer has been my primary system since removing it from the original manufacturer's box in January, which means that all my email, RSS data, and important documents make their primary home on that drive. Due to an unfortunate chain of events, three days' worth of data didn't get backed up. Three days doesn't seem like much, but those were some very important days in terms of my work schedule. Shortly before the colossal failure, which I later discovered amounted to a physical failure of 12% of the drive, several very important email messages had arrived. Email is no big deal in most cases, but the total business value of a handful of messages was in the neighborhood of $20,000.

Ultimately, I recovered virtually everything on the drive—at the cost of almost 80 hours of effort on my part. This article documents the process I went through, so that when your hard drive fails (which it probably will at some point), you'll be prepared to deal with the recovery process. Services are available to perform recovery for you, but the really good ones charge between $1,000–2,000. That amount often isn't affordable, even when a significant chunk of business is at stake.

The best way to deal with a catastrophic data loss is to prepare ahead of time, with daily—sometimes hourly—backups. But backups don't always work as planned, or, as in my case, are spaced too far apart to capture important data stored moments before a drive failure.


If you're scratching your head right now, trying to remember what your backup strategy might be, stop here and read Dilip Naik's article on backup and restore technologies for Windows. I've assisted in data recovery many times throughout my career in IT. Nothing wastes more financial and manpower resources than trying to get back lost data.

Like death and taxes, drive failure is inevitable. There are two major categories of hard disk failures:

  • Software failures are commonly caused by a corrupted partition table, damaged boot record, or missing root directory information. Recovering from software disk failures is generally easy using off-the-shelf recovery software.

  • The second category of drive failures is a result of some kind of physical malfunction of the drive. When the hard drive is physically damaged in some way, data recovery becomes complicated. When the drive is physically damaged, any additional access to the drive may further corrupt data, making it increasingly difficult to get files back.

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