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Data Recovery: Common factors and approaches

What can you do when the inevitable happens at the most inopportune time?


Hard drives fail. It happens. The question is never if the failure is coming, but when. So, you plan for the worst: backup plans are in place and disaster recovery options have been discussed and approved. Now, your data is safe... for the most part.

What happens to files and documents that are open and active at the time of failure? Sometimes hours of important work can be lost within the most robust and proactive networks between backups when a failure occurs. You have two immediate options: attempt recovery yourself or seek the help of a professional recovery company. If the data is mission critical or irreplaceable, then your best bet is to contract with the professionals. However, if you have technical experience and the confidence that you can recover the data yourself, then consider this information first.

Common Factors

Data loss can occur for many reasons, but the two most common data loss types end up accounting for most cases.

The first is software related. This can be the easiest to recover from and usually is the result of an accidental adjustment or change. Software-related data loss can be as simple as an accidental deletion of a folder with the emptying of the Recycle Bin or it can be as dire as a reformatted partition, which still contained in-use files. Either way, the software-related data loss scenario is as unexpected as it is accidental.

The next most common factor is the most common reason for hard drive related data loss: hardware failure. Your hard drive is a collection of intricate and delicate machinery operating in a complex and very specific way, which allows data to be stored within a high-rpm magnetically coated disk or chips that use NAND flash technology and the like. It is a wonder that these pieces of equipment ever worked in the first place, but they do and they do it so well that we are constantly surprised when they do fail. And they do. Unfortunately, when a hardware-based failure occurs, the most realistic option for the successful recovery of lost data is contacting a data recovery specialist. However, it is not the only option for experienced users.

Software-based Data Recovery

You have discovered that data is missing or lost on a working hard drive and you are confident that the drive in question has not suffered a mechanical failure of any kind. What steps do you take to secure the most reliable self-recovery solution?

  • The most important aspect of software-based data recovery to understand is to stop using the drive, which contains the lost data. As long as this drive is connected to an operating computer, the OS has the opportunity to read and write over the missing sectors. Your OS does not know that the missing files are located in that empty section of the hard drive, it only sees free space the make use of. The longer the drive is connected to an operational OS, the lower your chances of a full recovery become.
  • Clone your drive. If you are confident enough to attempt a data recovery on your drive then the cloning of a drive is nothing new to you. There a numerous programs out there that provide adequate cloning capabilities, so choose the one you are the most comfortable. The reason for cloning the drive in question is to isolate the original data source from testing errors and to provide the opportunity to recover the data in other ways if your recovery attempts fail.
  • Scan the clone. Take the newly cloned drive and subject it to any recovery program process that you choose to use. Once again, there are a great many options for software data recovery, from free to pricey, and each have their pluses and minuses, so choose accordingly.
  • Recover data or return to square one. At this point, the data is recovered or it's not. If you were not successful, you can try another program on your clone, re-clone the source drive, or contact a professional recovery service depending on your stamina and patience.

Hardware-based Data Recovery

The self-recovery options for hardware-related data recovery are much more extensive than the options available for software, so we will be covering these in my next blog post. In the meantime, take a look at a few previous blog posts that discuss prevention methods for hard drives.

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