To the rescue: Disk recovery tools and services

Good backup practices are essential when you manage at least some of your computer systems instead of just renting cycles in the cloud and relying on your provider to handle your backups. Whether you run a small business or manage a large enterprise, you need to make sure all of the valuable data you have stored on those systems is backed up regularly, and your backups are safely stored someplace where you can get hold of them quickly in an emergency.

But unless you're doing continual real-time mirroring of all your storage devices (an expensive proposition for most businesses), then even the most rigorous backup schedules leave gaps that data can fall into should one of your hard disk drives or solid state drives start acting flaky or even fail completely. When that happens you'll need a tool or service that you can use to try to recover data from your drive before it's utterly lost for all eternity.

Here are four recommendations I've received from colleagues in the IT profession including some who are readers of WServerNews, our popular newsletter that goes out each week to almost 100,000 subscribers around the world.


Geoff, one of our newsletter readers who lives down under in beautiful New Zealand, says that in his opinion SpinRite from Gibson Research Corp. is simply "the world's best data-recovery tool," at least for recovering data from hard disk drives. Other readers have voiced similar opinions of this tool, including Bill, who says it's "a must in my software tool-kit." SpinRite has been around a long time, but it's still enjoying a good reputation even though the age of magnetic storage is probably soon drawing to a close.
SpinRite tries to repair and recover data from a hard drive by doing a low-level sector analyze and remapping, and it has a reputation for being able to recover data from bad sectors. For the sysadmin or support technician who works with Windows systems in small- and mid-sized business environments, SpinRite is an essential tool to have handy in your IT toolbox when something goes wrong.

Of course it's not always that easy to recover data from a failing hard drive, and it's even harder if the drive has actually failed. One suggestion that a reader named Ted gave me was from a story he heard about a time his colleague had to recover some data from a hard drive whose controller board had failed and had a nasty brown burn mark on it. What his colleague did was to remove the controller board from an identical working drive, put the control on the failed drive, and then run SpinRite on the "repaired" drive. It worked, and he was able to quickly copy everything on the disk before whatever had caused the original controller to fry happened again. So the moral of the story is you may need to jump through a few hoops if you want to get that precious data back.


Even more popular than SpinRite with many who are still in the HDD camp is MHDD from HDD Guru, a popular freeware program for low-level HDD diagnostics, repair, and recovery. If your hard disk is behaving in a flaky way, then before you try running any imaging software to capture a snapshot of everything on your hard drive, you may want to roll up your sleeves and try using MHDD instead. The reason for holding off on using any disk-imaging software is that if you're trying to image a drive that has bad sectors it could happen that your imaging software might crap out part way through its imaging process and keep trying again and again to image the drive. This could end up putting your troubled disk through more unnecessary wear and tear, with the end result being failure of the drive.

A couple of enterprise shops I know actually used to run MHDD on every single HDD that came in through their procurement department before they handed them off to their datacenter personnel. In other words, they scanned the drives for any potential problems before actually putting them into production systems. This kind of thing should be on every storage admin's best practices checklist.

There are some caveats you should know before trying MHDD, however. First, the utility doesn't speak AHCI, so you'll have to configure your SATA ports as ATA before using it. And being an old tool, it can be finicky to get working on modern Windows installations as the FAQ for the software points out. Still, I've heard nothing but good things about MHDD from my colleagues in IT, so I recommend it as a possibility if you need to do some data recovery in a pinch.


If you're a large enterprise that's willing to spend the money, you may want to buy something that the data-recovery specialists use for recovering data from failed or failing disks. The PC-
3000 for Windows UDMA-e
from DeepSpar Data Recovery Systems is a powerful toolkit that consists of a PCIe card, a set of adapters, and software that can diagnose and repair almost any issue that can plague a mechanical drive. That’s because it goes much deeper than the freeware tools by even being able to find and fix firmware problems. This can make it possible for you to bring a dead hard drive back to life so you can then successfully run imaging software on it to perform your data retrieval.

The great thing about the PC-3000 is that you can use it in your own server room or datacenter, which gives you total control over your data-retrieval operation as opposed to outsourcing your problem to a third-party data-recovery service. For businesses that handle highly sensitive data, this can be a wise investment. You also don't need to purchase any special hardware to use PC-3000, and you don't need to have a clean room to perform your recovery.

Kroll OnTrack Data Recovery

Finally, there are just those times when the best thing you should do is send your failed or failing drive to some professionals and let them handle retrieving data from it. This is especially true with solid state drives as they tend not to give you any warning before they catastrophically fail. Yes that "click-click-clicking" sound that failing hard disk drives sometimes make is actually a blessing in disguise: It translates as "Quick! Get your data off me now, or else!"

So, when it comes to recovering data from a failed solid state drive, you're best practical bet is to send it to a professional data recovery service. The one that most of my colleagues recommend most highly is Kroll OnTrack, a leader in the fields of data recovery, secure data erasure, and e-discovery services. A colleague drove this point home to me when she shared a story about a friend of hers who does IT training and presentations for conferences. He had been preparing for an upcoming session when the Intel 320 Series SSD in his computer suddenly died and the machine bluescreened. The reason for this, it turned out, was because at the time there was a known firmware bug in that particular model of SSD, and Intel's website indicated that once that particular problem happened "no data on the SSD can be accessed and the user cannot write to or read from the SSD." So the trainer/presenter quickly shipped his failed drive off to Knoll OnTrack, who analyzed it for $65 and said they would be able to retrieve all of the data on the drive -- for the price of $1,500. After negotiating the price down to around a grand, he paid up and got a copy of everything on his drive.

Now, $1,000 may seem like a lot of money just to retrieve data from a single failed solid state drive. But if the data on that drive is critical to the success of your business, then my advice is bite the bullet and pony up because the geeks at Knoll OnTrack definitely know what they're doing.

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