Friday, July 3, 2009

Recovering Lost Data or SEO Stuff That Makes You Cry

When Your Hard Drive Melts, There's Only One Thing To Do

You have a lot of data stored on your hard drive – everything from a master’s thesis to critical business documents to a note to Aunt Helen. And like most of us, you just take it for granted that when you turn your system on tomorrow morning, all of that data will still be there on the hard drive.

Problem is, hard drives are dynamic storage devices, they have moving parts and they’re used day in and day out. And after a while, they fail. Now, sometimes you’re lucky and your system starts giving you signals that not all things are right. It locks up, you have to reboot three times, some of the programs no longer function – all symptoms that something’s wrong.

Recognizing these problems, you start backing up everything of value stored on the dying system’s hard drive. Sometimes you get it all (or at least everything you need) sometimes not. Data loss is a common phenomenon but, in many cases, the data hasn’t vaporized. The computer just can’t find it.

Hard Drive Partitions

A hard drive, while one mechanical device, can be configured or partitioned. A partition is simply a segment of the hard drive disk that acts independently from the rest of the disk. Partitions are used to apply one operating system for partition A and a different OS for partition B. Or, in networking situations, a single hard drive can be partitioned so that each network user has a distinct piece of the pie.

Some computer users partition their hard drives for personal and professional activities. In any case, even though your data seems to have disappeared, it may simply be misplaced on another section of the hard drive, so that the hard drive can’t find it. It’s there. It’s just in the wrong place.

Storage File Systems

In simple terms, a file is used by an operating system (Windows XP, for example) to organize data in one (or two, three, four….) places, while identifying available hard drive space for additional storage in other places. This, naturally avoids accidentally overwriting stored data, among other things, and it’s done automatically.

Each time the operating system creates a new file (of data or available storage) it creates a partition – disk space that can be accessed by the file system as different drives, i.e. the C: drive, D:, E:, F: drives right on down the line. Physically, it’s just one hard drive but, with the partitions, it appears to the user to be several, even many, different hard drives.


It stands for NT File System. FAT stands for File Allocation Table. Both are used by Microsoft operating systems with NTFS being deployed in Microsoft OS NT, 2000 and XP. NTFS automatically stores backup copies of critical disk information to help recover data that’s been lost.

Let’s focus on NTFS since it’s in most widespread use. NTFS employs something called a master boot record (MBR) and a table of all hard drive partitions. The MBR and partition table are located in the first sector of the hard drive.

This is the critical part. The partition table and Master Boot record control which partitions, if any, can still be accessed, i.e. can still be booted. If the partition table and/or MBR are corrupted, the hard drive won’t show any stored data. It will look blank. However, your data is still there.

The Recovery of Critical Data

The single-most important thing you can do when you’ve lost data is simple. Do nothing! Don’t try to write something to the hard drive. Don’t reinstall the operating system. Don’t try to restore deleted files from the recycling bin. Any one of these steps is going to make a bad situation worse. So, when you lose data – touch nothing.

Why? Because hard drives don’t actually delete anything, even after you’ve deleted the file. The file is still there. It’s just labeled as useable storage space and used when needed. The same thing is true of hard drive partitions. If you accidentally erase a partition, no data can be accessed. The OS won’t recognize that there’s data stored on that partition or disk segment.

So, if you start trying to fix your system without knowing what you’re doing, you may inadvertently overwrite the very critical data , or its partition, you’re trying to retrieve. So, slowly back away from the keyboard and don’t try to fix anything.

If You Know What You’re Doing

If possible, transfer the drive to another computer using the same file system as the system from which the damaged hard drive was removed. This should enable you to at least boot the computer since the OS is functioning. Once the system is up and running, you’ll have an idea of what data is still available and what data is gone for good.

To do this, open Windows Explorer to see what you have on your C:, D:, E: etc. drives. If you’re lucky, you may be able to retrieve your critical data through Windows Explorer, simply by moving those important files to a new location that has not been damaged or corrupted, or moving those files to a different storage device altogether.

If OS files have been damaged, you won’t be able to access the data because Windows won’t boot up without those missing operating files. However, you can try using a different operating system to see if data access is possible.

File Recovery Programs

There are several file recovery programs that equip you to boot the damaged system with a different operating system. Again, some of these software tools will actually enable you to access Windows Explorer and allow you to save your data to an outboard storage device like a zip drive or outboard hard drive. If you can do this, do it and be glad you got back what you once thought was lost.

Some recommended file recovery systems include Winternals Disk Commander and ERD Commander. However, it’s important to note that these tools will boot your system to DOS level. They won’t open Windows. However, they will provide screen-driven directions to help you recover your data. Please note that these recommended software tools, and other data recovery tools, are pretty expensive because the manufacturers know just how desperate you are to recover that lost data so be prepared to spend a few bucks.


FindNTFS is freeware that’s capable of finding lost data and copying files that have been misplaced or lost altogether. However, it may be free but if you don’t know what a directory is or how to recover txt files, even if it’s free don’t try to fix the problem yourself.

If You’re Like Most Of Us

First decide how critical the data is. If you just lost the great American novel on a fried hard drive, it’s very critical data. On the other hand, if you lost your list of addresses for the community club, you can probably find another copy on someone else’s system.

If you determine that the data is irreplaceable but you aren’t familiar with directories, partitions, FAT, NTFS, DOS or even what a hard drive looks like, don’t try to fix the problem yourself. There are three ways to go.

First, look through the local newspaper under service providers. You’ll probably find a couple of geeks with ads for in-home computer service. (Don’t be surprised if they’re high school kids, who generally know more about this stuff than the older crowd.) When talking to these whiz kids, make sure you explain the problem in detail and get the assurances you need that the data can and will be recovered. Ask the service provider how s/he intends to recover your information. You may not understand the answer completely, but you’ll get a sense of just what this computer expert can do for you.

The second alternative is to pack up the box (the computer with the hard drive inside) and bring it to your local computer repair store. Again, explain in detail just what you’re looking for – lost data retrieval. If the techie doesn’t imbue you with confidence, move on to alternative three.

There are companies that do nothing but retrieve lost data. They’re very pricey (again, they know just how desperate you are) but you’ve got the best chance of recovering that critical data by putting your problem into the hands of a professional who does data recovery everyday.

One final thought: consider the purchase of an external hard drive that backs up everything in tandem with the hard drive inside your computer box. You can purchase one of these safety nets for less than $150 and, in the event of catastrophic failure, you’ve got all of your data backed up on a completely separate hard drive.

Losing critical data is not only frustrating, it can cost you a bundle unless you know your way around a hard drive, partitions and all. If you don’t know what you’re doing, do nothing. Even if you do know what you’re doing, don’t touch anything. Once the damage has occurred the best thing you can do is leave it alone.

Leave it to a professional if the information is that important because if you try to tinker your way to the recovery of critical information, the chances of you actually recovering the lost information diminish.

And in that case, you’re just plain out of luck.

Lost something? Need something? Drop me a line or give me a call. Love to chat.

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