Data Recovery

Dennis Faas's picture

Data recovery is the process of recovering data from primary storage media when it cannot be accessed normally. This can be due to physical damage to the storage device or logical damage to the file system that prevents it from being mounted by the host operating system.

Data Recovery: Physical damage

A wide variety of failures can cause physical damage to storage media. CD-ROMs can have their metallic substrate or dye layer scratched off; hard disks can suffer any of several mechanical failures, such as head crashes and failed motors; and tapes can simply break. Physical damage always causes at least some data loss, and in many cases the logical structures of the file system are damaged as well. This causes logical damage that must be dealt with before any files can be recovered.

Most physical damage cannot be repaired by end users. For example, opening a hard disk in a normal environment can allow dust to settle on the surface, causing further damage to the platters. Furthermore, end users generally do not have the hardware or technical expertise required to make these sorts of repairs; therefore, data recovery companies are consulted. These firms use Class 100 "cleanroom" facilities to protect the media while repairs are made, and tools such as magnetometers to manually read the bits off failed magnetic media. The extracted raw bits can be used to reconstruct a disk image, which can then be mounted to have its logical damage repaired. Once that is complete, the files can be extracted from the image.

Data Recovery: Logical damage

Far more common than physical damage is logical damage to a file system. Logical damage is primarily caused by power outages that prevent file system structures from being completely written to the storage medium, but problems with hardware (especially RAID controllers) and drivers, as well as system crashes, can have the same effect. The result is that the file system is left in an inconsistent state. This can cause a variety of problems, such as strange behavior (e.g., infinitely recursing directories, drives reporting negative amounts of free space), system crashes, or an actual loss of data. Various programs exist to correct these inconsistencies, and most operating systems come with at least a rudimentary repair tool for their native file systems. Linux, for instance, comes with the fsck utility, and Microsoft Windows provides chkdsk. Third-party utilities are also available, and some can produce superior results by recovering data even when the disk cannot be recognized by the operating system's repair utility.

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