A Closer Look

Bringing Data Back From the Dead

By Daniel Greenberg
Special To The Washington Post
Sunday, June 4, 2006

Sometimes, a failing hard drive will screech like nails on a chalkboard. Other times, its death will be eerily quiet.

Either way, years of work -- documents, digital photos and music, save games, e-mail archives and your address book -- can be gone in an instant.

The simple truth is that hard drives are mechanical -- and that makes failure more a matter of when, not if. And because so many people don't back up their data (despite our continued nagging), the loss can be catastrophic.

In many cases, though, that data doesn't have to be lost forever -- but it will cost you both time and money to recover some, if not all, of what you lost.

Professional data recovery services can cost thousands of dollars but can also retrieve data from hard drives that have been through even the most traumatic events, such as fire or flood.

But there are less-expensive alternatives, including some of the consumer software and services we tested. In some cases, the results surprised us. Norton SystemWorks ($70, http://www.symantec.com ), for example, attempts to repair hard drives while they are failing. But Norton writes to the damaged drive, which can actually worsen the problem and can make future data recovery efforts more time consuming and costly. Disk Doctor, an application built into SystemWorks, reported that it had repaired many clusters on one of our test drives, but when it was done the drive would no longer boot.

In contrast, GetDataBack ($80, http://www.runtime.org ) does not alter the data on the defective hard drive. Instead, it finds all the data it can and saves it to another hard drive, such as an external one connected to the computer. The basic version is free, so you can determine if it can recover your data before you pay for it.

GetDataBack worked very well in our tests, reliably recovering data from a hard drive that wouldn't boot. But it was no help on drives that were so far gone that the computer did not recognize that they were attached.

To fix those sort of problems, we tried Ontrack DataRecovery ( http://www.ontrack.com ). Customers can ship the defective drives to them or carry the drive into one of their offices (including one in Reston). Ontrack even offers online data recovery, in which a technician remotely explores your drive and reconstructs data -- often the same day you call for emergency help.

Ontrack's service was extremely fast, with one- or two-day turnarounds even on our worst drives. Ontrack technicians were able to repair most of our defective drives online, but some had to be sent into their "clean room" for storage. They succeeded in recovering every drive we sent them for testing -- including a drive we deliberately threw down a flight of stairs -- and pieced together all but a handful of files out of hundreds of thousands.

Ontrack's pricing model includes a $100 fee to inspect the drive. Ontrack tells you which files it can recover and how much the recovery will cost. You can choose to proceed with recovery or not -- a consumer-friendly offering that wasn't available with every data recovery company. Some wanted thousands of dollars in advance, even if they couldn't recover any of the data.

Ontrack's pricing for our basic Windows hard drive recovery was $1,000.

Since so much data is confidential (or even top secret), Ontrack also has a policy of not opening or viewing files unless the customer asks it to verify that the data is intact.

In our discussions with Ontrack, we learned that one of the best things you can do for the future health of your data (besides regular backups) is to keep your hard drive defragmented -- experts agree that it's easier to find complete files when the pieces are organized in neat rows instead of scattered around the drive like a jigsaw puzzle.

Of course, there's always the much-pricier solutions that many businesses use. The Yellow Machine by Anthology Solutions ( http://www.yellowmachine.com ), for example, uses four drives in a special configuration to ensure that, if one drive fails, the others have the data. Once the failed drive is replaced, the system starts to rebuild the data, without interrupting user access to the files.

The Yellow Machine starts off at $550 for a 500-gigabyte unit, a pricey solution that won't hurt so much, compared with the pain of losing precious data.

Then again, you could always back up your data regularly. Hard-drive maker Seagate/Maxtor has proclaimed June to be Backup Awareness Month ( http://www.backupawareness.com ) and is even giving away free backup hard drives all month. The site also offers helpful hints about backing up your files and a fun game.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company