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PDB Helpdesk: Hard Disk Repairs
By Thiravudh Khoman

I'd like to add a few observations to the hard disk problems related by Mingliang Zhuang in the September 8, 1999 Helpdesk. As mentioned by Khun Nikorn of One Systems, Ontrack Data (https://www.ontrack.com) is probably the premier data recovery company today. Those of us with long memories and a warped sense of humour like to think this expertise came about due to their "Disk Manager" product (also known as "Disk Mangler") which allowed one to create hard drives larger than 32mb under DOS 3.3.

Ontrack provides three levels of data recovery services: a) via software, b) via remote repair, and c) in-lab repair. The software approach is by far the cheapest. Ontrack provides a freeware version of their "Tiramisu" software, which allows you to see what data can be recovered from a problem hard disk. Unfortunately, you will need to buy the full package to do the actual recovery, which will cost you US$195 for the FAT16/FAT32/Zip/Jaz versions (each, mind you) or US$395 for the NTFS/Netware versions. A "lite" version for FAT16/FAT32 hard disks costs only US$49 each, but is limited to recovering only five files.

As long as your hard disk hasn't suffered a hardware failure (i.e. to the read/write mechanism or to the controller board), I believe there's a good chance of using software to salvage the drive enough to backup your data. My only experience with Tiramisu unfortunately was with a hard disk that did have a hardware problem, and thus recovery wasn't possible. However, I have successfully used other Ontrack software to repair corrupted Netware disk volumes (i.e. Ontrack Data Recovery for Netware).

As for Ontrack's remote repair service, it's fairly new and I have no experience with it. So if you're interested, check their web site for more details

Ontrack's final option is in-lab service. What you do is have a telephone conversation with a support personnel first, then mail them your hard disk and they will try and recover the data to another type of media (usually a CD or a tape cartridge). Harinn wrote about this in Post Database several months ago. From what I hear, Ontrack's success rate is quite high. In cases of hardware failures, my guess is that they have enough spare parts to transplant bits and pieces to create a working drive long enough for a backup to be made. The only problem with this approach is that the cost is very high. Harinn mentioned paying in excess of Baht 30,000 for this. Obviously, this is several times the cost of a new hard disk. But of course, what we're talking about here is the cost of the data recovery, not the cost of hardware recovery (the hard drive must inevitably be junked anyway).

Having had my fair share of hard disk failures in the past years, I've never been able to convince myself to go with the in-lab route. Either I had a partial backup or the data I was losing just wasn't worth the cost. But this may not be true of everyone or all situations. Thus, it's worthwhile to keep this option in mind.

My choice - which I do not recommend unless you're already at a total dead-end - is to open the drive cover and give the drive platter a push. Amazingly, this has worked in several cases - at least long enough for me to make a backup. But not in all, as my sister's recently deceased hard disk will attest. Also, doing so will obviously and immediately void your warranty (if it's still valid) and make any further repairs difficult if not impossible.

Reader Mingliang also asked whether there were any local outfits which can do hard disk repairs. The answer, I believe, is no. I recently visited a dozen shops at Panthip plaza in order to borrow the use of a tiny star-shaped screwdriver to remove the cover of an unusual Seagate hard disk. Alas, I couldn't find one, the shops commenting that they don't normally do hard disk repairs - they just send it to the distributor to claim the drive if it's still in warranty.

Besides the usual exhortations to make adequate backups, one other suggestion I'd like to make is to "listen" to your drive. Most drives, in my experience, make odd sounds for several days if not weeks before they die. Thus, you should get an audible warning before doomsday - but not always.

Copyright © 1998-2000, Thiravudh Khoman