DriveSavers dispels common hard drive recovery myths

Posted by Humphrey Cheung

San Diego (CA) – Freezing or hitting failed hard drives doesn't work and can actually increase the damage, according to DriveSavers representatives.  Known for successfully recovering data from thousands of drives a month, DriveSavers engineers have seen everything from burnt laptops to hairspray cemented floppy disks.  Not wanting to pay for professional recovery, some people resort to urban legends that may sound good at first, but according to the company have no scientific basis for working.

We spoke with John Christopher, DriveSavers’ Senior Data Recovery Engineer at the SIGGRAPH convention in San Diego California.  The average recover costs around $1700 and DriveSavers handles between 1300 and 1500 hard drives a month with a 90% success rate, according to Christopher.  The success rate is phenomenal considering that many customers will often make thing worse before sending their drives to the company.

“Customers many times can do more harm.  You’ve got one copy, one chance… why mess around?” said Christopher.

Hard drive head crashes and mechanical failures comprise approximately 60% of DriveSavers’ hard drive recoveries and many computer geeks have heard about freezing the drive to shrink the platters.  Basically you pop the hard drive in the freezer overnight and in the morning you quickly attach it to the computer and grab all the data.  The theory is that the platters will shrink while cold and become “unstuck” from the drive head or casing, but according to Christopher this is bogus.

“If anyone got it to work, it was pure luck, I can’t find any reasons why it would work and my clean room guys have never gotten it to work,” Christopher told us.  He added that water can condense on the hard drive platters after it has been take out of the freezer.  “Then you get water spots which is really bad,” he said.

Another myth is you can hit the hard drive when it is spinning up to force it back into working order.  “Some people try smacking it on the side while the drive powers up,” said Christopher.  That too doesn’t work he said.

And it doesn’t end there because some customers have tried buying identical drives on eBay and then replacing the platters in their bathrooms.  “They think that their bathrooms are cleaner,” Christopher told us.  

So what’s the craziest data recovery the company has ever done?  Christopher said that was a loaded question because most of the drives come with unbelievable stories.  The company handles drives that have been burnt in fires, drowned in floods and has even recovered the contents of a PowerBook that sunk in the Amazon River.

Christopher does remember one of the first recoveries which was a student’s only copy of her thesis from a floppy disk.

“She put the disk in her purse and sat down at a bench.  She heard a hissing sound which was a Aquanet hairspray can discharging all over her floppy.”

Despite having a sticky cemented disk, DriveSavers fully recovered the document.

Speaking of floppies, the company still receives floppies for recovery.  Christopher told us that people even send in ancient 20 to 30 MB RLL/MFM formatted hard drives.

Drive recovery procedures are constantly changing and Christopher told us that increasing drive capacities are making things somewhat more difficult for his engineers.  One example is that people are buying computers with a terabyte or more of storage, but that space is actually spanned across two or more drives.  This is a big danger is one of the drives dies and takes out the whole array.

“These computer companies don’t say that the drives are spanned.  So now the customer has no clue and says ‘I didn’t know I had four drives’”

Incidentally, a very satisfied DriveSavers customer walked up to us during the interview and told us how the company saved his 160 GB hard drive.  Jacob Pollack said he first took his drive to an Apple store and their reps botched the job.

“My drive had very important media files and the Apple store just reformatted my drive,” Pollack said.  He added that the reps eventually referred him to DriveSavers.

Update August 10, 2007 - 4:14 PM

We have corrected the article at two points because of an email John Christopher recently sent to us.  Christopher is actually the Senior Data Recovery Engineer instead of being the PR Director as we originally reported.

We also corrected "Customers always do more harm" to "Customers many times can do more harm" at Christopher's request.