A Rare Endorsement: When the Disk Drive Fails

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As a matter of policy, I almost never make commercial endorsements. But I’m making an extremely rare exception today, because I feel that this particular firm may be able to save a whole lot of people a whole lot of grief.

Recently, I was called upon to help deal with a disk failure situation that rapidly appeared to be fairly hopeless. The disk in question was in a laptop (Linux ext3 format filesystem), and it had failed suddenly and hard — very hard. None of my usual tricks could revive it.

There were some backups, but all the ones less than a year old turned out to be largely useless due to corruption (I have a few choice words to say about “tar” that I’ll save for another day).

I found myself researching disk recovery firms — an area that I had never had occasion to examine in depth before. I quickly discovered that this category of business is replete with come-ons and abusive gimmicks.

For example, the promoted prices you see for most recovery firms typically bear no resemblance to reality except in the simplest of cases (e.g., when it’s just a matter of using software to undelete “deleted” files from a FAT32 disk).

But if the drive has actually suffered hardware damage (e.g. to the circuitry or platters) the price will typically skyrocket astronomically.

I also quickly discovered that most of the firms claiming they had “local” offices in big cities actually could only do those software-level operations there. Any hardware issues meant them shipping the drives to some central lab — meaning more delays.

In the midst of this rather gloomy research I stumbled across a firm called $300 Data Recovery.

Now if you’re like me, you’re a bit wary of firms that promote a price in their name. Hell, think of the expensive rebranding if your prices go up! But I was intrigued by their pricing chart, and by the fact that they were local to me here in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, just a 20 minute or so shot straight down the 101. I like dealing with local firms when I can, since that means I can show up in person “to chat” if something goes wrong.

It’s a very small firm in a rather strange location for such an operation. There are just a handful of employees — various of my routine email communications were directly with the owner. It’s on the second floor of a strip mall on Ventura Blvd. in Studio City, surrounded by typical strip mall businesses about as logically far away from data recovery as you can imagine.

Yet they apparently do all their work in-house right there, including in their own clean room when necessary. When I took the bad disk over there, I was amused by their collection of horrifically failed open disk drives in the waiting area.

You can read the details of their pricing structure on their site, but the bottom line is that for most common situations, for a single disk already removed from a computer, they charge a flat $300 (for up to 2TB disks) if they can recover the data, otherwise — nothing. If there’s limited partial recovery, you can choose whether or not you want to pay that fee for what they recovered, based on a comprehensive list of recovered files that they email you. If you want priority service to go to the head of the queue and have them start working on a disk immediately, there’s a nonrefundable $50 up front, and an additional $150 if you accept the recovered data. So, in that case, the total is $500 — still a serious bargain. This doesn’t include shipping or the cost of a transfer drive — both quite reasonable and in my case avoided since I drove out to them and provided my own transfer drive for the recovered data.

They also handle larger disks and RAID arrays for additional (but still utterly reasonable) fees. And they happily execute data recovery nondisclosure agreements. By the way, they can target particular files for recovery by name if you wish, and can put crucial recovered files online in a secure location if you need to download them immediately.

In many cases they apparently can recover data in a day or two once starting work on a given disk. The disk I took them had to run in the “cloning” stage for more like five days to recover the maximum amount of data from crash-damaged platters, then another day or so for filesystem reconstruction. They keep you informed by email all through this process and respond virtually immediately to queries.

In the case of this particular disk, they ultimately recovered more than 99% (99.38% notes Mr. Spock) of the data! This doesn’t mean you get 99.38% of all the files back perfectly intact of course — since that remaining 0.62% can be scattered across the filesystem in various ways. They return the data in several different formats — recovered filesystem section with full hierarchy data, orphaned files without names and/or directories, and so on. “Grep” is very useful to locate specific files in those latter cases, of course, though the key files I was tasked to find were quickly located in the filesystem recovery section with their directory structures intact.

In fact, all important files (including some crucial databases) were recovered from that disk, nearly all 100% complete.

I’d call that a success by any measure.

I’ll add in passing that there seem to be some haters of this company out there, including somebody who bothered to build a whole site dedicated to trashing them — claiming they’re incompetent, that they pay people to give them good reviews, and other rants. I don’t know what the authors of that site are going on about — I can only speak to my own experience. When I got the recovered data back, it was noted that a positive review would be appreciated, but I certainly wasn’t offered any money or other compensation for one — nor would I have accepted such in any case. Nobody paid me nuttin’ for this blog posting!

As for their competency, I handed them a trashed, useless disk drive, they handed me back a disk loaded with important recovered data that was needed to fulfill an important mission — and at a completely reasonable price. That’s good enough for me! I know I would take any disk drive of mine to them in similar situations.

So if you’re ever in a tough spot with a failed disk, you might very well want to check these guys out — again, that’s $300 Data Recovery.

When I was getting ready to leave their shop with the recovered data disk, I mentioned to them that I appreciated all their great work and would enthusiastically recommend them — but frankly, I hoped to never have to deal with them myself again in a professional capacity!

It was clear from their smile that they knew exactly what I meant.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.