Sometimes I like to present myself with interesting challenges to myself to see how I would react and consequently learn more about myself and get one step closer to nirwana.
This weekend I decided on a new behavioural experiment: I took my new 250GB drive containing my home machine’s home partition and dropped it from about half a meter height on a stone floor. The idea was to see how worried I would really be if I had a complete disk crash and what I would attempt to do to recover it.
Part one of the experiment went pretty well. The hard disk dropped and made contact with the stone floor. It gave a satisfying thud. I put the disk in the USB cradle, turned it on, and lo and behold, it made wonderful noises. Lots of ‘chukka-chukka-chukka’ followed by occasional ‘ching’-s. The log was throwing up errors all the time and it really didn’t sound too good at all.
At first a slight panic set in. This is the drive that has a whole bunch of stuff collected from over the last ten years. And while I do have some random CD backups at various stages and some stuff on my laptop and some stuff on my home server, there is also a whole bunch of stuff on the home machine that I can’t recover easily.
After the initial panic, I went into DIY-mode. I tried swinging the drive from side to side and tilting it at various angles to check the sounds. It did stop chukkaing, but only momentarily, as the drive was probably trying to compensate for being thrown offtrack. I banged it a few times with my hand, which changed the rhythm of the sounds, but didn’t make them go away. I shook it quickly, but no use.
After that, I started thinking that maybe I should just screw it open and try to align the arm which probably got knocked out of its cradle or whatever it is. Luckily the star-shaped screws were avoiding quite deftly being unscrewed by my normal screwdrivers. I’ve been told afterwards that opening your drives yourselves is really not a good idea at all.
I decided it might be better to think through the rest of the experiment and not try anything rash that might jeopardize my chance at retrieval. So I went to bed feeling very frustrated at not being able to deal with the fact that my data might be lost.
The next day I browsed some data recovery sites, called some friends, asked if anyone had any experience with this sort of thing, and so on. Apparently Western Digital has a fairly cheap data recovery service of its own. Maxtor doesn’t, though. I tried to figure out a) a ballpark figure for what I should expect to pay to get my data back and b) if the price is a fixed fee or per GB. I’m sure there’s a whole bunch of data on the drive I can do without, and if charged, say, 10 euro per GB, I’m definitely not going to consider retrieving all of it. I found a lot of data recovery sites, but of course none of them really mention a price. You send your hard drive, they give you a quote, and you make a decision. By that time they already have your drive.
I couldn’t find any reliable newsgroup posts or log entries with personal experiences though. If you ever used a data recovery service, please let me know and tell me how big the drive was and how much it ended up costing you.
From browsing all these sites, it seems clear to me that if I really wanted to and I was willing to pay a price, I could recover the data from my drive. The question now becomes – how valuable do I think my data is ?
By tonight I finally reached a Zen state of mind when thinking about the drive. A lot of the stuff on there is stuff I’ve amassed over the course of ten years, and most of it is stuff I can’t delete for some reason but haven’t touched anyway. Maybe it’s good to get rid of it after all ? If man is either a hunter or a collector, I’m definitely not in the hunter camp. Then there’s a whole bunch of trees of code that is commited to various repositories online. All of my pictures I’ve taken are archived to CD, DVD, and a software RAID drive on the server. So is all my old mail and all of the university crap I still have. And then there’s lots of media which I’m sure I can either get back from somewhere or which I would only have wasted time on cleaning it up and categorizing and so on. I am pretty sure there’s stuff on it I cannot possibly recover from anywhere else. On the other hand, without being able to access the drive, I have a really hard time remembering anything important enough on there that I would shell out, say, 500 euro for.
So I’ll give it a few more days and try and decide if the data is valuable enough to attempt to recover. If it is, I’ll ship it off to a data recovery service and pay the price. If I decide it isn’t, I’ll spend some time opening the drive and trying some stuff myself, just for the experience.
So currently I’m thinking that I should take the experiment in stride, give up on the drive, and prepare for when this sort of thing will happen again, for real. The trick is to learn from this. What have I learnt ?
- While USB cradles are an amazingly good idea, make very sure the cables connecting it to your PC are nowhere near your legs when you’re sitting at your desk. Make damn sure you can’t knock off the thing by messing with the cables.
- Whenever you have a hard drive problem, TURN OFF THE MACHINE or REMOVE THE DRIVE. Put the disk in a safe place and don’t touch it for the first day while you collect your thoughts. It’s very easy to break a drive beyond repair. Resist the urge to open it.
- Spend half a day having a decent backup strategy in place. Identify the data that is important to you and needs regular backups. Schedule the necessary cron jobs. I have a software RAID on my home server which should be a pretty good backup mechanism, but I really need to start using it.
- Separate the stuff that you can easily recover from the stuff you can’t. There’s no point in burning my GNOME checkout to DVD weekly. There is a point in writing a script that does a cvs diff on all checked out dirs and writing them someplace, and mirror those diffs somewhere, so in the case of a problem I at least don’t lose my work.
- This might sound silly, but … store the output of a find / somewhere in a reliable place and do this daily. When your hard disk crashes, you’ll be happy to be able to look at a list of what is on the drive to decide if you really cannot live without the data. Do this today – you’ll thank me for it.
- I used to think that as we use computers more, our data would become more and more precious. While I do still believe this – which is why I took the trouble of setting up a RAID at home in the first place – I’ve noticed that I am worried about it way less now that it happened than I thought I would be. Sure, it sucks. But I don’t see it having such a major impact on my daily life.
- The internet is a GREAT system for backups
- Consider using older forms of data storage for precious data. Write your love letters on sheep’s skin with snake blood. Record your memoires and books and songs on tape instead of on your drive. Store them in a dry place at room temperature.