Help me fix my hard drive.
May 22, 2011 12:01 AM   Subscribe

My LaCie brand external hard drive is in the process of failing. It's making clicking sounds, it's slowed down considerably, and I think the head is failing. It contains a film project we've worked extremely hard on, and it's important to me that we save the data.

We tried to back up the data, but we don't have the storage space to image the entire drive, so we pulled files off selectively. Part way through this process, the files started saying that they lost read/write access, so we aborted the backup and shut the hard drive off. Until I know what to do, I'm not moving it.

I'm at a loss for ideas. At this point I'm assuming we just have to bring it somewhere. We're broke college students, which is why we didn't have the space to back up the footage in the first place. What can I do?
posted by JimBennett to Technology (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have access to a fast internet connection? You could try to back it up online, to a service like Backblaze ($5 a month, and maybe after a free trial?) A local data transfer would likely be faster but if that isn't an option...
posted by bizwank at 12:11 AM on May 22, 2011

You're probably screwed.

There's the freezer trick! Stick the hd in the freezer and get an actual backup idea happening, and try to export the most valuable files.

I've had too many Lacie products die on me. My hard drive is automatically backed using the built in Time Machine stuff, which is on a mirrored RAID and I still don't feel very good about that. (RAID is not a backup solution)
posted by alex_skazat at 12:34 AM on May 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: How long do you think I can leave my hard drive in one place before it becomes an issue? Is it going to continue to fail even if I leave it off, or am I fine for a few days until I can figure something out?
posted by JimBennett at 12:51 AM on May 22, 2011

It's probably fine so long as you leave the drive off. You have almost certainly lost some data, but what that means practically for your film is hard to say. If it's a NTFS partition, sometimes you can just run chkdsk /f to fix the errors and everything's fine, but if not...

The way to do this most cheaply is probably to:
1. borrow a computer with linux installed (or to use a live CD with the right tools...)
2. buy and install a backup disk with at least 2x the space of your external drive
3. mount the LaCie drive read-only.
4. use ddrescue to create a disk image from the drive (this can take a long time)
5. mount the disk image and copy the files from there

You're still going to have issues where there were read errors, but the final copying process will go faster and not further damage the drive.
posted by beerbajay at 1:07 AM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Get a new hard drive.

Do the freezer trick and cross your fingers.

Get backblaze and pay $5/month so this never happens again.
posted by pmb at 1:40 AM on May 22, 2011

Your data is worth the cost of that second hard drive, so about 100 dollars. What beerbajay is your best bet.
posted by devnull at 1:40 AM on May 22, 2011

How long do you think I can leave my hard drive in one place before it becomes an issue? Is it going to continue to fail even if I leave it off, or am I fine for a few days until I can figure something out?

The drive is not worsening as long as you're not using it. You can safely leave your hard drive as-is as long as necessary to put together a plan. I have verified this with data recovery specialists. There is no meaningful threat of, like, entropy with it on a shelf, even in a failed/failing drive situation.

An external hard drive is, broadly speaking, two components. One is the hard drive itself, which is the same exact kind of hard drive you'd find internally in a computer. The other is the enclosure around it, including the AC power and the firewire/usb/whatever buses.

Either the drive or the enclosure can be a point of failure. The failure of either can create the problems you're describing. For example, a drive can 'click' because inside the hard drive the arm with the read head has failed and keeps unsuccessfully trying to move properly into place over the platter, or it can click because it's trying to spin up but the enclosure or AC adapter isn't giving it enough or consistent enough power. For real, I can't even count the number of apparent drive failures I've seen turn out to be enclosure/AC problems.

But there is no way to tell you which is the problem without isolating the one from the other.

If the enclosure has failed, or the AC adapter has failed -- both entirely likely with a Lacie drive; I sell and use Lacie drives with confidence, but it's been my experience that an AC adapter and/or enclosure failure is a lot more common than an internal drive failure -- then you'll need to either replace the AC adapter or extract the hard drive and purchase another enclosure to install it in (or pay someone to do this). If this is the case, you are out a little money, but you are likely to have 100% of your data intact.

If the internal drive itself has failed, your chances of full recovery are not as good. You can typically try mounting the drive and copying files off it until it fails/drops/disconnects, but the process carries some risk of further damage to the drive and further jeopardy to future recovery. I am pretty skeptical of the "freezer trick". Your highest chance of success for recovering data from a failed/failing drive is a data recovery specialist; nationally-recognized ones will typically be between five hundred and several thousand dollars for a successful recovery. Or you might have a local specialist who can make an attempt more cheaply; in Portland there's a well-equipped guy who performs a data recovery for $299.

If the data is critical enough, look into data recovery specialists first, before you even plug the drive in again. Any reputable one, big or small, will give you a free consultation on the phone, including a confident estimate for price of recovery, and won't charge you if data recovery is unsuccessful.

If you find you can't afford a specialist, start with the simplest fix and work your way up from there. Again, for a Lacie drive, the simplest thing to start with would be replacing the cabling and AC adapter (contact lacie about that -- they are typically very good about replacing adapters for free, especially within warranty, and they will also help you narrow down the problem). Failing that, try extracting the internal drive and installing it in another enclosure (shouldn't take more than a phillips screwdriver, and do be conscientious about static electricity). If the internal drive still seems to be having problems, you can look into data recovery software (Data Rescue is a recommendation) or whatever other options you want to try.

(And in the future, you'll naturally know you can't keep irreplaceable stuff in only one place. A hard drive is a moving part, and every single one dies; it's not a matter of if, just when.)

Good luck, and please let us know how it goes.
posted by churl at 2:08 AM on May 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

If you really, really need the data, I had extremely good luck with DriveSavers. They described my platters as looking like Swiss cheese, but they got almost all my data files. It cost about $1800.

(yes, I had been backing up. To a drive that died two weeks before. Now I back up to time machine and mirror with dropbox. )
posted by leahwrenn at 8:27 AM on May 22, 2011

Backups are not expensive anymore. Watch slickdeals. Tiger Direct had a 1tb hdd for $34 after rebate. Avoid the bar one night and you'll have it paid for.

A photographer friend of mine has had two hard drives fail on the shelf. Worked when she put them up there, didn't work a year later when she popped them back in the computer. They were stored properly in antistatic bags. Just because it's off doesn't mean it CAN'T fail. Freezer trick and get that shit backed up ASAP. Also, in the future I'd avoid lacie. Go with WD. It might cost you $15-20 more but over the course of 3-5 years you have it that's nothing, and much less chance of being in this predicament again.
posted by no bueno at 8:55 AM on May 22, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks guys, this eases my mind. Gotta give it a few days to think about my next move, but I appreciate all the advice. I'm really pissed about this - I've had this hard drive for less than nine months, and this is probably the worst week of the year for it to fail. Christ.

The good news is that we were able to extract a semi-complete rough cut of the film. It's not perfect, but we may be able to tweak any last problems using footage I have on my computer combined with the little bit of footage we did manage to pull off the LaCie. There's unfinished raw footage of an entirely different film from last summer that we might lose forever, but that's an acceptable loss at this stage.

As for where to go next, I'm not sure. I think I'm going to have to try and pull the data off myself, because we just can't afford a data recovery specialist - even for $300 - but I'll make sure to give them a call and get a consultation.

Thanks again, and I'll make sure to post an update when this is all figured out (though that could be a matter of weeks or months...). Any other advice is absolutely welcome, obviously.
posted by JimBennett at 10:00 AM on May 22, 2011

YMMV, but with the number of failed Western Digital external drives I see in my shop - especially the really inexpensive MyBook series - I would absolutely never buy one. The worst part is so many of their internal drives are hardware-keyed to the specific enclosure they're in; so even when you (or whoever's recovering your data) break the drive out of the glued-together plastic enclosure, you can't install the drive in a different enclosure to access your data. Your only option is to pay Western Digital to recover your data. You certainly don't have to buy Lacie, but my 2 cents is to avoid WD no matter what. Cheers!
posted by churl at 12:34 PM on May 22, 2011

Agreeing that you can isolate the problem to the hard drive itself, or its enclosure and power supply. A cheap option here is to pop the cover off a desktop PC. Typically there will be a spare power connector for a hard drive, and a spare data connector for a hard drive. If you find both of them, you can extract your dizzy hard drive from its enclosure and plug it directly into the desktop. Get the PC to recognize the new drive and you can try to read data off of it. If the drive works OK on the PC, it's likely your LaCie power supply and/or enclosure is bad. If not, then (sadly) it's the hard drive itself.
posted by exphysicist345 at 2:34 PM on May 22, 2011

Hey, I'm a little late to this thread and it seems like you've gotten some good answers already. I'm glad you got some data off. I do Mac repair for a living, and a good chunk of our business is recovering data from failing drives.

When I'm recovering data from a drive I don't trust, there are two things I'm trying to minimize: "power on" hours and seeks. Basically, the less time the drive is on, the better, and the more you can read sequentially, without asking the drive to do random seeks, the better. That means that imaging=good, and file transfers/copies = bad (even if you're reading an entire file at a time, it can be physically scattered across the disk).

bizwank: You could try to back it up online, to a service like Backblaze ($5 a month, and maybe after a free trial?) A local data transfer would likely be faster but if that isn't an option...

I wouldn't recommend this. If you're on a typical home connection, your upload speed will be in the range of 100Kbps-1Mbps, and your drive reads much, much faster than that. Most of the time that the drive is on will be spent idling, waiting on the upload. That's bad. As a point of reference, a typical consumer SATA drive nowadays has continuous read throughput in the ballpark of 55-75MB/s, which is 960 times! the throughput of a typical 512Kbit upload. That's a lot of waiting.

beerbajay: If it's a NTFS partition, sometimes you can just run chkdsk /f to fix the errors and everything's fine, but if not...

Even if it's an NTFS partition, I wouldn't use chkdsk, fsck, DiskWarrior, or any other directory repair utilities on a drive that's behaving the way yours is. You said "the files started saying that they lost read/write access": I assume that means that your drive is throwing I/O errors, which is almost always an indicator of hardware failure. Even if the directory has problems, solving those problems won't solve your hardware problems, and your data is still stuck on your drive. His advice about using dd_rescue to clone the drive is great, and that's one of the best tools you can use in your situation.

From here, imaging the drive seems like the way to go. If you only need one! more! file! off the drive and you know exactly where it is, I *might* just turn it on and try to copy that one file off, but it sounds like you need more than that. Buy another hard drive, use a utility to image from one drive to the other, and then work off the copy. And keep backups!

Good luck!
posted by aaronbeekay at 3:26 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you are absolutely determined not to pay somebody who knows what they're doing to save your irreplaceable data (personally I would): image the drive onto a second one with ddrescue, then image that onto a third drive, then run filesystem repair tools on the second drive. That way, if your filesystem repair tool screws things up you'll be able to re-image back to the second drive from the third before trying some other repair tool or a file extraction tool like ZAR, without needing to spin up the failing drive again.

If you don't currently have the storage space to do this: buy the storage space to do this. 1TB drives can be had for less than $100.

There is some possibility that you will actually be able to achieve a complete recovery, by the way. Even if a failing drive has only a few bad blocks, those can prevent normal file-level access to large amounts of perfectly readable data if they happen to occur inside a directory. Running a filesystem repair tool like CHKDSK over an image of your drive can rebuild corrupted directories and make those files accessible again.

But seriously: the only software you should allow to touch your failing drive is a block-level imaging tool like ddrescue that will make a single, sequential read pass to capture as many readable blocks as possible before it starts seeking around to retry unreadable blocks. You should not be attempting file-level access to a failing drive that contains stuff you care about.

And once you've recovered what can be recovered, contemplate the wisdom of the old industry saying that digital information doesn't really exist until there are at least two copies of it.
posted by flabdablet at 4:09 PM on May 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

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