Failed hard drives

It is generally accepted in the world of information technology that there are only two types of hard drive; those that have failed and those that haven’t failed yet.

Evidently that is true but as part of my COVID-19 tidying-up, sorting-out and archiving I have dragged out my plastic box full of “failed” hard drives (some of which date back over twelve years) to see if there’s anything that I can drag off of any of them that I don’t have elsewhere. I didn’t think that there would be because I have been almost anal in my backing-up and backing-up the back-ups for many years now.

I’ve powered them up and connected them to a couple of different Macs and a PC to see what there is – if anything there. Of the old 3.5” drives only one out of nine actually mounted and was accessible but that was a bare drive that I had put into a housing as part of an experiment to see if that was actually a good way to go. It turns out that it is – or at least it would be if USB2 wasn’t so slow. I can stick that bare drive into a faster housing but there’s no useful data on it that I don’t have in at least three other places.

The next step was to get the remaining discs out of their housings very carefully to see if there was anything else that I could do. This is where the biggest surprise was. Every single one of the 3.5” spinning drives could be mounted on a Mac using a USB3 caddy and, in most cases, one of the Paragon Software applications designed to access data. I have extFS For Mac to read Linux and/or UNIX based drives and exNTFS for Mac to read NTFS or other Windows proprietary format drives and between them and the MacOS there was a degree of early success. The early conclusion was that it wasn’t the drives themselves that were failing – it was the housings, power supplies or ports built into the housings that had let me down over the years.

That was the good news. There were two bits of bad news: 

  • The first I already knew; the 2.5” drives all had components soldered onto them and so no amount of twiddling around with caddies or housings was going to sort that out and my skills with a soldering iron are sufficiently poor that I’m not going to waste my time trying to un-solder the delicate components.
  • The second is that some of the older NAS drives that I have bought use a complex combination of UNIX and ex FAT formatted partitions that the various Paragon applications can see but they cannot access them. According to the excellent support team from Paragon you absolutely need the control chip built into the NAS dive housing to actually get at the data although they did say that there were a few data recovery experts who might be able to help.

At this point it is worth noting again that there shouldn’t be any unique data on any of these drives and so there’s no need to spend money on pursuing the project but there is a lesson to be learned here. The all-singing, all-dancing home sealed and ready to use home NAS drives are potentially more trouble that they are worth if you aren’t going to keep the same data elsewhere. The two NAS units that I have had issues with are one from a firm called Buffalo and the other is a Western Digital MyCloud unit. Neither should be considered as a serious business back-up tool when (from this very limited sample) a simple desktop drive will be easier to recover if the power-supply, housing or ports fail. Obviously professional quality set-ups are a different matter but anyone thinking of buying one of these consumer units needs to know that they aren’t a good idea.

These days I have a much better set-up and the only NAS that I have is an elderly QNap which doesn’t appear to rely on a built-in controller that cannot be easily accessed. Now that I know that there’s nothing on any of the nine 3.5” and six 2.5” discs that I want and/or can cost-effectively access that particular box is going back into the storage where it came from with better labelling and a much more confident owner. I did think of just taking a hammer to them and making sure that I put all of it beyond recovery before taking the bits to a recycling centre but there’s a tiny little corner of my brain that says if we are still living under COVID-19 restrictions six months from now I may just get hold of a basic Linux PC and see if I can get YouTube to teach me about data recovery.

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