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Professional data recovery: a walkthrough

If you desperately need files back, sometimes the only choice left to you is professional data recovery. We asked Kroll Ontrack's general manger APAC, Adrian Briscoe, to tell us how the whole thing works.

Craig Simms Special to CNET News
Craig was sucked into the endless vortex of tech at an early age, only to be spat back out babbling things like "phase-locked-loop crystal oscillators!". Mostly this receives a pat on the head from the listener, followed closely by a question about what laptop they should buy.
Craig Simms
5 min read

If you desperately need files back, sometimes the only choice left to you is professional data recovery. We asked Kroll Ontrack's general manger APAC, Adrian Briscoe, to tell us how the whole thing works.

Adrian Briscoe, general manager — APAC, Kroll Ontrack(Credit: Kroll Ontrack)

Take us through the stages of data recovery, and the equipment used.

The first step of data recovery is really with the client. If you suspect data loss or a serious mechanical problem with a hard drive, the first thing to do is to turn the computer or device off. Don't use the device or let "the IT-savvy friend" try to recover data. If the data is really important to you, then the highest chance of a successful recovery is with a professional data-recovery company. Kroll Ontrack's aim is to provide free consultation, evaluation and fixed priced recovery in the shortest possible time. Our ideal scenario is to complete this cycle within three to five days on a standard service.

Data recovery is a four-step process:

  1. Consultation: in the first step, over the phone, we assess the data loss to determine the best, most cost-effective solution and pricing options for the client. We discuss service-level options and review pricing options, including a fixed nominal evaluation fee and the price range for data-recovery services. Next, the client decides if they want to proceed with a pre-recovery evaluation based on the consultation.

  2. Pre-recovery evaluation: when we receive the media, we check it in and analyse the media for damage to determine the condition of the data. We use proprietary equipment and software to perform the analysis.

    a. We deliver an Ontrack Verifile diagnostic report, which allows the customer to view a listing of recoverable files online and make an informed decision before proceeding with data-recovery services. There is always a data-recovery consultant available to assist.

      b. A report can be delivered in as little as six hours, and typically within 24-48 hours, depending on the service level selected. At this stage, we can guarantee a fixed price for data-recovery services. The consultation and evaluation process enables customers to make informed decisions about data recovery.

  3. Data recovery: recovery of the data begins upon receipt of the signed service agreement, and our engineers will perform repairs and start recovering the data using over 120 proprietary tools. We use computer-forensics equipment, high-resolution optical microscopes and in-house-developed devices to read out memory chips to examine, recover and repair data. Our engineers have gone through a rigorous background check, and are continuously trained in data-storage and recovery technologies both in the US and Australia. Data recovery takes place in a secured and monitored clean room facility. Using Ontrack online, clients can track progress, status and ongoing details of your recovery service in real time through the web. Always knowing that your data is in safe hands.

  4. Support: we deliver the recovered data back to our clients on media of choice (external hard drive, CD, DVD, tape, etc) and provide simple instructions on how to access and re-install recovered data back on a working device. World-class customer service and technical-support staff remain available for assistance should this be needed.

A hard drive that's had a minor case of extreme death. (Credit: Kroll Ontrack)

Due to clean rooms, highly specialised equipment and employees, professional data recovery usually isn't in the price range of the average consumer. On the average case, how much would recovering a single 1TB hard drive cost (assuming recovery was successful)?

Kroll Ontrack invests monthly in hard drives for parts; each hard drive is different to the next, so having that large inventory of parts available aids speed of recovery. If the parts are not present in the Australian inventory, engineers will search our global database and contact other Kroll Ontrack offices that have a match.

The initial investment of the AU$99 evaluation fee informs the client of the cost for data recovery and the files can be recovered. This report is presented to the client in a web-based viewer that shows the condition of the file, along with the date stamp — they can then weigh up whether there is value in committing to a recovery, which typically starts at AU$500 upwards.

It is a common myth that professional data recovery is not in the price range of the average consumer. About 50 per cent of our customers are consumers. Thanks to economies of scale, 25 years of expertise and partnerships with major hardware vendors, Kroll Ontrack can offer fair prices for data-recovery services with very high success rates. Data recovery is unfairly deemed expensive because consumers relate the cost of the service to the purchase price of the storage device that needs to be recovered. This becomes acute when a 1TB portable hard drive can be purchased for less than AU$100.

The decision to go ahead with data recovery should be based on the value of the data that can be recovered, and although it can be stored on a AU$100 product, the value of the data can be AU$10,000 or AU$1 million. It is difficult to put a price on pictures and memories, but reproducing an important report or customer database has a high cost, and, in those cases, it is often cheaper and must faster to recover the data instead of re-creating it. In general, companies have a more rational approach to this, as they can see the cost or lost revenue resulting from not having the data. Also, reputation loss or compliance issues play a role in the assessment. Data loss can be very stressful, and we must admit we have heard the occasional, "my wife will kill me if she finds out I lost all the baby pictures".

There are a multitude of factors that affect the price of a data recovery, and often they can only be assessed in a data-recovery lab or clean-room environment. Consumers can expect to pay between AU$500 and AU$1500 for a typical data recovery. The storage capacity has only a minor effect on the price. We urge customers always to demand a low-cost evaluation that guarantees the actual data that can be recovered. Always make sure your data-recovery provider commits to recover the data that is important to you. Also, be aware that the first data-recovery attempt is the most successful. Do your research and trust your valuable data with the providers that have secured premises, a clean room, specialised and background-checked staff and a global network to source parts and expertise for your specific drive. Alternatively, look on the manufacturer's website and see what data-recovery company they recommend.

(Credit: NASA)

What would you say is the most impressive recovery that Ontrack has performed?

One of the most impressive recoveries involved a hard drive found in the debris of the Columbia space shuttle that tragically broke upon re-entry in the Earth's atmosphere. The drive travelled through the atmosphere at high speed, and ended up in a lake. The drive was in a badly damaged state, but Kroll Ontrack engineers were able to recover 99 per cent of the data and as a result of the recovery, the study about the way xenon gas flows in microgravity was published in Physical Review E.

Most important breakthroughs go unnoticed. Kroll Ontrack was the first to offer VMware recovery, cloud recovery, recovery for high-end storage solutions like Dell EqualLogic or HP EVA SANs. In addition, Kroll Ontrack's engineers keep pushing the boundaries of data recovery for Apple, flash and SSD products.