Recovering the data stored on a failed hard disk drive (HDD) has always been hard…really hard. The nano-scale tolerances and cutting-edge technology that make the ultra-high capacity drives being sold today possible are not making the recovery task any easier.
However, as much as hard drive technology has changed over the last half a century, the data is still stored in a magnetic format on circular disks commonly referred to as platters. From a recovery standpoint, as long as the platters are healthy, the data can likely be recovered.
The short answer is maybe. I know, not exactly a definitive answer. In all honesty, it really depends on the amount and location of the damage, and the capabilities of the lab performing the recovery work. In some instances, the damage to the platters is so severe or located in very critical areas that data recovery is impossible.
However, with the right expertise and cleaning equipment, many data recovery cases involving platter damage still result in a significant amount of the user’s data being recovered.
Whether or not data can be recovered from a failed HDD is largely dependent on the health of the storage media, or platters. The platters, after all, are the components inside the HDD that store the binary data that comprises the user’s documents, photos, spreadsheets and more.
Unfortunately, with the ever-increasing capacity and decreasing tolerances of modern HDDs, incidences of platter damage (the delicate magnetic coating is scratched or scored) are on the rise. This is a troubling trend and one that represents huge challenges for the data recovery industry.
Damage to the HDD platters presents two distinct challenges to data recovery labs.
One of these challenges is the destruction of the data that lives in the regions of the disk that are physically scratched or damaged. Unfortunately, nothing can be done to remedy this. The data in those areas has been scratched from the platter surface and is not recoverable.
But what about all the areas of the platter(s) that are not physically damaged? Surely something can be done to recover the data in the areas of the platter that have not been relegated to a life as a pesky dust particle.
The short answer is yes, but doing so means we need to overcome the second challenge that data recovery labs face when attempting to recover data from an HDD with platter damage: dust. Not dust like you find on those annoying blinds you keep forgetting to wipe down during your spring cleaning kick, but rather the ultra-hard microscopic particulates generated inside the HDD when the read/write heads contact the platter surface. These particulates embed themselves in the platter surface and can damage otherwise healthy read/write heads.
Removing or smoothing these particulates and cleaning the platters is an essential first step when attempting to recover data from an HDD with damaged platters.
Contrary to what a couple of popular threads on the all-knowing Internet claim, cleaning HDD platters is not as simple as picking up a rag soaked in some isopropyl alcohol and giving the platter a good ol’ spit shine. In fact, this "cleaning" technique leaves an undesirable residue behind that will further damage the platter during the recovery process.
HDDs are highly precise electromechanical devices. Manual caveman techniques for cleaning not only don’t help the recovery effort, they actually cause additional damage that can make recovery by professional labs difficult or even impossible.
Instead, Gillware's data recovery lab uses a sophisticated cleaning and burnishing process to remove unwanted particulates from the platter surface. Gillware engineers modeled our burnishing setup after a similar process used during the HDD assembly process at the factories of hard disk drive manufacturers like Western Digital and Seagate.
You might be thinking to yourself, “Why do the HDD manufacturers need to clean the platter surfaces during production?” The answer is that although HDD platters are manufactured using state-of-the-art techniques and are assembled in dust-free environments, imperfections are always possible. As a result, HDD platters are cleaned and burnished prior to being placed into the HDD chassis.
Gillware uses the same cleaning equipment employed by HDD manufacturers, specially retrofitted for life as a data recovery tool, to burnish the platter surface(s) and prepare it for recovery operations.
In the world of mechanics, burnishing is a natural process that occurs when two surfaces slide against one another, effectively polishing or smoothing each surface. In most circumstance, this is called "component wear" and is generally an undesirable phenomenon. However, in the world of data recovery, when dealing with platters with very hard embedded particulates that are in need of a good cleaning, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered.
The first step in the burnishing process is to remove the platters from the HDD chassis for cleaning. The platters are then mounted, one at a time, on a custom fixture that spins the platter at 10,000-15,000 RPM. That's around twice the normal speed consumer-grade hard disk platters spin at.
As the platter is spinning, a robotic arm with a special burnishing head attached is swiped over the platter surface. Think of the burnishing head as a very precise and expensive razor blade. As the burnishing head traverses the surface of the platter, it picks up or shears off the microscopic embedded debris left behind when the head stack crashed and the platter surface was damaged, cleaning the platters. Left after the burnishing and cleaning process is an ultra-smooth polished platter surface.
Depending on the severity of the damage, the burnishing and cleaning process can take anywhere from a couple minutes to many hours to perform. After cleaning all the surfaces, the platters are remounted in the drive chassis and new read/write heads are installed and calibrated. Then, finally, the drive is ready to move forward with the data recovery process.
Want to learn more about what our hard disk drive platter burnisher looks like in action? Find out in the video below: