Almost every portable data storage device today relies on NAND flash memory to do its job. You can find NAND chips inside your SSD, your phone, your thumb drive, and your memory cards. You can even find a NAND chip augmenting some of your traditional spinning-platter hard drives. At Gillware Data Recovery, we have NAND flash device recovery experts who can assist you with your flash media-related data recovery needs, regardless of what the device is.
An “exploded view” of a 32-GB Lexar USB drive that was brought to Gillware for flash device recovery
There are quite a few different forms of data storage that don’t involve moving parts. Some of these are volatile, meaning they can only hold data when they’re powered on. Obviously, this is a bad kind of storage to use in your USB thumb drive. A jump drive would be pretty useless if all of the data you put on it vanished as soon as you unplugged it from your computer! Other solid-state storage media is non-volatile, meaning it retains data after power stops flowing through it.
NAND flash memory is a form of non-volatile RAM (random-access memory). Many kinds of RAM, such as the RAM inside a computer, are volatile. But unlike the sticks of RAM you’d find in your computer, flash memory devices hold onto their data after they has been powered off. Over the years, flash memory technology has been refined until NAND flash memory reached a point at which it could compete with traditional spinning platter hard drives as a form of data storage. And it’s been gaining ground with astonishing speed ever since.
What is NAND flash memory?
NAND isn’t actually an acronym for anything, unlike most capitalized words in the computer science world. NAND flash memory gets part of its name from the “negative-AND” logic gate in digital circuitry. The individual cells in a NAND chip function in a way that resembles a NAND gate. While NAND isn’t the only kind of solid-state memory, or even the only kind of flash memory, it can be seen in just about every solid-state data storage device today.
Before flash memory, most forms of non-volatile memory were ROM (read-only memory). There were some forms of non-volatile RAM before flash memory was invented. But they were for the most part very impractical to use. “Flash” memory (so named because erasing the data from the chips reminded the creator’s colleague of a camera flash) was developed in the 1980s as an offshoot of EEPROM (electrically erasable programmable read-only memory).
EEPROM is a form of ROM. ROM is meant to be programmed once, then never altered again. EEPROM, however, could be completely erased using an electrical current, and then re-programmed. Flash memory, unlike EEPROM, could be programmed and erased on a block level. Individual blocks in a flash memory device could be programmed, erased, and re-programmed until the cells in the device wore out. Since portions of the flash memory chip could be programmed and reprogrammed, leaving the rest of the device alone, flash memory behaved more similarly to RAM than ROM.
How NAND Flash Works
You can think of a single NAND flash memory chip as equivalent to the spinning platters inside a hard drive. Platters are covered with a thin ferromagnetic coating and divided up into tiny magnetically-charged regions. The charge of these regions denotes whether each is a “0” or a “1”. In computer science, this is the smallest possible unit of data, the bit (short for “binary digit”). A NAND chip, on the other hand, is built out of cells. Each cell is a floating-gate transistor capable of storing a charge. Traditionally, each cell could only store a single bit, but multi-level cells can store more than one bit of data. These cells are strung out into long columns and packed together in rows.
EEPROM, flash memory’s progenitor, could be programmed, completely erased, and then re-programmed again. Every program-erase cycle caused some degradation to the actual cells in the EEPROM chip. Likewise, NAND cells have a limited amount of program-erase cycles before they stop working. For modern solid-state devices, each cell should be able to withstand hundreds of thousands of program-erase cycles before failing. In modern SSDs, when this threshold is reached, the drive becomes read-only, as it can no longer be programmed or erased.
How Can I Lose Data from a Flash Memory Device?
The solid-state drive from an OCZ Trion 100 SSD flash device recovery case
Flash memory devices are more resilient than hard drives. A hard drive that falls a few feet onto a hardwood floor can be in critical condition; a flash drive that falls from the same height might be a little scuffed. Flash devices have become the portable storage medium of choice for precisely this reason. Your flash drive, SD card, and smartphone are constantly being jostled around and battered—while in use, no less. A traditional hard drive simply can’t take that kind of punishment, at least not for long.
But sometimes things just get taken too far. People get careless, mistakes get made. Flash drives or SD cards go through the wash. Your smartphone slips out of your pocket while you’re biking and hits the concrete, or gets way too close to a body of water for comfort. A power surge or faulty machinery can short out your thumb drive or solid state drive. And that’s just what can happen physically to your device. You can accidentally delete your files or reformat your partition. You can eject the device too early and corrupt your files or damage the boot sector. The cells in your device’s NAND chip can just go bad (usually at the worst possible time).
The technology behind flash memory is radically different from the technology that makes your hard drive work. But after you’ve gone above the bit level and into the realm of filesystems, things start to look about the same. Recovering data after accidentally reformatting or deleting files from a USB drive or SSD is usually somewhat hardware-agnostic. A solid state drive formatted for Windows has a partition table, superblock, and master file table just like a hard drive does, even though the underlying hardware is radically different.
Flash device recovery gets really tricky if there is something wrong with the flash device’s physical components or firmware. Flash devices have firmware just as hard drives do, although theirs works much differently. Firmware is the device’s “operating system” that acts as a mediator between the user and the storage medium. The firmware for USB drives and SD cards is simple. But SSD firmware is very complex. Solid state drives aren’t just faster than other storage media because they have NAND chips. Those chips are organized and used in a way that optimizes and speeds up their performance. There’s a lot of complex firmware regulating an SSD’s lightning-fast, Barry Allen-esque speed.
Many models of solid-state drives today are automatically encrypted on the hardware level. The encryption key is stored in the drive’s controller chip. If the controller cannot be resuscitated or the encryption key has been otherwise lost, recovering data from the SSD’s NAND chips is extremely difficult at best, and impossible without assistance from the original manufacturers. Gillware is at the forefront of researching data recovery methods from SSDs and working directly with SSD manufacturers to improve our abilities to recover from these SSDs.
NAND Chip Removal and Recovery
A flash memory storage device with two NAND chips that had to be removed for flash device recovery purposes
When a flash device has died, often the only way to access the data on it is to remove its NAND chip. Unlike a hard drive’s platters, NAND chips can be read outside of the device they belong to. All you need is a tool to desolder the chip from the board and a chip reader. But there’s a catch.
The data stored in your typical NAND chip is a jumbled mix of user data and system data. The controller chip takes the data coming to and from the NAND chip and makes sense of it. Without it, everything you read from your flash drive would be incomprehensible to you. And that’s what you get when you look at the raw data from your flash device’s NAND chip. At Gillware, we have skilled computer scientists who can reverse-engineer the controller’s job using custom emulation software. Our scientists can make sense of all that information and reassemble it into its proper form.
Monolithic Flash Device File Recovery
Sometimes, though, the NAND chip isn’t easy to get at. Some kinds of USB drives, SD cards, and microSD cards are built as “monolithic flash devices”. While many flash memory devices keep their components relatively out in the open once you get past the case, monoliths hold their cards close to their chests. The NAND chip, controller chip, and the actual interface that connects your device to other devices is soldered into a single seemingly-impenetrable package. Our flash device data recovery engineers know how to access the NAND chips of even these monolithic flash devices. A hidden ball grid array offers a backdoor into these chips, but only for those who are as clever and resourceful as our flash device data recovery experts.
Why Choose Gillware for My Flash Device Recovery Needs?
Flash media comes in all shapes and sizes. Our experts can perform NAND flash device recovery procedures regardless of the form factor.
If you need data recovered from a USB flash drive, SD or microSD memory card, smartphone, tablet, or solid state drive, our technicians here at Gillware are your best bet. Our flash device recovery experts have experience with thousands of flash devices. Gillware works hard to stay on top of all of the latest advancements in flash memory and solid-state technology.
We offer our flash device recovery services free of any upfront charges. There are no evaluation fees for flash device data recovery, regardless of the device. For clients in the continental United States, we cover the cost inbound shipping as well. Talk to one of our flash device recovery client advisers today to get a free estimate and prepaid UPS shipping label.
At Gillware, no matter what work goes into your case, we only charge you for our services if we meet your recovery goals at an acceptable price to you. If we finish our free evaluation and present you with a price quote that is too high, you are free to back out without having to pay us a dime. We don’t charge you anything until we’ve finished our flash device recovery work—and only if we’re successful at recovering your critical data.
Ready to Have Gillware Assist You with Your Flash Device Recovery Needs?
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Gillware employs a full time staff of electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, computer scientists and software developers to handle the most complex data recovery situations and data solutions
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