During the summer, we here at Gillware see an uptick in hard drives that have stopped spinning. These hard drives come into our data recovery lab with shorted control boards. Thunderstorms happen a lot more frequently during the summer, and with them, lightning strikes and power surges that can fry a hard drive’s control board.
Power surges are bad news for electronics. If you run too much power through an electrical circuit, it will overload. A power surge lasting for just three nanoseconds (three one-billionths of a second) will fry a hard drive’s control board. This is a length of time so short that referring to it as “the blink of an eye” (which typically lasts about 1/3 of a second) would be an insult. However, as pioneer computer scientist Rear Admiral Grace Hopper often demonstrated, in one nanosecond alone, an electronic signal can travel about twelve inches. External hard drives are particularly vulnerable to power surges.
Lightning Strike Data Recovery
The control board is how your hard drive speaks to your computer. Power flows into your hard drive through the control board, spinning up its spindle motor and moving its read/write heads. A two-way street of data flows in and out of the drive through the control board.
The control board on a hard drive is far from the most delicate part of the drive. This is why you will find it on the outside of the chassis, instead of on the inside. There are no moving parts to worry about, no nanometer-scale tolerances to worry about. Instead, it’s the control board’s job to worry about those things in the other parts of the drive.
There was a time when fixing a hard drive with a bad control board was as easy as finding an identical model of drive and simply swapping the control boards. Because this technique used to have quite a high success rate, it continues to live on as a sort of data recovery old-wives’-tale, despite no longer having any positive effect whatsoever on data recovery efforts. Hard drives have always been complex devices. But over the past 60 years of innovation, they have become even more complex.
Nowadays, two hard disk drives, even if they roll off of the assembly line right next to each other, as almost as unique as a pair of snowflakes. Each hard drive has its own unique set of tolerances, tiny manufacturing defects, individual calibrations, and the like. All of the information regarding these unique calibrations are stored on the control board’s ROM chip. The chip is utterly, completely irreplaceable.
The rest of the control board, however, is not. To get this failed Seagate hard drive spinning again, we had to replace everything about the control board, except for the ROM chip. That is, our cleanroom data recovery engineer Kirk had to remove the client’s ROM chip, solder it onto a compatible donor board, and connect the board to the client’s drive. It should go without saying that this is a delicate electrical procedure—don’t try it at home.
Lightning Strike Data Recovery Case Study: Seagate ST1000DM003
Drive Model: Seagate Barracuda ST1000DM003
Drive Capacity: 1 TB
Operating System: Windows
Situation: Not spinning
Type of Data Recovered: Photos and documents
Binary Read: 6.4%
Gillware Data Recovery Case Rating: 10
In this data recovery case, the client noticed that their external Seagate hard drive no longer worked after a lightning storm. The client brought the drive to a local computer repair shop. The technician took a look at the drive and found that if they plugged it into a power supply, the drive would not spin up. The client brought their hard drive to Gillware for our lightning strike data recovery services.
Swapping the control board (with the original ROM chip surgically applied to it) proved successful. The hard drive spun up again, giving our engineers the opportunity to pull the data off of it. We made a forensic image of the drive, using its bitmap to identify the used portions of its platters and exclusively target them. Our engineers did not encounter a single bad sector once the control board problem had been dealt with.
After imaging the entire used area of the external drive (in this case, 6.4% of the total capacity), our engineers had recovered the vast majority of the client’s files. Our engineers tested the client’s recovered documents and photos for file corruption and found none. We relayed the results of the lightning strike data recovery case to our client, who was overjoyed to see everything we had recovered from their failed Seagate hard drive. We rated this lightning strike data recovery case a perfect 10 on our ten-point case rating scale.