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I'm "gearing up" to start a computer repair business, but hard drive data recovery is my weak point that I haven't explored much. I am preparing to give myself the ultimate "crash" course in HDD data recovery, but want to do it right, with pro equipment. I have several questions, which I've managed to pack into this post.

First, I'm aware that advanced data recovery can require very specialized resources like a clean room and precision instruments. But I've also seen firms that will do what they can for $60-100. I want to know what they know.

I'm contemplating buying an HDD docking station. I want to be able to recover both old and new drives, so I understand I need to account for both SATA and IDE drives. Any other major HDD drive types or configurations I need to keep in mind? Is a docking station connected via USB3 as capable as a connection directly to a SATA or IDE controller? Or does it preclude lower-level hardware functions like block-level analysis?

Part of my concern is older drives. Will these modern docking stations be able to address and read an IDE HDD that's 25+ years old? Do these docks rely on their own internal BIOS to address a vast range of drive types, or does the BIOS of the PC need to support the drive type? In the distant past we had to adjust the PC's BIOS settings to match the configuration (cylinders, etc.) of the drive. Will a dock auto-detect all that and just let the drive work, or is there more I will need to consider for working with old hard drives?

Besides a HDD docking station, are there any other essential hardware/software tools I will need? Soldering iron? Stethoscope? Magnifying glass?

In the past, my few attempts at software-based data recovery have produced a number of sequentially named files that seem useless. What software does the best job of restoring files to a usable form when software-based recovery is an option?

Anything else you can tell me to get me off on a good start? Tell me anything that might be useful. Helpful links are welcome as well.

closed as off-topic by Kamil Maciorowski, Ramhound, fixer1234, n8te, Scott Dec 1 '18 at 2:18

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    I have never done hard drive repair but I can say it's a challenging art. Most hard drive repair includes finding a virgin drive and replacing the disks in it with the failed drive. This typically requires a clean room and a surgeon's hand. youtube.com/watch?v=u3lPghtUucs Also, repairing hard drives is scary work because you are dealing with customer data which can be worth a decent amount of money. Not to discourage you - but I think this is something you should outsource. – BobtheMagicMoose Nov 30 '18 at 17:19
  • Hard drives are repaired only for the purposes of data recovery and in my view this should be left to the specialists. I would never trust a drive to anyone else. I would see an organization such as you are proposing as unqualified. The best way to learn professional data recovery is by working for a company doing this.You won't learn this from websites or YouTube videos. You would have only a little knowledge, just enough to be dangerous. "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing?" – LMiller7 Nov 30 '18 at 18:16
  • While I appreciate the "constructive discouragement," I still would like to learn what I can about it. There is no chance of working for a data recovery firm with no knowledge going in. Not all drive issues are of the sort that require a clean room and surgical tools. I want to learn as much as I can up to that point: Recovering data from drives with damaged PCBs, or corruptions in the MFT, and diagnosing even that which I cannot repair. – mindofsound Nov 30 '18 at 18:43
  • The cleanroom aspect here can't be understated. The level of precision required for the drive heads in a modern hard drive is easily comparable to that required to fly a Boeing 747 only a couple of centimeters off the ground at full speed. Any residue or imperfections on the disk platters, even stuff that's too small to see with a microscope, will eventually cause catastrophic problems. – Austin Hemmelgarn Nov 30 '18 at 19:47
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is currently extremely broad. The compatibility of an HDD docking station depends on the hardware purchase. Specifics were not provided in this particular question. The question also seems to be seeking software recommendations, or at the very least, a potential list of required software. Questions that seek software recommendations (or broad lists) are out of scope. It also seeks "anything else", which is too broad, to even answer. – Ramhound Nov 30 '18 at 20:21
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Proven hardware defects on any media should lead to rejecting them almost immediately, replacing them, and restoring from a recent backup. There is not much to "repair" to perform, and if one has to try that, something went very, very wrong before.

If you insist on trying to extract data from defective drives, your action should always be

  • to create a block-wise copy to a new drive ("master copy") - because it might be impossible to read blocks from the old drive but once (e.g. due to heads failing).
  • to create additional copies of the "master copy" and to apply tools to them only. That way you can go back to the "master copy" state, and give a try to a different tool. It's important that you do at absolutely no time apply any "repair software tools" to the defective drive or to the "master copy".

In the long run, you might want to educate your customers about

  • file versioning,
  • correct handling of physical media,
  • storage and operating conditions,
  • creating backups,
  • maintaining backups employing backup rotation schemes,
  • storing media in safe locations (some of them remote),
  • redundant hardware

instead.

  • Thanks for the insights, jvb. Surely, recovering data from a failing drive is not an ideal scenario. But most companies and individuals are probably NOT employing good backup practices, so data recovery is a necessary evil. Even with myself, I have a collection of crashed drives going back 25+ years that I would love to restore the data from. I always assumed it would be financially out of reach to do so until I hypothetically became a data recovery specialist myself. – mindofsound Nov 30 '18 at 17:51
  • Hi @mindofsound, I fear most companies which feel they "can't afford wasting time fiddling with backups" (true customer quote!) will probably not be able to pay you a fair price for data recovery. But you are absolutely right, there ALWAYS will be demand, you have got a valid business model. And there even are situations where creating backups is not feasible (e.g. black boxes, cockpit voice recorders)... or on-site backups have been damaged, too (e.g. due to a major fire or flooding). – jvb Nov 30 '18 at 18:27
  • Regarding your tip about making a "block-wise copy": I haven't done that before. What form does the "copy" take? Is it a giant image file that gets saved onto the diagnostic computer's hard drive? I imagine that in the case of corrupted data or MFT, copying data is significantly different than a bulk file copy through Windows Explorer. What utilities do you recommend for this part of the process, and the subsequent data recovery? – mindofsound Nov 30 '18 at 19:10
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    @mindofsound GNU ddrescue is probably one of the best tools out there for block-level data recovery. It's kind of a UNIX only thing though, which is something you'll find to be the case for a vast majority of the good data recovery tools. – Austin Hemmelgarn Nov 30 '18 at 19:48

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