When Your Hard Drive Comes Knocking… A Cautionary Tale

Posted in: Technical Track

Imagine yourself, happily computing (or whatever it is that you do with your computer). It’s a fine, sunny day, narry a cloud in the sky, and you’re happily typing along when all of a sudden you hear a rather alien sound eminating from your hard drive. Something that sounds, perhaps, like some combination of a roofer banging in a nail, and a miner’s pick as he works on releasing a stubborn piece of ore from a cave wall.

Certainly not a good sound to hear coming from the general region of your hard drive on a nice, sunny day. Especially when you have not taken a backup in over two years

Now consider your options. You could…

  1. Turn off your computer immediately, Google “data recovery”, and call one of the multitude of companies that pops up. They will charge you in the neighborhood of $500 to get your data safely off of your damaged disk.
  2. Immediately stop working, grab an external USB drive, and transfer all of your valuable data onto the external drive. Order a new internal hard disk, and keep working, confident in the knowledge that your disk is going to die soon, but you’ve already salvaged the valuable data and a new disk is on the way.
  3. Try to get clever. Think to yourself “maybe if I run ‘chkdsk’ it will go through the bad areas of the disk, mark the sectors as unusable, and I can keep using this disk.”

Such was the scene at my desk last Friday. And you have probably already figured out where this is going. Yes, I ran ‘chkdsk’. The first three (of five) checks completed without error, and I thought everything was going to be fine. Then, during the fourth phase, after about an hour of intense clicking and banging noises, a message appeared on the screen, which I can only paraphrase at this point:

Not enough space is available on the disk to fix the bad sectors.

This was a concerning message, given that the disk was much less than half full.  But only a minute or two later my concerns were answered by another rather vague message:

Unspecified error has occurred. Aborting.

An unspecified error during a ‘chkdsk’ run is never a good thing. And so I rebooted, only to discover that my hard disk was no longer recognized by my system as a hard disk. I did what I should have done in the first place — called a couple of the friendly data recovery companies — and after listening to my story and, nicely enough, not laughing at me outright, they told me that my chances of data recovery were near zero percent. You see, when your disk is banging away like that, it’s the sound of the heads hitting the platters. And they’re not supposed to do that. When I ran ‘chkdsk’, I forced the heads to touch every surface of the platters, thereby scratching them into oblivion.

A quick trip to my neighborhood computer store, a new hard drive, and I’m more or less back in business, minus two years worth of documents, most of which I never bothered to back up. A bad way to start the weekend, but I actually can’t think of anything especially valuable or irreplacable that was lost.  This is more of an extreme annoyance.

So please, learn from my mistake, and next time you hear an odd clicking sound, don’t try to outsmart your already-broken hardware. Listen to your computer. It’s sending you a very clear (albiet perhaps Morse-coded) message. And back up your data now and again! I work hard to tell my customers about all of the great reasons they should back up their enterprise data; but like most people, I never think about applying those same behaviors to my personal machines.

As an aside, when I reinstalled Vista on the new drive I accidentally used the 32-bit rather than 64-bit media. After I realized my error I decided to stay on the 32-bit version for now and see how it performs. I was not happy with memory consumption before, and I suspect that the 32-bit version will be a bit leaner. Since I only have 2 GB of RAM in this machine, there is no great reason for me to run 64-bit anyway. I’ll post again in a while about my thoughts on 32-bit vs. 64-bit Vista once I’ve had a chance to work with it a bit more intensely.



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3 Comments. Leave new

Alex Gorbachev
May 26, 2008 9:57 pm

when you have not taken a backup in over two years
Do I hear that from a DBA? ;-)

Thanks for reminder – I shouldn’t forget to turn on my external hard-drive tonight for few minutes to refresh my backup. I guess one day I will move it to the wireless router and let Time Machine backup over network. One day…


I’ve been meaning to get an external HD with a nice USB enclosure. Of course I should first get a desktop that isn’t cold metal thanks to Ubuntu’s crappy decision to include flaky radeon drivers and my addiction to Enemy Territory. The burning metal smell is still fresh in my mind after 18 months …


Abakt sufficed as an open source solution for my personal desktop backup needs:


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