Retrieving data from a fried hard drive

20090825-dead-hard-drive

sipproject2 from Mike Nesbit on Vimeo.

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  • We love our technology… until it fails us.  As fast as we progress with current hardware, we still suffer from the failures they produce.  Hard drives can be fragile components, but they are so vital due to the fact that they hold all of our data.  A lot of people fail to backup their data on a daily or weekly basis and then the worst happens: the drive dies.  In this side project, I detail my attempts at retrieving data from a fried hard drive:

One of the biggest issues with current computers is the components.  It isn’t that that they are terrible, and we do continuously improve upon them, but there are still components that can be overly sensitive such as hard drives.  They are the components that we need to trust due to the fact that they hold all of our information.  But the current state of hard drive technology, while vastly improved, still has a high fail rate.  It is true that Solid State Drives are pushing their way into the market more and more, but with prices still high compared to the storage levels, this may take a while.  So we stick with our SATA hard disk drives (and hopefully not IDE at this point) and hope that they function well.

Me, being the computer guy, knows well enough by now to always back up important information.  However, a friend of mine wasn’t so lucky when his computer essentially died.  It took some detective work, but a surge from the PSU fried a lot of the components in this computer, including the hard drive.  A lot of times we can still pull information from these drives by connecting them as a secondary device, but in this case the hard drive was not even spinning up or being noticed in BIOS.  After taking the logic board off the hard drive it was found to be fried – literally.

The above photos show how fried this board was.  Depending on the circumstances, it may be easier just to forget about it and get a new hard drive.   The problem here is that my friend had some sentimental data on this drive from previous years.  I felt compelled to take on this task of retrieving this data one way or another.  Losing sentimental data can be heartbreaking, as it has happened to be in the past, plus I just love these challenges.

At first I figured this would be an easy fix.  I thought that buying a logic board of that model and swapping it would allow for a rather quick and painless method of running it again.  But, it doesn’t exactly work that way.  After some heavy researching I realized how finicky hard drives can be.  You simply cannot buy another logic board unless it is the exact same one, literally.  It may be the same model, but it doesn’t mean it will work with it due to the fact that companies are constantly changing and revising their boards.  A hard drive model you bought three months ago could easily have updated and revised logic boards by now.  What you need is to have nearly everything to match in order to do a logic board swap, and that can be extremely tricky to find.  With Western Digital drives, this is what needs to match exactly:

-          The Model Number

-          The DCM Number

-          The Revision Number

Just match everything!

Unfortunately for my cause, I could not find a board that matched this older model.  So, I decided to research the issue even further and found an interesting, yet difficult trick.  What you can do is get a similar board (from the same model) and swap the BIOS chips.

(The Bios Chip)

As you can see, these chips are very small and this method takes some patience and skill.  Though I do tend to make things harder at times then they should be.  I had to track down a similar board which I luckily found through eBay from Malaysia.

(The New Board)

I have never really done a chip swap like this before.  I figured I’d do the soldering thing with it and see where it would take me.  I really made a mess!  But even so, I managed to unsolder and remove the bios chip on the new and old board.  You also need to remember the orientation of these chips.  If you don’t set them the right way, it could cause major problems.

(The BIOS chip removed)

Keep in mind that I was not using the best tools to pull this off, but I do put my heart in it either way.  I haven’t done a chip swap like this before so the results were a bit messy.  But even so, I did manage to unsolder and remove the BIOS chips on both boards.  Another thing to remember is the orientation of the chip.  They needed to be seeded in that same orientation or it could cause problems.

(Here was a really bad attempt at soldering it together with wires. I call it “Spidering” but it didn’t work)

After having removed the chips, it was time to do the swap, but of course it wasn’t easy.  Hours went by throughout the night as I must have looped Boston’s greatest hits CD over and over.  At 4AM I decided to call it quits for the night and get some rest.  Again, if I had the proper tools on hand then I am convinced this would have gone much smoother.   I continued working on it with great intent the next day until I finally had the chip soldered directly to the board.  It wasn’t the cleanest job, but it was connected.

(Success!)

It’s always a nervous and exciting time when you think you fixed the problem and have to test out the results.  Well, I connected this drive as a slave via PATA (it was an older drive, after all).  What I heard next was music to my ears.  The hard drive began spinning as the computer booted up and that was all I needed to hear to realize my research and hard work and paid off.  Though it wasn’t perfect as the hard drive was making clicking noises which is usually a sign that the drive (probably the cylinders) are going to crash very soon.  I quickly backed up all the data from the drive with a huge grin on my face.  It really was all worth it, just for this moment:

The hard drive did eventually die for good after 30-minutes or so.  But it was enough time to grab the data that was needed.  This was a great lesson and a lot of good experience gained.  I love having this versatility and the will to advance my knowledge in various computing areas.  This is the important thing that I always hope to take away from the work that I do.

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