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Data recovery: The option of last resort

Robert Palmer

There is no shortage of stories here on TUAW (and elsewhere) that extol the benefits of backing up your data. Apple even makes it ridiculously easy to do so -- with Mac OS X 10.5, Time Machine, a blank drive, and some spare time, you're set.

Nevertheless, despite your best efforts, there are unforeseen circumstances where you might need to utter those dreaded words: "I need to send this for data recovery." Perhaps your airplane landed in the Hudson river, and your waterlogged laptop was stuck with your luggage. Perhaps an external disk is suffering from a manufacturing defect. Perhaps your backup disk is the disk that failed.

Unfortunately, there is no way to sugar-coat this: Data recovery is a painful, patience-trying, and absurdly expensive process. But if it's the only way to recover mission-critical data, it could be your only option.

It was for me.

I had an Iomega external drive that was given to me as a going-away present after I left the agency where I used to work. I'd worked for the previous five years on Iomega's retail packaging, so it was the company's way of saying "thank you." An additional 750GB of storage was going to be very much needed as I started my freelancing career.

I had connected the drive to my AirPort Extreme base station, so I could share its contents between my iMac and my MacBook. I moved most of my movies, music, and client project files onto the drive. And for a few months, it was a perfect solution. (Cue dramatic music.)

Doing this, however, I was unwittingly walking the high-wire without a safety net.

One day, the disk wouldn't mount. Concerned, I shut it down, unplugged it from the base station, and plugged it in via USB to my iMac. It didn't mount there, either. The alarm bells in my mind started to go off. In a blog entry for that day, I wrote: "Poopie. Poopie poopie poopie."

After letting the drive cool off for a while, I attempted to mount the disk again. No dice. Disk Utility recognized that there was a physical disk connected to the computer, but no logical partitions on the disk. Disk Utility was unable to repair the problems on the disk, so I moved to DiskWarrior. DiskWarrior said the drive directory was "too damaged" to be repaired.

I blanched. I had no backup. I had no plan. All I had was a chunk of metal and plastic that I knew had my data on it, but was too damaged for me to get to. I needed professional help. So, I investigated data recovery options.

On to Part II