Storage

Hard disk recovery ice capades

One man's experience putting an old saw of data salvage to the test: Can freezing revive a failing drive?

One of the first things I remember reading on TechRepublic was an article with 200 tips and tricks for recovering data from failing hard disks. One of the most outlandish ideas contained in that mountain of advice was the suggestion that you can sometimes resuscitate a drive that's experiencing mechanical problems by throwing it in the freezer for a while. While working the help desk, I've never had a failing drive disposable enough that I would consider using it to test that suggestion. I've always wondered whether it really worked or not, though. Well, I should be careful what I wish for in the future.

For a couple of years, I used a Seagate 5 gigabyte Pocket USB hard drive to carry files around the office. It had enough capacity that I could carry a ton of troubleshooting tools on my service calls, and it was a lot cheaper when I got it than solid-state drives of comparable size. Well, as all mechanical hard drives eventually must, my trusty companion failed a few weeks ago. The volume wouldn't mount when I connected it to several computers, and the drive started to make a slight clicking noise when under power. After making sure that the failure wasn't a software problem with the disk, I realized that I finally had a candidate for the deep freeze.

First off, the caveats:

  • The only foolproof way to protect your data from hard drive failure is through regular backups. Make ‘em, and make ‘em often.
  • I only undertook this with a drive that contained files I could live without or that I already had backed up. If you absolutely need data recovered, don't risk your only copy. Contact a data recovery professional.

There we go. My conscience is clear.

The general consensus on the Web (as far as that goes) seems to be that freezing a drive can help by causing the metal parts in the drive contract slightly. This just might help unstick read-write heads from the drive platters, or cause physical scars to the platters or bearings to shrink just enough to return them to operating tolerances.

There's less of a consensus on how to go about the actual process of freezing your drive. How long, how cold...details like these vary based on anecdote. Some folks advise using a long cable to run your drive from the freezer once it's at temperature. So, I tried to use common sense to come up with my own process.

  • Step 1: I protected the drive. I used a freezer bag to hold the drive, and packed the hardware in a paper towel with a desiccant pack to keep moisture under control. I want the drive cold, not encased in ice. Before zipping the bag shut, I sucked out as much air as I could.
  • Step 2: I put the freezer bag with my drive in it into the freezer.
  • Step 3: I waited.

Now, if the explanation for why this should work is credible, it would seem that you'd have to cool it for quite a while. Hey, I'm not a materials physicist, but if you're hoping that metal parts will contract, then I'd say that you should keep the drive on ice for a minimum of 24 hours, maybe longer. That's what I decided to do for my first, dubiously scientific trial.

After my wait, it was the moment of truth. I pulled the pack out of my freezer, and hooked it up to my Mac at home.

And lo and behold, it worked. Sort of.

Previous efforts with Windows and Mac OS drive utilities had failed to get either operating system to mount the drive, despite the fact that the drive's USB bridge would appear in the device manager. After it was chilled, my Mac detected the drive and asked if I wanted to format the volume. The drive didn't hold out long enough to allow me to see if I could recover anything from the logical volume, though. After only a second or two, the drive started clicking again and wouldn't respond. In the couple of attempts to re-freeze the drive I've made since, the hardware wouldn't respond it all, even though it's still getting power through the interface.

So what's my verdict on the old wives' tale? It may work. I'll buy that there might be a case where a change in temperature would "unstick" a drive mechanism that's not functioning right. But giving it a good smack might be just as effective.

I haven't given up, though. This is interesting to fool around with during my downtime. For the last two weeks, I've had my drive sitting in cold storage. I'm going to see if dramatically extending the freezer time has more of an effect. Next, maybe I'll try heating it with the hair dryer. I forget what number that was in the list of 200.

Note: Due to a long-ago platform change, the original article/download is no longer available on TechRepublic's Web site, but Archive.org has a copy here.

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