How to rescue your data, 3/3

Last time we have seen how to rescue your FAT. In this article we’ll see a third, and last, way of losing data.

Physically crash a hard disk

Hard disk are made of mechanical pieces, so they are subject to ageing. The S.M.A.R.T. technology, shipped in hard disk for years, can monitor a bunch of indicators helping you foresee your hard disk’s end of life. Under GNU/Linux, smartd is widely used.

As all the indicators, if they are not seen by a human, they are useless. You have here a perfect way to physically crash a hard disk : wait, and don’t look at indicators.

But facts are stubborn : a dying hard disk complains a lot in syslogs :

Jun 28 08:17:09 rhynn kernel: ata5.00: exception Emask 0x0 SAct 0x0 SErr 0x0 action 0x0
Jun 28 08:17:09 rhynn kernel: ata5.00: BMDMA2 stat 0x686c0009
Jun 28 08:17:09 rhynn kernel: ata5.00: failed command: READ DMA EXT
Jun 28 08:17:09 rhynn kernel: ata5.00: cmd 25/00:01:32:03:4a/00:00:12:00:00/e0 tag 0 dma 512 in
Jun 28 08:17:09 rhynn kernel: res 51/40:00:32:03:4a/00:00:12:00:00/e0 Emask 0x9 (media error)
Jun 28 08:17:09 rhynn kernel: ata5.00: status: { DRDY ERR }
Jun 28 08:17:09 rhynn kernel: ata5.00: error: { UNC }
Jun 28 08:17:09 rhynn kernel: ata5.00: configured for UDMA/100
Jun 28 08:17:09 rhynn kernel: ata5: EH complete

You can ignore them too if you want to go into troubles.

More of that, a dying hard disk can completely freeze your computer. At this point, you can still ignore your hard disk, but you are really looking for waste of time and data.

That what I’ve done : ignoring, ignoring, ignoring. And badblocks confirm me that they were bad blocks on my disk. Good news : letting this hard disk die made me write this article :)

Once you are fed up with weird messages in syslogs and computer freezing, you can

Rescue your disk

First step : buy a brand new one.

Not-so-good-news : you’ll be able to save your data, but

  • It depends on the state of your hard disk (old, dying, dead)
  • It can take a lot of time (from minutes to days, or weeks)
  • You will certainly loose some files

But you played with fire, don’t complain :)

Now, let me introduce a friend I hope you’ll not need too often : ddrescue.

ddrecue is like dd (it copies data from a file or block device to an other) but « try hard to rescue data in case of read errors ». Please note : two ddrescue are existing : dd_rescue and ddrescue. I used the latter, the package on Debian/Ubuntu is gddrescue.

The documentation of ddrescue is pretty well done, you should read it. In a few words, ddrescue can :

  • rescue data from a sick hard disk to a good one
  • or from 2 sick hard disk (in RAID1, for example)
  • or from a hard disk to an other, and if the other fail, from this other to a third.

Here, you « just » crashed a disk, so you « just » need ddrescue in its common need : rescuing a partition (or a disk)

Make a big partition in your brand new disk. The size must be equal or (a bit) greater than the size of your sick partition. It will contain the (hopefully) rescued data of your sick partition.

The ‘logfile’ mentioned is a file containing informations for ddrescue to know what job has been done by him, thus allowing you to interrupt it and restart it later without redoing everything.

First, copy everything that can be copied without retrying bad sectors. Look twice to the source and destination partition before hitting enter !

[[email protected]]# ddrescue -n /dev/sdb1 /dev/sdc1 /root/logfile.sdb1
Press Ctrl-C to interrupt
Initial status (read from logfile)
rescued:         0 B,  errsize:       0 B,  errors:       0
Current status
rescued:    98671 kB,  errsize:       0 B,  current rate:   72483 kB/s
ipos:    98632 kB,   errors:       0,    average rate:   72483 kB/s
opos:    98632 kB,     time from last successful read:       0 s

Then, retry but this time try to rescue. This step can be very long. I stopped after 2 weeks : my guess was that bad sectors contains no more data.

[[email protected]]# ddrescue -d -r3 /dev/sdb1 /dev/sdc1 /root/logfile.sdb1
Press Ctrl-C to interrupt
Initial status (read from logfile)
rescued: 148571 MB, errsize: 2065 kB, errors: 3774
Current status
rescued: 148571 MB, errsize: 2065 kB, current rate: 0 B/s
ipos: 54681 MB, errors: 3774, average rate: 0 B/s
opos: 54681 MB, time from last successful read: 43 s
Retrying bad sectors... Retry 1

Checking the filesystem ensure that your data are coherent :

[[email protected]]# e2fsck -v -f /dev/sdc1

Finally, mount your rescued partition read only :

[[email protected]]# mount -t ext2 -o ro /dev/sdc1 /mnt/sdc

And copy your data to a safe place.


When a hard disk is ready to die, it complains. You’d better not ignore those complains… If you do so, you are done for wasting time and data, and using ddrescue.

Well, well, as a big conclusion to these three articles : in trying to save a hard disk killed by my laziness, I used different methods to rescue data :

  • To rescue partition table : testdisk
  • To blindly rescue files (either deleted or held in a deleted partition) : photorec
  • To rescue a file allocation table destroyed by pvcreate : dd, mkfs.*
  • To rescue a dying hard disk : ddrescue

You should not use those program too often :) But when you are in trouble, it worth remembering they are existing. You should practice them to know how they react, in order to not make more mistakes when something goes wrong.

Tracklist of those articles :

« How to save a life » by The Fray

5 commentaires sur “How to rescue your data, 3/3”

  • Please also note that Spinrite, a Steve's Gibson tool, may be useful to recover your data if valuable. It may recover many data by accessing directly to hard drive (on very low level) and try many different approach to read files. It get me data that ddrescue didn't recover. See Grégory
  • Thanks for the link, I'll check this out!
  • an other small trick if your hard disk is dead. But it in the fridge (with the ice)! Sound silly but when it is very cold it could work for a while. So when you take it out and plug it again to the PC you could be able to use it for a while (until it reaches again room temperature) PS: - I do not remember which physics law is involved - Of course, the hard disk must be kept in a dry place. not in direct contact with ice ;-)
  • I also read somewhere that putting your HD in the freezer could help. I forgot that tips, so thank you for mentionning it :)
  • If the issue is loss of lubricant viscosity, or a heat related alignment problem then yes the old fridge trick still works but you MUST be exceedingly careful about moisture/condensation. Remember too that as storage capacity becomes more dense it is also more vulnerable to failure. At some point in the future the 3.5" form factor must die. I'm not sure what will replace it, though. SSD's are great for speed but they lack long term durability.
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