What does it take to destroy a hard disk?

As any IT manager will know, you can corrupt a hard disk just by looking at it the wrong way. So when data recovery specialists, Ontrack, challenged PC Pro to trash a hard drive, with the promise that it could rescue our files, the offer was too good to resist.

We took an already defunct Toshiba 60GB hard disk, which had made an alarming grinding noise before keeling over in a laptop six months ago, and subjected it to yet more punishment. We threw the drive across our office a few times, smacked it squarely on our desktop, and then dunked it into a boiling hot cup of sugary tea for five minutes, before patting it down and sending it off to Ontrack by post – with all the additional bumps and scrapes afforded by the Royal Mail’s ever-delicate postmen.

Confident that we’d given the disk a brutal enough battering to make data recovery all but impossible, we travelled down to Ontrack’s Surrey headquarters a few days later to find out what its engineers could salvage. Here we met a pack of fellow journalists who, frankly, made our hard disk trashing efforts look tamer than Lassie.

One of our online rivals had dropped its disks from a third floor window and submerged them in pints of lager. The masochists from the BBC, meanwhile, had run over their disk with a car, dropped it repeatedly from the top of a building, drowned it in the Blue Peter pond and then smashed it with a hammer for good measure – the kind of hard disk failure that IT support staff must come across every day.

Road to recovery

Ontrack claims it treated our beaten-up drives in exactly the same way as it would a normal customer’s. When we sent in our disks, we had to submit an accompanying form detailing exactly what had happened to the drive – which must have required several supplementary sheets for the thugs from the BBC – and the type of files we wanted to recover (i.e. documents, digital photos etc).

Once the disk arrives at Ontrack, it’s immediately bagged and labelled so that parts and data don’t go missing. The disk is then connected to a PC, from where the engineers attempt to make an exact image of the disk. ‘The best way of preserving the data is to process the hard disk onto an exact copy,’ says Robert Winter, data recovery engineering manager at Ontrack.

If that doesn’t work, the drive is sent to the company’s ‘clean room’. Here the engineers take the lid off the and examine the internals for damage to the circuit boards, write heads or disk platters themselves. ‘We try and fix it in whatever way we can,’ says Winter, who admits that it’s far from an exact science. Unsurprisingly, all of our hard disks required the mechanical equivalent of intensive care.

Amazing comeback

So what did the experts manage to recover from our vandalised drives? Incredibly, the Ontrack team managed to recover all of the files from the tea-soaked PC Pro drive, although it wasn’t easy. ‘It took several attempts to recover the data,’ Winter admitted. ‘We took out all of the platters and underneath the bottom platter there was the tea, which had almost turned into glue.’

PC Pro’s hard disk restored to full working order

One of Ontrack’s clean room engineers explained how he carefully cleaned the platters, only to discover that some of the mechanical components within the drive had also been ruined by our sugary brew. With spare parts fitted, the engineer reassembled the drive and then hooked it up to one of the lab’s PCs, from where Ontrack’s proprietary software – the Kroll Ontrack Imaging Tool (KIT) – was able to copy our data.

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