Drive failure? Yagotta try Knoppix first

Summary:There's nothing like spending the day indoors during New England's first hot sunny Saturday in 2006.  But indoors is where I spent it trying to get some valuable data off what, for all intents and purposes, is a failed hard drive.

There's nothing like spending the day indoors during New England's first hot sunny Saturday in 2006.  But indoors is where I spent it trying to get some valuable data off what, for all intents and purposes, is a failed hard drive.  Corrupted sectors from what I can tell at this point.  It's a 2.5 inch Hitachi drive that came in my Thinkpad T42 -- a system that just came back after having a its completely failed LCD repaired.  There's nothing like getting your system back from the repair shop only to have to send it back.

Among the nearly 100 comments I've gotten so far, many ZDNet readers offered sage words of advice.  But there was criticism too.  Apparently, a power user like me should have known better than to not have my hard drive backed up.  But the truth is that I did have a pretty recent back up. It was just some files that I had created in the last couple of weeks -- notes from recent interviews with Microsoft and Google that I took in notepad.exe, some photos of the Moto Q that I edited with Photoshop (the copy of which is on the bad hard drive so, it wasn't as simple as retaking the photo since I had no photo editor on my other computers), and a couple audio files associated with my pending podcasts of AMD and Navio executives talking about their companies.  I guess I could let those files go.  But what if I could get them back?

A ZDNet reader that goes by the name of Yagotta B. Kidding wasn't kidding when he mentioned that Knoppix (a distro of Linux) was his preferred way for dealing with such nightmares.  Knoppix? At first, it sounded a little too "ixish" to me.  I run Linux here in my lab for Web, database, file, and print serving,  but I'm by no means proficient when it comes to working with hard drives.  But as the day wore on and things got worse and I grew more desperate, Yagotta convinced me to spare the few spins of the hard drive that may have been left and, via email, he sent me the link to download a bootable CD image of Knoppix.  The idea is to plug a big honkin' USB drive into one of the USB ports (got one... a 150 gigger), then to boot the notebook from the Knoppix CD, mount the hard drive, mount the USB-based drive, and copy files from one to the other.  My hard drive was definitely down.  But maybe it wasn't out. If the system files are the ones that are corrupted and the machine can't run off its own hard drive but could run otherwise, maybe it can run off the Knoppix CD and treat the hard drive as a slave.

So, I downloaded the ISO file and burned a CD using the 24x burner that came in the AMD Turion-based Acer Ferrari that I have here, popped the CD into the Thinkpad, powered up and voila.  Not only was I was quite shocked at how well Knoppix recognized the Thinkpad's hardware (wireless networking, display, Trackpoint, etc.), I was shocked when it effortlessly opened up the Thinkpad's hard drive.  Now I know why those all those stolen or lost notebooks are such a problem.  Originally, I thought that password protecting those systems offered at least some degree of security -- especially since they are using the the supposedly-more-secure-than-FAT NTFS filesystem.  But there they were.  All my files. Security? What security. for Knoppix, reading a supposedly secure an NTFS filesystem was like cutting soft butter with a steak knife.  Writing to an NTFS-based drive, on the other hand (as I learned), is a slightly different story. 

There I was, all queued up and ready to go.  I had opened Knoppix windows to the Thinkpad's hard drive and the 150 GB USB drive.  All I had to do now was drag one folder (my XP user folder) to the USB hard drive and I was done.  Right? Well, not quite.  As the CD off of which Knoppix was running whirred to life, the first message I got was that I couldn't copy files to a write-protected destination.  Write-protected? My USB drive? I never heard of such a thing.  To be sure, I unplugged the USB cable from the Thinkpad, plugged it into the Acer Ferrari, opened it up and tried copying something to it.  No problem. As far as XP was concerned, write-protection was not an issue with the USB drive.  So, I plugged the USB drive back into the Thinkpad and tried again. Boom. Same error message. 

To make a long story short, when Knoppix (at least my CD-bootable image of Knoppix) mounts hard drives, it mounts them as read-only by default and you have to switch their read/write mode before you can copy anything to them.  To do this, you right click on the icon for the drive whose mode needs to be switched, select "ACTIONS" from the menu that pops up, and then picked "Change read/write mode."   

This is the point where I started to vent at Microsoft.  It felt so good to know that I was just a click away from getting my data back. But the wind was taken out of my sails when another message came up telling me that the USB drive was formatted for NTFS and that if I attempted to copy anything to it with Knoppix, not only might it not work, I could corrupt the drive.  This is also the same USB drive that has my most recent backup.  This was bad news.  With one drive on the blink, I couldn't risk corrupting my only backup. Knoppix's error message provided one other clue.  It suggested using an NTFS driver called "captive-ntfs" and it said the driver was accessible via the utilities menu.  Why was I venting at Microsoft? Apparently, NTFS isn't exactly an open file system. In other words, Linux developers have had a bear of a time writing a reliable NTFS driver that allows Linux to write to NTFS. Reading from NTFS has been no problem. But writing to it is apparently a different story.  So, a quick note to Bill Gates before he departs Microsoft: how about opening up NTFS? I'm sure Microsoft has what  it thinks are perfectly legitimate reasons for not opening it up.  But, at the end of the day, if it causes customers who want to use your software to have these sorts of problems, then you can see why they might decide not to use your software. 

At this point, I'm wondering if, in the future, I'm better off setting up non-Microsoft partitions on my computers' hard drives, storing all my user data there, and just pointing Windows at that user directory instead of the one that XP prefers to use. Windows can work pretty well with most non-Windows filesystems.   I'm just not sure if it's possible to point to a non-NTFS volume for all user data that Windows keeps (not just my data files, but other stuff stored in the user directories like cookies, caches, etc).  But I can see how, if it was, it might have been one headache avoided.  

I'm not going to bother going into the details of why captive-ntfs may increase the odds of successful writes to an NTFS volume. First, I don't know the answer. Second, it was irrelevant in my case.  As it turns out, even though the error dialog said I could access the captive-ntfs driver from Knoppix's menus, it was nowhere to be found.  Googling "captive-ntfs" turned up several hits of people reporting the same problem along with other hits indicating that captive-ntfs didn't always work.  I'm not sure what it would've taken to get captive-ntfs working.  Maybe another download.  Perhaps of a captive-ntfs binary or, of completely different version of Knoppix (the one I downloaded was 4.something).  I wasn't going to spend the rest of my Saturday figuring it out.  It was time for Plan B.

After thinking about it a bit, I realized that I could take the good backup that was already on the USB drive and copy it to the Ferrari system.  Then, I could wipe out the USB drive and repartition it to be a FAT32 drive instead of NTFS.  Knoppix apparently has no problems working with partitions based on the old FAT32 technology. Even better? I happened to have a copy of Symantec's Norton Partition Magic on the Ferrari. Serendipity at last! The gods may have been smiling upon me after all.  So, first, I plugged the USB drive into the Ferrari system and copied the 16 GB worth of backup data to the hard drive in the Ferrari. Then, as an extra precaution, before wiping the USB drive clean, I made another back up of the data I just copied to the Ferrari by burning it in five chunks to five 4.7 GB DVD+R DVDs (the Ferrari's CD drive is also a DVD burner).  Next, using Partition Magic, I deleted the old partition on the USB drive, repartitioned it as a FAT32 volume, and formatted it. Would plan B work? I'd know soon enough.

I moved the USB drive's cable from the Ferrari to the Thinkpad, single-left-clicked the icon for the USB drive on the Knoppix desktop (a gesture that simultaneously mounts the drive and opens a window to it).  And there it was, 150 GBs of wide-open FAT32 drivespace.  Then, I right-clicked on the USB drive's icon, went to the ACTIONS menu and switched its read/write status.  This time, there were no funky filesystem errors.  It just worked.  For good measure, I right clicked on the USB drive's icon again, picked the Properties option from the resulting menu, reset anything that looked as though it might remotely stand in the way of writing to the drive (there are a few settings here worth looking at).  Then, as a small test, I dragged a small data folder from the Thinkpad's hard drive to the USB drive.  It worked.  Goosebumps.

But, before attempting the big copy (instead of individually dragging files and folders, I was just going to drag my top level user folder over), I thought of deleting a bunch of large files (particularly a lot of old audio files that were used to produce my podcasts) in order to reduce the amount of stress that I'd be putting on the crippled drive. But, I forgot that deleting files involves writing some bits of data as well.  So, why would that be a problem? Because of the two drives connected to my system where Knoppix might want to write "delete information" to -- the CD from which Knoppix was running, and the hard drive that contained the data I wanted to delete -- Knoppix could not write to either. The CD is read-only and the hard drive is an NTFS partition (the kind that Knoppix doesn't exactly agree with when it comes to writing).  Perhaps there was a way to delete those files. I wasn't going to spend one minute longer trying to figure it out.  My choices were to copy my entire user folder, or, spend hours selecting and deselecting files before copying them.  Hours I didn't have. I decided to go for the whole kitchen sink.

By the end of the day, close to 15.5 GB finished transferring to the USB drive. The copying stopped on some obviously corrupted files. I'll live. None of them were mission critical and most of them were ones I had backed up already. All things considered, it wasn't a bad Saturday.  Thanks to Knoppix.  Oh, and the Thinkpad? Just for kicks, I tried booting it to Windows XP's safe mode (with networking) again and for some reason, it not only worked, LSASS didn't crash it.  Not sure why.  Maybe all that copying re-aligned something.  So, as long as it was running, I decided to let Windows scan the drive and correct any errors it found.  It took close a day before it was done.  But, now that it's finished, Windows is running perfectly and there isn't so much as a grind, bop, or peep coming out of the hard drive. Risky business? Probably.  But, if I bring a perfectly working system in for repair, what do I tell the repair guy? (I'm glad I have a photo).

Topics: Hardware

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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