The Case of the Disappearing Files

It happened to us yet again... the infamous case of files disappearing from an NTFS formatted volume on a Windows file server.
Written by Chris Clay Clay, Contributor

It happened to us yet again... the infamous case of files disappearing from an NTFS formatted volume on a Windows file server. You probably caught the fact that I said "again". Yes, we've had a history of this problem, and it seems to be only on the company file server which is running Windows Server 2003. But, even one is too many, when you are talking about valuable user data. Users reported that files were missing, and this time it was from multiple departments which means, different areas of the file server. They reported the issue at the exact same time. The first reaction from our IT team is "oh the user must have removed the folders and files". While this could very well be true, this problem has happened multiple times to multiple people, and the previous case pointed to a system problem, not a user problem.

Previously, it was reported that a user discovered that there were missing files and folders. But this time it was unique, in that there were a few missing files and folders out of a series of about 50 different folders. Either somebody was going through each of the 50 or so folders and selectively deleting files and folders, or there is a system problem. My vote? A system problem.

On the same server, permissions have been completely wiped out, including file and folder ownership. The problems start by users complaining that they get "access denied" when trying to get to files and folders that they normally access just fine. When we jump on the server and look at the files and folders in question, all permissions are erased, gone. The fix? Take ownership and set it to "Administrators", then either select the option to inherit permissions from the parent object, or re-set permissions manually and have it replace permissions on child objects. Fortunately, the permissions problem cannot be blamed on the user because they cannot change permissions. So this problem is entirely a system problem.

Unfortunately, these problems provide no clues at all for us to follow and try to get to the bottom of the underlying issue. But, I do have a problem with a filesystem that has files turning up missing, and it appears that NTFS, the main filesystem used by Windows Server, has this problem. Windows apologists can come in and claim that our file server may have hardware issues or the users are to blame. But, the current file server is not the first with the issue. This is the third file server, which is located on completely fresh hardware. And yes, two of the three file servers have had problems with disappearing permissions and files. The first one died a miserable death due to a corrupt system partition (built on NTFS) which would no longer boot.

With all of this said, this file server is very busy, and gets hit hard with use. But, even so, files should not just vanish. If so, this means that the filesystem is not stable. And this is not a good situation for user data which is the heart of any company. I've administered other busy file servers and have never seen this type of issue with servers running GNU/Linux, using the ext2, ext3, ext4 or XFS filesystems. All of which I've had excellent luck with. I think part of it is because GNU/Linux is built upon decades of stability of Unix. But in GNU/Linux, ext3, ext4 and xfs are journaling filesystems, so I would expect no data loss on those. Ext2 is not a journaling filesystem so data loss is theoretically possible. On our Windows file servers, we now have volume shadow copy services running, so we are able to recover missing files. But, now we must rely on users to notice the missing data and report it, and to me there's always the risk of losing data that goes unnoticed for an extended period of time.

I really don't know why there are so many issues with disappearing data the past few years, which I have seen with Microsoft products. I've posted about Outlook having similar problems with disappearing email, but in that case the emails were in system folders within the user mailbox and were recoverable. I've posted recently on an Outlook flaw where attachments disappeared but were still embedded in the message. These are topped off with the disappearing files problem that shows up once in a while. Overall this is not good.

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