What Would You Do if Your Hard Drive Burned? My Visit to DriveSavers Data Recovery

What Would You Do if Your Hard Drive Burned? My Visit to DriveSavers Data Recovery

One of my biggest fears as a professional photographer is that someday, somehow, for some reason, I’m going to lose critical images from a shoot and make a client, and myself, very unhappy. A memory card gets corrupted, a hard drive fails, or my studio burns down. There are so many ways we can lose data — from fires and floods to normal wear and tear to just plain malpractice. But I’m happy to know that I’ve found a company that I wouldn’t hesitate to put my full faith in if the need ever arises. They’re called DriveSavers Data Recovery. They live in California.

Back in February, I visited the DriveSavers headquarters just outside of San Francisco. I first learned about them a while back when I saw they were offering free data recovery for victims of Hurricane Harvey. They wanted to show me first hand how they do business and explain why they’re one of, if not the most state-of-the-art data recovery companies in the country, if not the world, so they flew me out to see for myself. Hard drives, solid-state drives, flash media, memory cards, phones, RAID systems, media formats that never made the mainstream; you name it, they can do it — and from what I saw, they’re really, really good at it.

For over thirty years, DriveSavers has been in the business of saving people’s data when things go wrong. Today, they perform data recovery for everything from your Grandma’s saltwater-logged iPhone vacation photos to big-time Hollywood footage disasters to hospital defibrillators to government situations they couldn’t even talk to me about. They even do data recovery for the cloud; yes, cloud backup companies are regular clients. After my visit, it was obvious why they get the big calls. 

After waiting to get buzzed in the front door, one of the first things I saw was their impressive and quirky “Museum of Diskasters,” featuring signed posters and gizmos from everyone from Bruce Willis to Harrison Ford, the crew of the Simpsons, Buzz Aldrin, Will Ferrell, and more. They have ancient laptops pulled up from the bottom of the ocean that they successfully recovered data from, seemingly stone-age disks larger than my microwave (that look like they’d been microwaved) that held about as much data that a few floppy disks, things that were chewed up, spit out, buried in mud, melted to the point of no return, and a thank you note for saving numerous original episodes of The Simpsons just in the nick of time.

And here’s why.

If you look up data recovery companies on Google Maps, and check out their locations via Street View, you’ll see a wide range of options. Most of them are small offices in a strip mall, or just general “uBreak, iFix”-type computer repair places. DriveSavers is different. Their dedicated multi-level high-tech facility has a multi-million dollar clean room for hard drive recovery that’s certified to ISO 5. Dust-free, static-free. A qualified place to do surgery on your equipment. I had to don what was almost a hazmat level suit just to go inside, after they hid some of their proprietary equipment and software. When I saw that, I knew they were serious. It wasn’t GeekSquad.

One thing that impressed me the most was just how well-skilled their technicians are. Before they’re allowed to do customer work at DriveSavers, their cleanroom engineers have to have performed actuator swaps on at least 3,000 devices. That’s over 8 a day, every day, for a year. That’s a lot of training compared to someone being paid hourly in a strip mall to attempt to save your clients’ photos. DriveSavers gets a lot of calls, unsurprisingly, as a last resort from people who have spent money on other companies that failed to recover their data. This first unsuccessful attempt usually makes DriveSavers’ job even more difficult, because usually that person or company has already made the device more difficult to repair. They’ve broken something, gotten dust in something, or otherwise made the recovery process more complex. 

Because they’re trusted by so many important entities — governments, corporations, etc. — they take security extremely seriously. You don’t have to worry about sensitive information escaping their building. Their security protocols and certifications meet government standards, which is better than a small repair shop could ever manage. I chatted with their head of security, and the technical jargon he laid on me about their standards and procedures left me confident that he knew what he was talking about, even if I didn’t. Even my nametag had color-changing ink that displayed a giant “STOP” sign after a certain amount of time so that they could kick me out if I wasn’t authorized to be there anymore. They maintain positive working relationships with all of the major data storage manufacturers, and can do recovery on your device without voiding the warranty… provided you haven’t already done so yourself, I guess.

Basically, they’re trusted by their industry peers on the highest level. And that’s important.

The entire recovery process itself is incredibly complex. When they receive your device, they sort it based on urgency and, basically, cleanliness. Potentially hazardous devices — caked in mud, radioactivity, criminal forensic situations, etc. — get their own bin color. The first step after sorting is to get the device working well enough to clone it to a spare donor drive. They have an inventory of almost every hard drive and device type that has ever existed, including rare, ancient, and obsolete systems. And if they don’t have it, they’ll get it. 

The inventory room, where all kinds -- almost every kind -- of data device is stored to be used as a target recovery drive. If they don't have it, they'll get it.

If the device is in bad enough physical shape that it can’t be cloned easily, it goes to the "cleanroom" for physical repair to make it cloneable. Certified technicians do whatever they need to do -- sometimes completely disassembling the drive, putting parts into donor drives, and more — to make it work again.

Highly-organized chaos in the cleanroom.

After the raw bits of data are recovered from the device, it has to be translated into something usable — a process called “Logical Recovery.” All of the bits of binary and mumbo jumbo that come off a drive aren’t automatically translated into photos in a nice folder called “Stephen’s Portfolio,” and have to be translated into usable data. I still don’t even really get how it works, but it does. 

Flash memory is even more complicated, and has its own separate department with specialists. I watched guys used special equipment to remove memory chips from CompactFlash cards and do micro-soldering to get chips off of the very complex iPhone XS just in the few minutes I was there.

A flash chip from a CompactFlash card.

If you call DriveSavers and get a consultation, it’s free. They do a free diagnosis on all devices to see how complex the issue is and how much data they expect to recover. The best part? You only pay for the data they actually recover. If they can’t recover your data, they don’t charge you anything. It’s more expensive than a hole-in-the-wall shop when it works (it usually does), but if they’re unsuccessful, you’re not out any extra money. You only pay for what they recover. I also learned that if you’re a PPA member, you also qualify for a 20% discount on DriveSavers’ services if the Indemnification Trust doesn’t cover the recovery.  I’ve been a member for over 5 years, and had no idea that was a perk.

One thing that stood out to me during my visit was how happy all of the employees were. I’ve been in a lot of corporate environments, and I was surprised during this visit that basically everyone I saw looked, sounded, and seemed happy to be working there. They like their jobs. And that says a lot about a company’s success. And DriveSavers brings this level of desire for happiness to their customers as well. They have trained therapists on staff that talk to customers who are depressed, anxious, or downright angry about their data loss situation. This is something that I think is overlooked by most of the industry. Yes, sometimes data loss is inconvenient. But sometimes it’s a loss of memories, of history, of careers, of livelihoods. It can cause severe mental health issues, so the fact that they have taken steps to help people through these situations speaks volumes about how much they care about what they do and their understanding of how important data can be as we navigate living our lives in the 21st century.

Here are some things I learned about data during my visit so that you might be able to avoid sending in your equipment for data recovery:

  • Backup, backup, backup. If you’re not using a 3-2-1 system for backing up your images, you’re doing it wrong. Get backups offsite if you don’t have them already. Now. DriveSavers advocates for this system so that you don’t have to use their services unless you really need to.
  • Don’t fill your devices past 90% of their capacity. This makes devices a lot more likely to fail, and more difficult to recover. That includes memory cards.
  • The old tip to stick your phone (or memory card) in rice if it gets wet? Don’t do that. The dust from the rice makes it harder to recover data successfully than if you had sent the device in to them still soaking in water, since the corrosion process begins immediately after air hits the wet components.

Yes, it sounds like I’m preaching about DriveSavers. I am. I’m sure there are other competent data recovery companies out there. But I, personally, after the level of professionalism and skill that I saw during my visit, wouldn’t send my data anywhere else. If it’s important enough to pay to be recovered, it’s important that it be recovered well. 

Do you have a data loss or data recovery story to share? Post it in the comments below.

Stephen Ironside's picture

Stephen Ironside is a commercial photographer with an outdoor twist based in Fayetteville, Arkansas. While attempting to specialize in adventure and travel photography, you can usually find him in the woods, in another country, or oftentimes stuffing his face at an Indian buffet.

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In the UK I used Kroll Ontrack which do a similar service and I used to perform digital forensics (which I won't get into). However if you have a proper off-site back up routine these services should never be needed, and if you store your data in a fire proof safe then that can mitigate much of the risks. You can also buy a fire proof NAS if you're really paranoid. I use a media mix of tape and SSD for back ups. Tape is stored off-site as remote storage.

SSD/chip data recovery is far more difficult and laborious compared to ol' spinning disks. Though I've not had the 'pleasure' of doing data recovery/forensic reconstruction of an SSD.

This is about the worst-case-scenarios. And like the article mentions, even cloud backup services send drives (potentially with YOUR data) to DriveSavers for recovery. Backup, backup, backup, for sure. This is for when everything goes wrong.

"A memory card gets corrupted,"

*cough* two card slots *cough*

Sorry, couldn't help it.

Agreed. Unless you're shooting a Nikon Z series with only one slot... which is why I haven't bought one. :)

Still, things happen, and two cards can get corrupted at the same time.

End of the day, if your data wasn't backed up - it wasn't important anyway (unless there was a very rare post production/pre backup disaster event). Storage is so very cheap these days, really no excuse......

I agree, there's not much of an excuse to not have multiple backups if you're doing this professionally. But, things happen. Your house could burn down, including your backup drives, and maybe that cloud backup service you thought was working actually wasn't or hadn't finished uploading recent images yet. There's always nuance to every data loss story.

Recently, my WD external dive failed to power up. After much investigating and trail/error, I tapped in to a local data recovery PC repair shop for assistance. The repair shop is located in Kettering, OH. Their shop grabbed my interest as their website claimed to have a greater than 90% recovery rate and had been locally owned and operated for 10+ years. But after dropping off to them my hard drive, a week passed with no contact from them. I made a trip to the shop only to find that they had failed to adhere to our agreement as what was to be done to recover my data. Needless to say, I picked up my hard drive and left the store with no intention to return. Ironically, as I left, I was provided a DriveSavers brochure. As I read through the brochure and after visiting their website, and with some hesitation, I reached out to them for even more information about their company. After speaking with several representatives, all who conducted themselves extremely professional, I packaged up my hard drive and sent it to them. Within a week my data had been recovered and I was back in business. Later, I thanked my local shop since their referral offered me a 10% discount form DriveSavers!. Now you know that at least one reader appreciates the article you wrote!

Ha! Thanks for sharing that. I'm glad they were able to recover the data for you and walk you through the process -- and that the original shop hadn't messed up the drive beyond repair! Crazy that the shop gave you a DriveSavers brochure since they couldn't fix it. I know DriveSavers has a great referral program for small shops like that, so maybe that's why they did it.

the last time I described (on a music site) a simple backup procedure I and a couple of others got shouted down for being too techie. Ordinary people don't do stuff like that! Ordinary people can, in fact, very easily use available software and protect their digital lives and maybe their jobs.

Well, I am a retired techie, and, back in work days, I would have laughed at my current backup routine. It does not protect me enough for commercial data (including photography and art work) but it protects me enough as an individual. And, even as an ex-techie, I had to learn the hard way to put this regime in place --- by the loss of a week's photos. And I learnt then that data recovery was waaay out of my budget.

The frequency depends on the value of your data. Are you a professional? Or did you just photograph a once-in-a-lifetime family event? Know the value of your data! Mine is every few days, and I swap out one external disk to another location about once a week.

Two things: an off-site copy is a must, and do not keep your on-site disk connected to your computer, mains, or network, when it is not in use.

The work those data recovery guys do IS awesome, but, as they themselves say, you should not need it. Always always, backup.

PS... RAID does not count as backup. Don't ask me, ask a working up-to-date techie, but really: it doesn't.

Stephen, this is a fantastic article. You've done an incredible job articulating the value of DriveSavers to someone who needs data recovery or knows someone who does. And your photos really help demonstrate why DriveSavers is the world leader in data recovery and why even Apple Stores worldwide refer to DriveSavers.