Data Recovery 101: Hard Drive Failures vs. Solid-State and Flash Failures

21 October 2021 by Ontrack Team

Hard drive opened up

This is the third article in Ontrack’s Data Recovery 101 training series, a collection of blog posts designed to help identify device failures and data loss scenarios that may need professional data recovery service.

We’ve examined the proper way to assess your data loss situation at the onset and the differences between logical data loss and physical data loss. Now, we’ll discuss the different types of damage that can cause drives to fail.

Hard Drive Failure

Images of Damaged Hard Drives

Left: Liquid damage leaves moisture residue on the platter surface.

Centre: A head crash causes the 'rings' to form on the platter surface.

Right: Fingerprints left by DIY recovery efforts.

Hard drives (HDDs) may be built to last, but failure is still a possibility. Upon noticing that a drive has been physically damaged, it’s important that you contact a data recovery professional as soon as possible. We strongly caution against trying your hand at fixing the problem as performing DIY data recovery efforts on damaged HDDs could make matters much worse.

When it comes to hard drive damage, there are a few cases our data recovery engineers see more often than not. Common drive damage typically includes:

  1. Head Crash

    Head crash hard drive damage occurs when the read/write head of the hard drive physically touches the magnetic, spinning platter surface. This causes severe damage to the drive as well its data. Odd noises such as clicking or grinding are telltale signs of head crash damage.

  2. Mechanical Failure

    Hearing strange noises coming from your drive? A mechanical failure could be the culprit. This type of hard drive damage includes seized motors, broken components, stiction, and head misalignment.

  3. Liquid Damage

    When  a hard drive comes in contact with liquid, there is a possibility that moisture and/or residue can damage the platter surface. Specific specialized tools and techniques are then required to fully rectify the issue.

  4. DIY Damage

In most cases, DIY data recovery efforts tend to do more harm than good. The first recovery attempt typically gives the best results, so we highly recommend saving yourself the trouble and leaving the hard drive recovery to the experts.

  Solid-State Drive and Flash Drive Failure

There’s a misconception that solid-state drives (SSDs) are more reliable than HDDs, however, SSDs are typically used in portable devices which make them far more likely to suffer physical damage. Just think of how many times you’ve dropped your cell phone this week alone; but that’s not the only scenario that can cause harm to solid-state drives. Common SSD and flash failures typically include:

  1. Physical Damage

    Along with the aforementioned occasional drops, knocks are a top contender for top spot when it comes to damage to flash-based media such as smartphones, tablets, USB sticks and memory cards. Without the use of spare parts and the expert attention of a recovery engineer, these accidents often make data inaccessible.

  2. Electronic Failure

    While hard drives contain a plethora of moving physical parts, SSDs are comprised of complex electronic components, meaning a failure could cause the drive and its data to become inaccessible without replacement parts to aid in recovery.

  3. Medium Errors

SSD data is stored on NAND flash chips, which happen to have a high bit-error rate and  a finite lifetime. Unfortunately, built-in error correction algorithms cannot correct past a certain number of bit errors, but recovery is still possible with the use of proper techniques provided by data recovery specialists.

Truth be told, the nature of solid-state drives makes them much harder to recover from than hard drives. There’s an abundance of manufacturers who employ many different varieties of techniques and firmware, plus complex functions such as wear-levelling and block mapping are an added component used to improve performance and extend the life of NAND flash memory chips. Although, while these facts may make SSD data recovery more difficult, it’s not impossible. Proper expertise and the right tools go a long way when it comes to successfully retrieving lost data of any kind.

Up next, we’ll offer common tips to help put you in the position for a successful recovery. Reading this through a cracked screen and in need of a data recovery expert right away? Ontrack’s support team is available to guide you through an easy, straightforward data recovery process.