Review – Seagate Recovery Services – When You Need to Recover Data – Part Three

In part one of this multi-part series we explored the Seagate NAS Pro 16TB NAS device as a NAS solution, and in part two we explored using a second Seagate NAS Pro as an automated offsite backup solution. And in part three of this multi-part series on storage, we dealt with every digital user's worst nightmare; a dead drive!

So, in this third part of our series on storage, we knew that it wouldn't be the real world if we didn’t discuss the fact that drives do occasionally fail. In 2005 Maxtor introduced a very cool drive for its time, the Maxtor OneTouch III Turbo Edition drive series that paired two hard drives in a single very hip looking Firewire enabled case. Unfortunately they proved to problematic and consumers quickly found out they would fail for no reason, and they quickly earned a reputation for being unreliable, earning an unenviable one-star review on Amazon. Returning from MacWorld SF 2005, we booted ours up, loaded it full of data, and it worked great, at least at first. Within a few months the drive wouldn't mount reliably, so we sent the unit back for a firmware update, which didn’t really help. So, Maxtor sent out another one, and I was able to transfer data to it, and used it to backup some other data, thinking lightning can’t strike twice, but it too started to misbehave. Finally, I had two dead drives, no way to recover the data, but I wasn’t ready to throw them out. So, they sat on our shelf for almost a decade.

When I first mentioned the drives to a Seagate engineer, I explained that I knew that many issues with the Turbo series were traced to their power supplies, and he said, well why not try swapping the supplies, and doing this I was able to get them to spin up, but they still didn’t work. Not thinking I had anything to lose I opened one of the cases, tested the drives on a OWC test dock, which showed that they spun up and had some data on them. Whew, maybe I had a shot? Well, not really, since it turned out that using ProSoft Drive Genius I could recover data, it’s wasn’t useful. Why? Well, those drives were set up as a stripe, not as a mirror, thus, any corruption rendered all the data as unreadable.

Never use a stripe for important data!

But, I kept all the parts intact, tried some recovery routines, but ultimately I had no luck, so I set it aside. The other Turbo made that ever cheerful click-of-death sound, so I felt sure that there was a head crash and damage to the drive platters, but still it bothered me, especially since there was a set of historically important images that had become corrupted, so I kept wondering if there was a possibility that they resided on one of the dead systems. As a result I didn’t attempt any additional work on it either.

Enter Seagate Recovery Services

I mentioned my experience with the two dead units to Seagate, and wondered would Seagate be willing to take a look at the drives, and they agreed. So, I connected with Seagate Recovery Services. A note about the recovery team is that they don't just tackle Seagate drives, but will attempt recovery from any manufacturer’s mechanism or SSD. I was advised to visit the website, set up a recovery case, and was sent a shipping label along with instructions.

I kind of screwed this up. The site was easy to use, but its options were limited, so I could state that I had a single drive, but there wasn’t an option for a dual-drive solution, so I put down that I had a small RAID, which drove up the cost estimate. Also, I thought I’d save them some shipping costs so instead of creating two entirely separate jobs, I ended up putting both drives in one large box, thus breaking just about every rule they had. I had two systems instead of one, I exceeded the weight limit for shipping, but I was heading out of town so thought, at least they have the drives, we can sort it out later, which we did, but not without adding some delays and confusion, but if I had followed the instructions, all would have been fine!

Wondering about the cost? Seagate offers recovery software, and recovery plans, but assuming you have a drive that needs to be sent in, Seagate states in it’s FAQ’s, that “In-Lab Data Recovery Services are needed when data is lost due to hard drive physical failure. Without a Seagate Service Plan, recovery fees start at $499 and can easily be over $2,000 based on your data loss circumstances.” And that was for a single drive, add a second drive, or a RAID, and the prices jump considerably. The normal pricing model is $799 per drive, while my quote was $1499 for each dual-drive unit, plus a $99 evaluation fee. According to Seagate they “charge an engagement fee up front but that the remainder recovery fee is only charged if the recovery is successful” which takes much of the risk out of the decision to proceed.

The first time we tried and wrote about Seagate Recovery Services several years ago, it was a very personalized experience. We sent a drive in, then was contacted by a representative, then a tech contacted me and requested some sample files. At the time I was shooting Olympus Raw Files, or .orf files, so sent them off, along with sample Word, video, and music files. This happened a few times, and the tech would ask for more files and a list of formats on the drive to aid them in recovery. This time, the website did all the asking, but with much less detail then before. Because a tech support agent didn’t contact me I couldn’t explain the issues with the drives as I knew them, although I did include a detailed note in the box. The only person I ended up talking with was to sort out the problems caused when I sent in the two drives as one case, so the representative I talked with created two unique case numbers, and resolved any remaining administrative issues, so the recovery could proceed.

When I asked Seagate why the shift in approach in customer service, they explained that in the past they would look for specific types of data, word processing, video, images, music, etc., whereas the new approach was to attempt to recover everything possible on the drive, so whatever could be would be recovered. Accordingly, there was no need to contact the customer unless a password was needed, or other information. Still, I have to admit to missing the human contact. Anyone who has important data on a drive, and is willing to spend thousands of dollars to recover it, is also probably a bit stressed out and emotional, so a human presence is reassuring and comforting. There was another important consideration on Seagate’s part not to request specific data file types, and this was because they had a flat-fee, whereas many of their competitors charged on a sliding scale depending on the type of file. Seagate reasoned that all data should be recovered, and that a flat-fee was actually a better deal for their customers.

When I wrote to Seagate about pricing, they replied, “Our single price model is meant to simplify the quoting price and provide complete transparency to the customer based on media type before they agree to submit a case. We are able to accomplish these prices based on our ability to automate the recovery process as well as our access to key technologies regarding SSD and HDDs as well as an extensive history with RAIDs. As a result we are able to offer recoveries at a fraction of the cost of competitors with no surprises. As you may know most DR companies are providing a range upfront (i.e. $900-$2900 for single HDD) only to confirm the price after an evaluation has been completed on the media. This in our experience leads to more quotes in the $2000+ range with very few in the sub- $1000 range.”

This jives with what we have seen elsewhere, where a drive is sent in, there is an evaluation fee, then there is an estimate of the job, often with a final price that differs depending on the job’s actual time to recover, so we think that Seagate’s flat-fee model makes a lot of sense, and takes some of the worry about the final cost out of the equation.

Once we had the two units I sent in split into two different cases, and all the paperwork sorted out, the recovery proceeded. A few weeks later I received an e-mail that notified me that one of the unit’s recovery was complete, and asked for confirmation of shipping address, and a week later, my old drives (minus their case), arrived along with a 500GB Seagate USB portable drive arrived with the recovered data on it. There is a short period of time while Seagate Recovery held on to the data, after which it was deleted from their servers. This allowed for time to confirm safe delivery of the data, and to confirm that the all was well with the new recovery drive.

The new data didn’t have the precise folder structure of the source drive, but this is to be expected with most recoveries. No matter, what the hard drive did have was virtually every file on the previously dead drive! One of the most historically important was an image of photographer Ray Metzker and Miriam Mednick receiving an award for the Mednick Gallery of Photography at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. They had received The Photo Review Award for their service to photography, and over time, the original JPEG files had become corrupted, with bits of other JPEGs somehow embedded in the files, rendering them unusable.

I had spent years combing through backups, CDs, DVD’s, servers looking for an uncorrupted set of files, with no luck. My hope was that one of those Maxtor drives might just have those irreplaceable files, and as I opened the box, unwrapped the bubble-wrapped Seagate USB drive, I wondered what I would discover, and after looking through the files on the drive (after backing it up to another drive) there they were, the perfect uncorrupted JPEGs of that wonderful night. Bravo!

What about the other drive? I hadn’t heard anything except that they were still working on it. I wondered as a couple of months went by. The answer was that Seagate was searching for additional components necessary to rebuild the drive and recover the data, and they didn't want to give up. So, they kept working on it. This was the unit with the click-of-death, so my assumption was that there was probably serious, probably unrecoverable damage to the platters and data, and after months of working on the drive, far more time than they would normally spend on a drive, they finally sent me an e-mail with the bad news, which was essentially a data recovery version of a Dear John letter; we are sorry, but we couldn’t recover any data, and a few days later my old drives arrived in a box. As much as I would have loved to have that data, there is only so much a technician can do, and they gave it a serious effort, far beyond the call of duty.

The decision to attempt data recovery isn’t an easy one, since it’s an expensive proposition, but sometimes it’s worth it. Of course, anytime you need to employ folks like Seagate Recovery Services, there is a voice saying “I told you to backup, I told you to backup!” and for whatever reason, either you didn’t backup, or as in my case the backups had some files that were corrupted, important data is important data, so well-worth the effort and funds. Just about every year, I’ve had students who have dropped a hard drive while its running, and lost all their work, sometimes 4 years worth of work, with nary a backup in sight. And they often don’t have the funds for data recovery. And as Apple and other manufacturers remove optical drives, they don't have a write once, read many times backup source. Encouraging good backup practices are never more important then when getting a quote on a drive recovery!

Things might be improving as more folks store files on Google, or DropBox, or other online systems, but even then almost no one stores or backups all their files online due to cost and bandwidth limitations as discussed in our previous article. Many of the drives and computers sent in for recovery to folks like Seagate Recovery Services aren’t the fault of a bit bad bits, or misbehaving mechanisms, instead they are the result of catastrophic fires, floods, building collapses, accidents, and more. And the move toward to Solid State Drives introduces an entirely new set of variables to the picture. Seagate’s own figures are that 96% of all business workstations are not regularly backed up, 140,000 hard drives fail a week, 25% of all PC users experience data loss each year, and finally that human error accounts for 29% of all data loss.

Our experience with Seagate Recovery Services has been enormously positive. They recovered almost the entire contents of a drive previously declared dead, even after forensic software recovery attempts, and they also maintained much of the original file system and directory, so finding those recovered files was easier then I thought. The service was efficient, reasonably priced, and completed quickly. While no one wants to contemplate data damage and loss, when it happens, and it does happen, it’s important to have a team that will address that damage and do all they can to recover those priceless files.

There are some takeaways here. The first is that I should have set the Maxtor OneTouch III, Turbo Edition drives as a mirror, instead of a stripe. Stripes are ok for video work where speed is paramount, or scratch drive work, but never for anything of an archival or long-term storage use. At the time I was used to setting dual-drive systems to mirror, but I left both of those to their default setting that was set as a stripe, since I was reviewing them at their default setting. I’ve steered clear of striped drives ever since, unless it’s made clear to all users that nothing that wasn't backed up elsewhere should be on them. Stripes are for speed, not longevity. The other takeaway is disappointment for how optical drives haven’t kept up, storage wise, with the needs of users.

A 16GB card for your camera is no big deal, but optical media can barely backup one of those cards, and the solutions, like Blu-ray, aren’t even supported natively on the Mac, so having a write-once, read many optical solution isn’t even practical. Especially for a 6TB drive! The other major lesson is that just because data is backed up, doesn’t mean it’s good data. Unless you open those files and confirm viability, the backup is a really lousy act of faith. And almost no one checks his or her backups! I mean no one! In my case, I had plenty of backups, but they were of corrupted versions of some files, so automated systems like Time Machine, start to overwrite earlier versions of data, but few of us are actually checking to make sure those new versions are corruption free. So, the lesson is to actually check your files once in a while! I found this out the hard way when I started to go back and update files in my Lightroom Catalog, along with keywording and exporting as DNGs. What I discovered was that a surprising number of files no longer opened, so had I not been actually testing those files, they would have stayed as unreadable. Luckily for most of them I had a backup with good versions, but it was a reminder of the fragility of data.

In the beginning we wondered if our pair of dead Maxtor Turbo III systems had any chance of recovery, and it was a gratifying experience to open that small Seagate USB portable drive to discover that yes, there were files to recover, and that all was well with the world once again. Seagate Data Recovery Services comes highly recommended, no matter the make, size, or type of drive you need help with.

Harris Fogel, with additional reporting by Nancy Burlan & Ken Kramar, Posted 5/26/2015

For more information on Seagate Recovery Services visit: