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The Best Hard Drive Recovery Services of 2021

By
Erik Sherman
,
business.com Contributing Writer
| Updated
Feb 01, 2021

This buyer's guide includes how to choose a hard drive recovery service, as well as reviews of the best hard drive recovery services of 2021.
Best for Small Businesses
40+ years in business
Remote restoration service option
Competitive pricing
Best for Complex Devices and Systems
Keeps copies of data for 2 weeks
Works offline for better security
Uses ISO 5 Class 100 labs
Best for Flexibility
Recovery of lost or deleted files
Class 100 cleanrooms
24/7 customer support
Best for Low Cost
Digital transfer up to 40GB
No charge for no recovery
HIPAA certification
Best for RAID Recovery
Can fix multiple data failures
Digital forensic examinations
Repairs in Class 10 cleanroom
This buyer's guide includes how to choose a hard drive recovery service, as well as reviews of the best hard drive recovery services of 2021.
After dozens of hours of research and evaluating 20 companies, these are the hard drive recovery services we think are best for various business needs.
How We Decided
Our team spends weeks evaluating dozens of business solutions to identify the best options. To stay current, our research is regularly updated.
25
Considered
10
Researched
5
Selected

Compare Our Best Picks

  ACE Data Recovery DataTech Labs Datarecovery.com Disk Doctors Secure Data Recovery
Clean rooms ISO 5/Class 100 ISO 5/Class 100 ISO 4/Class 10 ISO 5/Class 100 ISO 4/Class 10
Locations Dallas, Houston, Chicago Boston, Dallas, Denver California, Illinois, Arizona, Toronto Georgia, Maryland, Toronto

Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, Cleveland

HIPAA certified No Yes Yes Yes Yes

Our Reviews

Ace Data Recovery: Best for Small Businesses

ACE Data Recovery has four decades of experience.
Costs vary depending on the device and data, but pricing is competitive, at $320 to $1,900.
ACE Data Recovery does not have a HIPAA certification for handling medical data.

Founded in 1981, ACE Data Recovery is the oldest of our data recovery service best picks. The company is unusual in that it bills by the hour; the current rate is $159 per hour. For a typical 1TB drive with problems, that translates to about $320 to $1,900. The exact cost will depend on the specifics of the device, data and client's needs.

ACE has offices with ISO 5 Class 100 labs in Dallas, Houston and Chicago. That means all of the locations are on Central time, rather than more widely spread to cover customers in different geographic regions. There are additional drop-off locations listed on the site, but as with other services that offer this, those locations are affiliates that receive the device and then send it on to the labs. One customer review on ACE's site said that the chain of custody could be improved and that the drop-off point provided no receipt or anything else to indicate acceptance of the drive or the person who had it.

ACE says it can recover data from hard drives, solid-state drives (SSDs), storage cards used with cameras and other mobile devices, laptops, desktops, servers, DVDs, CDs, tape drives and RAID arrays. ACE provides free shipping labels for customers to send devices, although RAID arrays, as with all service providers, can require more complex arrangements. Once ACE has the device, the company produces an estimate depending on the problems and condition of the drive. Rush service is available at an additional cost.

ACE doesn't work on-site at all. However, if the hardware is still in good shape and the problem is logical, ACE can attempt remote recovery. As an indication of advanced expertise, the company also says it manufactures data recovery equipment.

ACE's site says the company has certifications from Western Digital, Dell, HP and Addonics. There was no information about security audits. It does not have a HIPAA certification, which means it might be best to take storage with medical information elsewhere. A lack of a HIPAA certification doesn't indicate that a recovery firm lacks the necessary security considerations. However, it does mean that there may not be awareness of specifics that healthcare regulations require.

ACE says it performs data recovery from Windows, macOS, Linux, DOS, some versions of Unix, VMware, Novell networks and others.

Small amounts of recovered data can be delivered digitally, but for more than a few gigabytes, ACE places the recovered data onto a new device and ships that device back with the original one. (The original device is included for security, but it cannot safely be used again.) The recovered data remains on ACE's servers for five business days after receipt of the new drive, after which it's automatically "zeroed out" and wiped from the server.

ACE Data Recovery has an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau (BBB), although is not accredited. BBB showed no complaints in the past three years. ACE claims that it's done work for the U.S. military and the IRS, but the company does not appear on the current General Services Administration eLibrary contractor list.

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DataTech Labs: Best for Complex Devices and Systems

DataTech Labs services a wide range of devices and systems.
The prices are competitive, ranging from $200 to $2,000.
Client data is deleted from DataTech Labs' servers but not wiped, meaning your data is hidden but still technically recoverable and, therefore, less secure.

DataTech has ISO 5 Class 100 labs in Boston, Dallas and Denver, so it covers the Eastern, Central and Mountain time zones. As with some other services, DataTech claims a national collection of offices that are really drop-off points managed by affiliates, and not all of them seem to bring up an actual location on the company's own map. Sending a drive directly to the company is ultimately what occurs anyway, with or without an intermediary, and may provide greater security and traceability. If you do decide to use a drop-off affiliate, call in advance to check the hours and availability.

DataTech says 95% of its recovery work is priced between $200 and $2,000. Rush service is available but can cost an additional $1,000. However, you can choose to add rush service after the initial examination, so there's no need to commit blindly.

There is no charge for an initial examination and estimate for a single hard drive, flash/USB drive or camera card. DataTech sends a FedEx label; the customer is responsible for boxing and shipping the drive.

DataTech also handles hard drives, RAID arrays, NAS and SAN network storage, servers, databases, virtual machines, tape drives, phones, CDs, DVDs and floppy disks. In addition, the company provides data recovery for DVR and CCTV hard drives. DataTech's advice in such cases is to take those hard drives out of service as quickly as possible, because they are typically set to record over older video, which could put lost video at risk.

DataTech has certification from Western Digital but not other manufacturers. If a device is under warranty, however, the company will reseal the equipment after recovery efforts with a sticker to indicate it was opened in a clean room. A representative said vendors don't argue about it. DataTech's site says the company has recovery engineers that are Apple-certified Macintosh technicians and Apple-certified iOS technicians.

To perform the data recovery, the company gets the data off the device and moves it to a new drive. DataTech doesn't list any security certifications but says it abides by HIPAA regulations, signs customer nondisclosure agreements and has security protocols.

This work happens on computers that are not connected to the internet. After the data is returned to the owner, it is deleted from the company's server but is not wiped. When the server reaches the end of its life, the company wipes the data before disposal. DataTech owns a data destruction company and physically destroys old hard drives.

The company can return small amounts of data – less than 9GB – through digital transfer. Typically, though, DataTech returns the data on a new drive, which customers can provide. If they don't supply a new drive, DataTech will sell the drive to the customer.

DataTech Labs is BBB accredited and has an A+ rating, with one complaint in the past three years. It is also listed with the General Services Administration (GSA).

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Datarecovery.com: Best for Flexibility

ISO 4/Class 10 clean rooms offer a higher standard of security.
Datarecovery.com also covers ransomware recovery, Bitcoin recovery and VMware virtual data.
It is unclear whether the company's security certifications are up-to-date.

Datarecovery.com was established in 1997 and has lab locations in California, Illinois, Arizona and Ontario, thus covering the major time zones in North America. Each lab is ISO 4/Class 10, which is a more exacting standard than ISO 5/Class 100. Datarecovery.com does not have an affiliate network.

Recovery costs commonly run between $500 and $2,500. As with many data recovery companies, Datarecovery.com does not bill you unless it recovers your data. The company says a client can specify the particular data to be recovered. If only part of the data is found, then services are prorated. There is also expedited service, which includes a $250 evaluation fee. However, that amount is applied to the charges for successful data recovery.

The company works on hard drives, SSDs, RAID, SAN and NAS network storage, and USB/flash media. Remote recovery is available when the storage device still works but data is unavailable because of a logical failure. Datarecovery.com also has on-site recovery that is best for failed servers and network storage systems. On-site work can be done at any geographic location, but those services are expensive.

In addition to commonly covered data storage devices, the firm supports the recovery of VMware virtual data and Bitcoin data, as well as recovery from ransomware. Once Datarecovery.com receives and examines a hard drive and gives you an estimate, the company will not change that estimate, even if additional work is needed. If Datarecovery.com cannot recover your most important files, the price drops, and if the company can't recover any data, there is no charge.

The company claims SAS 70 certification on the site, but that standard is outdated, having been replaced by SSAE 18. The link to the certification is dated July 24, 2009, so it's unclear whether there has been additional auditing past that point.

The firm will sign privacy contracts, and it has an unusual approach to data security and safety. After a device is repaired so it can be accessed, raw data is moved to a secondary drive rather than being left on a server. Five days after customers receive the data, Datarecovery.com securely destroys the device the data was on. For an additional charge, you can extend the backup storage time to 30 days.

Datarecovery.com warns that, to view the recovered data, customers still need the programs in which to open the files; the company often hears from businesses that have not installed the version of an application from when the data was originally saved.

Datarecovery.com is not accredited by the BBB, and it has a B- rating because it reportedly didn't respond to a complaint. There has been only one complaint against the company in the past three years, and details about that complaint are unavailable. The business name is not listed on the GSA eLibrary contractor list.

One unusual practice is that the company puts its data recovery services agreement on its website. If you  are considering this company, it's wise to look at this agreement, as it includes terms such as mandatory court jurisdiction in Madison County, Illinois, in the case of a dispute, and monthly service charges on overdue invoices.

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Disk Doctors: Best for Low Cost

This is a low-cost service, ranging from $400 to $1,450.
Disk Doctors abides by HIPAA standards.
Disk Doctors does not maintain other security certifications.

Disk Doctors, established in 1991, has labs in Georgia (the headquarters), Maryland and Ontario, making it more convenient for the Eastern time zone. The labs use ISO 5 Class 100 clean rooms. Disk Doctors also lists other locations across the U.S. and Canada, but as with other firms, these are affiliate drop-off locations that don't do the work themselves and may not be open during the pandemic.

For a 1TB hard drive, the recovery fee ranges from $400 to $1,450. If the drive needs mechanical repair, the costs typically run on the higher end, starting at $1,250. Expedited service is available and runs about 40% more than the normal type. There is an option for on-site work for something like a RAID system, but that is significantly more expensive because of the added travel time, dedicated personnel, accommodations and setup of a portable clean room.

Disk Doctors handles a fairly standard list of devices: hard drives, RAID arrays, servers, SAN and NAS network storage devices, USB drives, flash memory cards, tape backups, CDs and DVDs.

Unless a customer is close to one of the locations, Disk Doctors provides a FedEx shipping label for sending the device in for a free evaluation and "firm recovery quote," according to the site. Disk Doctors can send recovered data back through a digital transfer and supports an unusually high limit of 40GB. Beyond that limit, data is returned on a new hard drive. If the company does not recover the data, there is no charge, "with certain exceptions."

Disk Doctors keeps the data on hand for two weeks. If the customer doesn't request another copy, the firm performs a data wipe using military-quality software.

Regarding security, Disk Doctors says it is HIPAA compliant but does not have other security certifications. The firm will also sign nondisclosure agreements.

The company's website mentions the basic steps in the recovery process, provides a telephone number, offers online chat and contains a form for submitting a recovery case. However, the website offers few details. There doesn't seem to be a link to all customer reviews, just ones that pop up.

At the bottom of the site is a Support & Help section with links for frequently asked questions, a knowledgebase, product tutorials, customer login, partner login and a way to "activate your software online." At least when you're not logged in, everything points to the link for an Oak Brook, Illinois, location, which is somewhat odd because the company representative we spoke with did not mention this as a lab location.

Disk Doctors isn't accredited by the BBB, and it has a B- rating because it reportedly didn't respond to a complaint. There has been only one complaint against the company in the past three years: Someone claimed to have dropped off a drive in July 2018 and said the recovery had taken months, with few results but an expensive bill. The company does not appear to be listed in the current GSA eLibrary contractor database.

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Secure Data Recovery Services: Best for RAID Recovery

The company has an extensive list of security certifications.
ISO 4/Class 10 clean rooms provide a higher standard of security.
Secure Data Recovery's equipment lags slightly behind that of other recovery services.

Secure Data Recovery Services founded in 2007, has ISO 4 Class 10 clean rooms – a more stringent version than the ISO 5 Class 100 clean rooms more commonly found at recovery firms – in Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto and Cleveland. The company also has an extensive list of drop-off locations, but again, these are essentially mailing locations for the company. If you decide to use a drop-off location, call to make sure it's still open. There are also locations in Mexico, the United Kingdom and Australia.

Secure Data Recovery says it works on hard drives, SSDs, laptops (Windows and macOS), tape drives, USB/flash drives, SD cards, Android and iOS phones and tablets, Blackberrys, regular cell phones, SIM cards, GPS devices, RAID, SAN, NAS and servers. The company also recovers data from databases and encrypted devices and can perform remote recovery for functioning drives that have experienced a logical failure. Secure Data Recovery does not provide on-site recovery services.

Recovery work for a hard drive typically runs from $400 to $2,000, and the company will perform an evaluation and an estimate. The firm ships data back on a device; it can do digital transfers, but only for less than 5GB of data. Secure Data Recovery keeps data for 30 days to address any potential problems and then scrubs the data from its servers.

The company sells a variety of data recovery, file repair and backup software packages.

The extensive list of manufacturer certifications and relationships includes Apple, Microsoft, VMware, Oracle, Dell, HP, Seagate, Samsung, IBM, Toshiba, Asus, Acer, Kingston, Lenovo, Intel, AMD, Adaptec, Cisco and Symantec. The company has on-staff Apple-certified Macintosh technicians.

Of the data recovery firms we reviewed, Secure Data Recovery also has the most extensive collection of security certifications, including SSAE 18, SOC Type II, SOC 3, FIPS (Federal Information Processing Standards) 140-2 Level 3, HIPAA and FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act). The company keeps the data for 30 days after it's returned and then scrubs it from the servers.

Secure Data Recovery is accredited by the BBB and has an A+ rating. There were 11 complaints closed in the past three years, five of which were from the past 12 months. However, in each case, there was a response from the company and a final resolution. One of the largest problems seems to be a lack of clarity as to how long the recovery process takes.

Complaints aside, Secure Data Recovery was the only data recovery firm we examined that had customer reviews on the BBB site. As of early 2021, there were 630 reviews, with an average score of 4.9 out of 5 stars. The reviews largely praised customer service.

The company also has a listing with the GSA under the corporate name World Acceptance Group.

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Pricing

Many data recovery firms have a policy stating that if they cannot recover the data, there is no charge. Others take a different approach: Rather than giving you an upfront estimate without examining the actual drive, these companies tell you the full charge only after you've sent them the device and they've had a chance to look it over. It takes a leap of faith to use this type of data recovery firm, but there's more certainty for the rest of the process. 

In most cases, at least some data can be recovered, but don't expect to get every single file back, particularly from a heavily worn or damaged drive. That said, a good recovery firm will extract a surprising amount of data from a drive that is thought to be dead. 

A simple software problem might cost several hundred dollars to fix, while a minor mechanical failure might run $1,000 or more. Fixing a major hardware problem and extracting the data could cost several thousand dollars, and a dead RAID array might run tens of thousands of dollars. 

Keep in mind that time is money. In other words, ask yourself how long you can go without the data. If the drive held historical information or company policies, several weeks might be fine. But if the data contains online orders, payroll information or design plans for a new product, even a few days can seem like an eternity. Recovery of data from typical software failures might be possible in a day or two, while a minor hardware failure could take several days. A major hardware problem on a high-capacity drive could involve a week or two of work to repair and extract its data. Some firms take several weeks, depending on how busy they are, the complexity of the problem and whether they need to order parts for a damaged drive.

If you need the data urgently, the recovery company can do the repair and recovery work on a rush basis, meaning the firm's technicians will work 24/7, handing off the device and data at shift changes. This way, it's worked on until the project is done, and you have your data back quickly. This kind of service is expensive, however, and it still may take more time than you'd expect.

Then, there is the question of what types of devices the company supports. Data can come from a traditional hard drive, a solid-state drive, RAID arrays, network-oriented storage (like NAS or SAN), tape drives, cloud storage, smartphones, tablets, laptops, servers, SD cards, USB thumb drives, DVDs, CDs or even more obsolete types of storage, such as Zip drives or floppy disks.

Buying Guide

Features to Look for in a Hard Drive Recovery Service

When you're evaluating data recovery firms to extract data from a broken drive, it's important to consider the following features:

  • Clean room for hardware examination
  • Upfront estimate of charges
  • How long the company has been in business
  • The number of labs and where they are located
  • The types of devices handled
  • Overnight shipping of the drive (or courier service)
  • For ultrasensitive information, data recovery services that come to you
  • The option to have extracted data sent digitally
  • Rush service for critical data
  • The ability to repair broken hardware
  • Top security with SOC Type II certification or more specialized certifications, like HIPAA
  • Device manufacturer certification or acknowledgement
  • Whether the data will be wiped completely when the work is done

How to Choose a Data Recovery Service

The first step in recovering data from a dead or damaged drive is to contact a data recovery firm. Better yet, do your research beforehand, and pick a preferred vendor before you need one.  

A word of warning: Hundreds of small services promise to do data recovery on-site but are really just drop-off centers for larger firms. Look for a company that has an on-site clean room for repairs, stocks the parts needed to fix a variety of drives quickly, adheres to strict security protocols and recovers data from all sorts of digital storage devices, including computer hard drives, RAID arrays, file server drives, tablets, cameras, flash drives and SD cards. In other words, look for a comprehensive approach to recovering data from a wide variety of storage failures. [Want to learn more about RAID recovery services and hardware? Check out our reviews.]  

In addition, consider whether the company is transparent about how it operates. Some are the opposite of the small firms in that they claim to have dozens of offices or more that are really just affiliates that  receive a cut of the price for referrals. Some firms operate under a "doing business as" name for a differently named corporation, and some muddy their actual location or even mention an office when, in reality, evidence suggests they don't work from there. When someone has your data, you want to know where it is.

On top of liberating data on locked drives and recovering passwords, many data recovery specialists work with encrypted drives and can recover lost items from VMware storage failures that use protocols such as Hyper-V and Oracle databases. An increasing number of data recovery operations focus on cleaning up malware-infected drives and extracting the business data they hold. In other words, if your company is hit by ransomware, data recovery may be your best bet.

How Does a Hard Drive Work?

When we tap or click to open a file, we rarely think about the intricate digital ballet that goes on behind the scenes to put the information on the screen. At the center of this process is the hard drive that stores a system's data. Despite becoming more rugged and reliable over the decades, the hard drive can be the weak link in the chain of saving and recalling company data. However, newer forms of data storage have their own problems and can be less durable than traditional drives. Or data may be on old forms of storage, such as floppy disks or tapes, and the company no longer has compatible hardware to read it.

About the size of a paperback, a traditional hard drive relies on a series of data-holding discs that spin at nearly 10,000 rotations per minute and are controlled by sophisticated electronics. Miniature magnetic read-write heads at the end of a thin actuator arm ride over the surface, dropping off and picking up data. A failure of any component can lead to a loss of data.

While they may be more expensive than traditional hard drives, flash storage or SSDs can be more reliable. They store data electronically in semiconductor chips that don't have any moving parts, so they can withstand punishment. However, this type of storage has a limited life span of close to 100,000 read-write cycles. For most uses, that's plenty, and built-in software spreads the wear out over all of the chips. 

The bottom line for businesses is that the longer SSD storage is used, the more fragile its ability will be to recall data. This can be a death sentence for your files if the drive is continually written and rewritten, as is the case with a file server.

Some good news is that Windows 10 can now warn users that an SSD is failing, giving them ample opportunity to back up files. Because this feature runs at the operating-system level, it is designed to detect problems on all drives, regardless of whether the computer has self-monitoring analysis and reporting technology.

If a failure is imminent, Windows displays an alert on the computer screen saying, "A storage device may be at risk of failure and requires your attention." Users who receive that notification should back up all important data from that drive, Microsoft advises. Users can then go to the Storage Settings page to see additional details about the issue. Secure Data recommends using the 3-2-1 backup method, which involves committing to "a total of three backups: two on physical storage and one in virtual storage, such as the cloud."

What Is Data Recovery?

Regardless of how the data is stored, you face the risk of experiencing a data failure, which is why you need to be prepared with an effective data recovery plan.  

Even if you think your data is gone, all hope is not lost. Here are three methods of data recovery to consider:   

  1. Off-the-shelf recovery software. These apps work exclusively with software or logical failures of the drive and are worth a try. Both Windows and macOS include recovery software, but there are commercial versions that are more thorough. After you plug the errant drive into a computer, the app scans the disk's surface, sniffing out data anomalies. After scanning the disk, the software can rebuild broken links, reconnect data to its file allocation table entry, fix data that's been scattered across the drive and often recover deleted files. However, multiple data recovery companies warn that using these kinds of utilities can create additional problems. If there are damaged sectors or hardware, the software will put even more strain on the storage device or may end up overwriting the lost data you're trying to recover.

  2. Data recovery service. If off-the-shelf software doesn't solve the problem, the next step is to use a data recovery service. The best data recovery firms use industrial-strength software that delves much deeper into the disk's files and structure and can make more-complicated changes. In other words, it takes a deeper dive into the data and extracts all it can. If you're lucky, this will be all it takes to get the data back.

  3. Service by a data recovery technician. If there's hardware damage, the drive should only be opened in a clean room so that technicians can diagnose the drive's problem. A single speck of dust in the wrong place destroys a drive and the data it holds. A data recovery clean room should be certified under specifications from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which sets global standards for many areas of technology. For clean rooms, the reference is ISO 14644-1, which has largely replaced the older equivalent U.S. federal standard, FS 209E. A clean room for data recovery will be either ISO 4 (Class 10) or ISO 5 (Class 100). Class 10 and 100 mean having fewer than 10 or 100 particles, respectively, that measure 0.5 microns or larger, per cubic foot of air in the clean room. ISO 4 and ISO 5 require fewer than 352 and 3,520 particles of that size per cubic meter of air, respectively. By contrast, the air around us typically has millions of such particles per cubic foot. 

After fixing hardware issues, technicians extract as much of your data as possible and either transfer it to a new device, which they return along with your original equipment, or let you download encrypted digital files. Some recovery companies securely dispose of the original drive if you want them to.

How Data Recovery Works

The first step in recovering data from a dead or damaged drive is to contact a data recovery firm. Better yet, do your research upfront and pick a preferred vendor before you need one. Being proactive means that the data recovery company is standing by waiting for your misbehaving drive.  

A word of warning when choosing a data recovery service: Hundreds of small services promise data recovery onsite that are nothing more than intake centers for larger recovery firms. A good indication of their abilities is if they have a cleanroom onsite for repairs, stock the parts needed to fix a variety of drives quickly, adhere to strict security protocols, and if they can recover data from all sorts of digital storage devices – computer hard drives, RAID arrays, file server drives, even tablets, cameras, flash drives, and SD cards. In other words, look for a comprehensive approach to recovering from a wide variety of storage failures. [Want to learn more about RAID recovery services and hardware? Check out our reviews.]  

On top of liberating data on locked drives and recovering passwords, many data recovery specialists work with encrypted drives and can recover lost items from VMware storage failures that use protocols like Hyper-V and Oracle databases. An increasing number of data recovery operations focus on cleaning up malware-infected drives and extracting the business data they hold. In other words, if your company is hit by a ransomware virus, data recovery may be your best bet.

How to Know if You Need a Hard Drive Recovery Service

A quick evaluation via phone or a web form generally gets the data recovery process started. The company will determine what the symptoms are, how long it will take to do the repair and how much it will cost. It's a good idea to have the drive handy so you can provide the model and serial numbers.  

Be ready to describe the drive's behavior, such as not registering on your computer, operating slowly, or disconnecting or hanging on reading data. There might also be scraping, buzzing or grinding noises that indicate specific problems. 

Most important, check for odd smells or burn marks on the drive's case. If any of these sounds, sights or smells show up, stop using the drive to avoid inflicting further data damage. 

It's preferable to find a data recovery firm that is recognized by the specific hardware manufacturer to do the needed repairs, but that's not always possible. For example, one firm noted that Seagate has no such program because the company has its own data recovery business. However, make sure the firm has dealt with your type of drive, as different manufacturers often use proprietary technology that varies among vendors. 

In some cases, the repair might be covered by the device's warranty. If so, don't contact a service provider directly. Instead, go to the company that sold the device to you, or possibly to the manufacturer itself, depending on the terms and conditions of the warranty.

Security Concerns

When you're choosing a data recovery service, security is paramount. The recovery firm needs to assure you of its ability to keep your data confidential. It's a good idea to work only with recovery companies that receive annual audits consistent with SOC Type II or SSAE 18 standards (which replace the older SAS 70 and SSAE 16 standards). As with other types of certifications, ask to see an official certificate or other proof of compliance, rather than just a logo on a website.

The best recovery companies have security guards, electronic door locks and video surveillance to limit (and record) who has access to your company's drives and data. Plus, once the company has finished recovering your data, it needs to wipe every bit of your data from its computers. Using a multipass military-grade shredding program is a good step. Some firms will keep the data on a separate drive and then destroy that drive. Any firm should keep its copy of the data for several days to two weeks to be sure there are no problems and you don't need another copy.

While some data recovery firms have intricate firewalls to keep hackers out of their computers (and your data), others take this approach a step further by working on your data only with computers that are not connected to the internet, thereby isolating your data from a dangerous online world. 

Recommendations or third-party accreditations can also help in your data recovery decision. Check the firm's BBB rating, and see whether the company is on the GSA contractor list

Once you've chosen a data recovery service, the actual work can start. Many (though not all) companies send an overnight shipping label or a padded box for you to ship the broken drive.

For ultra-high-priority data, there are a couple of alternatives. Rather than having you overnight the device, some data recovery services send a courier to pick up the drive and maintain a chain-of-custody document for the device. This method is often faster and is potentially of interest for those involved in legal cases. However, even the larger recovery services have at most a few lab locations, so a courier service could be very expensive if you aren't near a lab.

Another approach for drives that can't leave your building is to have the data recovery experts come to your shop. Although this method gets pricey very quickly, it may be the only choice if you're dealing with  ultrasensitive data, such as product plans or matters of national security. 

If the problem is with the software (rather than the hardware), some recovery firms can remotely connect and attempt to rescue your data.

When the recovery work is done and the data is restored, you need to get access to it as soon as possible. Most data recovery firms put the recovered data onto a clean drive and ship it to you, and once you receive it, it should take only a few minutes to add the recovered data to your digital infrastructure. 

Many data recovery firms offer to transmit your data via a secure server. If you do this, make sure the data gets encrypted with at least AES-256 coding. Although this method can speed up the integration of files back into your company's digital infrastructure, there is a downside: Many data recovery firms limit the amount of data they will transmit to between 5GB and 30GB.

Should You Get Data Insurance?

All of the stress and expense surrounding a data emergency can be avoided. If you talk to a data recovery firm before the data is missing, you might preempt a data problem. 

That's because many data recovery operations also act as data safety and reliability consultants. They can look for weaknesses in your current systems and suggest ways to avoid a failure and lessen the effects of a data disaster. Some offer hard drive service plans that promise to recover lost data in the event of a drive failure. 

More than any technique, having an effective way to back up your company's data is the best insurance against drives going bad. Using this process, whenever a file is changed, it is incrementally backed up online, locally or on a file server. Having the data in two places reduces the risk that it will be lost and puts your mind at ease. Maintaining multiple copies of backups – with one on premises for quicker access and another off-site in case something happens to your physical location – is a standard practice.

Frequently Asked Questions

How is data recovery done?

When a file is deleted from your hard drive, it's never truly gone. Generally, operating systems maintain their files using specific markers that delineate where the item begins and ends on the hard disk. When a file is deleted, those markers are changed from a 1 to a 0, making them unreadable and designating the file's disk space as reusable.

As long as the data isn't overwritten with something new, that old file still exists and can be recovered. If a file has been partially overwritten, only part of the file can be recovered. Hard drive recovery solutions work by finding those files, putting them back together and marking them as recoverable items.

Why is data recovery important?

Losing an important file, either to system failure or human error, can be extremely detrimental to any small business. Without the option to recover the file, every deletion becomes permanent.

How long does data recovery take?

The time it takes to recover missing data depends on several factors. If you're recovering just a handful of files, then the size of each file plays a huge role. The larger the file is, the longer it will take to recover, since its data is usually scattered throughout the drive instead of being kept as a single block. The condition and size of the hard drive also matter, because a larger capacity means more sectors to scan. For the best odds of recovering any deleted or damaged files, expect a wait time of at least a couple of days (or up to a couple of weeks in the case of major hardware issues).

How can I recover my data for free?

There are many free hard drive data recovery tools available on the internet. In most cases, all it takes is a simple download and installation to get started. While that may seem like a worthwhile avenue to take, most free solutions have some glaring limitations, such as file size restrictions, limited file system support and infrequent updates. Many free options are available only for personal use, so using them in a commercial setting could result in legal problems if the license owner finds out. In some cases, such as when there are mechanical or electrical problems, these free tools can further damage drives.

How successful is data recovery?

Hard drive data recovery is only as successful as the structural integrity of the file you're trying to restore. Depending on how a file was lost, data solution efforts have varying degrees of success. A simple deletion can be reversed if the data wasn't overwritten, but losing a file on a solid-state drive could require a more expensive and arduous repair, given the nature of that hardware. You will have a better chance of successful data recovery by using a professional-grade hard drive recovery solution. Many companies claim recovery rates such as 95% or 98%, but these numbers can be misleading. How much of the data must be recovered to count as a successful recovery effort? Does the firm count all of its attempts, or might it rule out certain classes that are more likely to fail?

How do storage devices fail?

Since their introduction in the 1950s, hard drives have been just one of many methods people have used to store digital data. Over time, other types of storage – like floppy disks, tape drives, USB thumb drives, storage cards and solid-state drives – have been invented. Storage has gotten smaller and more complex over the years, meaning it has a higher chance of failure.

Traditional hard disk drives (as opposed to the newer flash-based SSDs) rely on an intricate system of motors, magnets and spinning metal platters, and the many moving parts are prone to fail over time. Excessive overheating, water damage or sudden shocks to the hard drive's chassis, along with many other mishaps, can cause physical hardware failure. If a data platter is damaged, it may be extremely difficult or impossible to recover data, but it will depend on the specifics of the problem.

Other failures involve software rather than the hardware itself. Issues such as corrupted files, malware, software bugs or even human error can affect any hard drive. These "logical errors," as they're often called, crop up in different ways. If you're noticing that data has been disappearing, you can't access certain files anymore or parts of files are not loading properly, it could be a sign that your hard drive is failing.

Is data recovery different for desktop and laptop hard drives?

Though their hard drives are different sizes, laptop and desktop computers use the same kind of hard drive. If the issue plaguing your hard drive is software-based, then there will be nothing different between the two types of drives. If it's a mechanical issue, drives can vary in the components they use, how quickly discs can spin, data capacity and electrical interface to a computer. The required tools and the amount of space a technician will have to work with the physical components can vary greatly as well.

Are data recovery services safe?

Giving a stranger access to your hard drive and files can be a scary proposition for many, but when you're considering a hard drive recovery service, check the company's privacy statement. Look for a service that commits to having every employee undergo a background check and training for handling sensitive data. The company's facility must also be secure and commit to regular audits of the firm's privacy efforts.

Can data loss be permanent?

In most instances, a professional can recover data from a failing drive as long as it's never been overwritten. Once portions or the entirety of a file is overwritten with other data, the old data is lost forever.

Data can also be permanently lost if there is physical trauma to the hard drive. If a hard drive functions for a long time with failing internal mechanisms, significant damage can ruin the spinning platters where data is stored. Hard drives that suffered fire or flood damage may have lost their data, although sometimes these, too, can be recovered. A loss of magnetic field – for example, if someone degausses a drive – will permanently destroy any data.

Do data recovery companies look at your files?

In general, the most information a data recovery technician sees when working to recover digital files is the file names. There's no reason for a tech to access and open any digital files, especially if the files have nothing to do with the hard disk repair or data recovery.

Should you reuse an old hard drive in a new computer?

When building or purchasing a new computer, you may want to reuse the hard drives installed in your old machine. Whether or not you should do that depends largely on how old the drive is and how much free space it has left.

Like most electronic hardware, a hard drive has an expected life span. As traditional spinning-disc hard drives get older, they become more susceptible to mechanical failure. If your old hard drive is already several years old, you're better off purchasing a new drive and transferring your old data over. However, if the drive is relatively new, reusing it may make sense.

A flash-based drive, like an SSD or an NVMe, has moving parts, but SSDs can differ in their quality of components and construction, which can affect their life spans. Also, although these drives can last years, there is a limit to how many times you can write to them.

Don't expect to reuse drives that you send in for repair. Even though the recovery company may fix the hardware problems, it does so to get the data off the device, so the original drive won't be fit for further use.

Methodology

When reviewing hard drive recovery services, we looked at the complete range of services offered by 25 leaders and/or well-known names in the industry. We dismissed two national chains that require a stop at a store for an initial consultation with people who are not recovery experts, leaving 23 that we researched.

Ultimately, we narrowed the field to five top picks. The services we included meet the criteria any small business should look for in a hard drive recovery service. In addition to airtight security, features we looked for included the options for shipping the drive back and forth, the company's skill in removing malware from a drive, the ability to do the work at your site, and the capacity to extract data from a variety of data devices, including RAID arrays, tablets and flash drives. 

For security purposes, it's important for companies to know who they're doing business with. Not all sites promoting data recovery services mentioned the location of their headquarters or the name of the parent company. We verified locations and checked for current filings with state and/or local authorities. If a firm seemed to avoid providing basic contact information, we struck it from the list.

We considered third-party endorsements from the Better Business Bureau and vendor listings with the Government Services Administration. We also researched the companies' labs and clean rooms. Although many firms tout a success record, almost all are between 95% and 98%. There is no third-party and objective measurement of exactly what constitutes success and no way to know if two firms measure it the same way. Nor is it certain whether these percentages apply to all device types and problems. For those reasons, we discontinued use of success records. 

In addition, we considered whether the companies were transparent about the process and pricing, and whether they offered rush service for data emergencies.

What to Expect in 2021

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) will likely continue to expand in 2021. Many hard drive recovery services use AI and ML, impacting storage devices such as SSDs and flash controllers. AI and ML help recover data with processes such as sorting, carving and XOR scrambler analysis.  

The use of AI and ML within the storage industry can increase data security, lower costs through hybrid storage clouds and provide more software-defined storage. With features such as automatic backups, updates and malware scans, AI and ML are influencing hard drive recovery trends and enhancing reliability.  

To support these AI and ML capabilities, hard drive recovery services must be able to work well with parallel file systems and flash-native tools, including NAND flash memory chips. The rise of neural storage, which uses AI to resolve issues without the need for human interference, is also expected to continue in 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic will likely continue the elevated use of work-from-home policies, which could mean more demand for data recovery services, especially from top firms. Remote workers will likely store company data directly on their laptops and mobile devices, leaving sensitive information vulnerable and out of company hands. This could complicate practical and legal issues around storage failure and the need for recovery.

Therefore, it will be essential for companies to develop procedures for backing up corporate data from home devices to a cloud service that the company can access to ensure availability in case of problems. 

Erik Sherman
Erik Sherman
business.com Contributing Writer
Erik Sherman is an independent journalist who has written thousands of articles about business, technology, security, finance, marketing, management, leadership, and small business. His is also the author or co-author of ten books. Before his career in journalism, Erik was in corporate management at a publicly-held company and ran his own businesses.
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