What are data recovery methods?

Data loss can happen for a variety of reasons – hardware failure, accidental deletion, file corruption, ransomware attack, natural disaster, and more. When important data is lost, data recovery methods become necessary to try to get it back. There are various data recovery methods that can potentially recover lost or inaccessible data depending on the cause and severity of the data loss.

What causes data loss?

Understanding what caused the data loss is important for determining the best data recovery method to use. Here are some of the most common causes of data loss:

  • Hardware failure – Hard drives can fail due to mechanical or electronic issues. RAID configurations can fail. Removable media like USB drives can fail.
  • Accidental deletion – Files and folders can be accidentally deleted and bypass the Recycle Bin/Trash.
  • File corruption – Software bugs, viruses, system crashes, and other issues can cause file corruption.
  • Ransomware attack – Malware encrypts files until ransom payment is made.
  • Natural disaster – Floods, fires, earthquakes, and other disasters can damage storage media.
  • Formatting/repartitioning – Storage media can be formatted or repartitioned, wiping data.
  • Lost or stolen devices – Laptops, external drives, smartphones can be lost or stolen.
  • Operating system issues – Bugs, crashes, and errors can cause data issues.

Understanding the exact cause of data loss guides the data recovery process. The methods used for mechanical failure will differ from deletion recovery, for example. Identifying the issue also helps determine the likelihood of successful recovery.

How is data stored on different media?

Data recovery methods also depend on how data is stored on different media. Here is a quick overview:

  • Hard disk drives – Data is written magnetically to platters inside the hard drive enclosure. The mechanical parts can fail over time leading to inaccessible data.
  • Solid state drives – Data is saved to flash memory chips with no moving parts. Less prone to mechanical failure but can still fail electronically.
  • Removable media – USB drives, memory cards, CD/DVD rely on flash memory or optical media. More fragile than internal drives.
  • RAID arrays – Use multiple drives together for redundancy or performance. Failures can occur at the drive-level or array controller.
  • Smartphones – Use NAND flash memory to store data. Very small and portable so easily lost or damaged.
  • Backup tapes – Primarily for long-term backups and archives. Linear access makes restoration slower.

Understanding how data loss can occur on different media guides the recovery process and determines what recovery methods will be most effective.

Data recovery software

One of the most common and accessible data recovery methods is to use data recovery software. Here are the main types of data recovery software tools:

  • Undelete – Recover deleted files that were not overwritten. Works for accidentally deleted files.
  • Data carving – Searches the drive and pulls out file types based on headers/footers and metadata.
  • Clone disks – Makes an exact sector-by-sector copy of a drive for recovery.
  • Encrypted recovery – Decrypts data that is encrypted by ransomware for recovery.
  • File repair – Repair corrupt files that won’t open but have recoverable data.
  • Mobile recovery – Specialized tools to recover lost phone data.
  • Backup restore – Restore backups from external drives, optical media, and the cloud.

Selecting data recovery software

With many data recovery software products available, choose carefully based on your situation:

  • Support for your OS (Windows, Mac, Linux)
  • Types of media it can recover from
  • Causes of data loss it can address
  • Ease of use for your skill level
  • Ability to preview files before recovery
  • Careful scanners that won’t damage data

Research software reviews and avoid tools that make unrealistic claims or could potentially damage drives and data. Recover data to a different drive than the original.

Advantages and disadvantages

Data recovery software has some notable advantages:

  • Very accessible as software can be downloaded to any computer.
  • Much cheaper than professional recovery services which can cost thousands.
  • Faster recovery process than services since you do it yourself.
  • Some free and open source data recovery tools available.

Some disadvantages to be aware of:

  • Success rates may not be as high as professional labs.
  • Requires technical skill and knowledge to operate the tools.
  • Advanced cases like mechanical failure are very difficult.
  • Could make mistakes and damage data during recovery attempts.

For business-critical and highly complex cases, professional recovery may be a better option. But for many scenarios, DIY software provides an affordable and convenient data recovery solution.

Professional data recovery services

For valuable data that software cannot recover, professional recovery labs provide advanced techniques. Here are some common professional recovery methods:

  • Clean room – Recover data from mechanically failed drives in a dust-free clean room.
  • Tape and optical media – Specialized tools applied in the lab to recover damaged media.
  • Forensics – Reconstruct data after a security incident or crime.
  • Flood/fire damage – Use specialized techniques for damaged drives.
  • Specialized hardware – Hardware tools like PC3000 SSD recover data from failed electronics.

When to use professional recovery

Consider professional data recovery services for:

  • Mechanical hard drive failure requiring clean room recovery.
  • RAID server failure affecting mission-critical data.
  • Specialized media like smart phones, tablets, and SSDs.
  • Severe media damage from floods, fires, or other disasters.
  • Advanced forensic recovery needs.

Selecting a service provider

Factors to consider when selecting a professional data recovery company include:

  • Experience and qualifications.
  • Capability to handle your media type.
  • Security protocols and confidentiality.
  • Price transparency and fair fees.
  • Success rates based on past client reviews.
  • Speed of recovery service.

Be very cautious with companies advertising unusually low prices, as this may indicate a lack of experience or capability. Thoroughly research any company before sending your drives.

Cost considerations

Professional data recovery services often cost $500 to $3000 or more depending on the severity and type of recovery scenario. More extensive cases like RAID recovery can cost $5000 or higher. Additional costs may apply for expedited service and hard drive replacements.

While expensive, professional recovery offers the greatest chance of success when DIY software cannot recover critical business or personal data.

Preventing data loss

While data recovery methods can retrieve lost data in some cases, the best approach is prevention. Here are tips to help prevent data loss:

  • Use enterprise-class hardware designed for reliability.
  • Implement IT security to block malware and cyber attacks.
  • Enable versioning in apps to easily “undo” accidental changes.
  • Automate reliable backups to external and cloud destinations.
  • Control access to sensitive systems and data.
  • Adopt fault tolerant measures like RAID storage and clustering.
  • Follow industry best practices for IT operations and change management.

Proactively avoiding data loss through sound IT practices reduces reliance on data recovery methods that may not fully restore lost data.

When data recovery is not feasible

In some cases, data recovery is simply not possible:

  • Drives completely damaged by natural disaster or fire.
  • Encryption keys have been permanently lost or deleted.
  • Overwritten data that is no longer recoverable.
  • Media has exceeded its physical lifespan.
  • Cost of recovery exceeds the value of the data.

Accepting permanent data loss is difficult but necessary in extreme cases of irrecoverable data destruction or loss. Other options like recreating data or changing business processes may need to be explored when data recovery has little or no chance of success.


Data recovery methods provide hope of rescuing lost files or inaccessible data due to hardware failure, accidental deletion, ransomware, and other causes of data loss. Software tools can successfully recover data in many scenarios and are accessible and affordable. For complex data recovery beyond the scope of software, professional recovery labs use specialized techniques and clean room facilities to recover valuable business and personal data. However, the best approach is avoiding data loss in the first place through sound backup and IT security practices.