Quite a while ago, close to 20 years or so, I (Joep,
the founder of DIYDataRecovery.nl) was working for
PowerQuest (aquired by Symantec a while ago, like so many
others), a company the created hard disk utilities, PartitionMagic
being the best known one. PartitionMagic could do crazy
stuff with a hard disk Magic when it worked, Voodoo when
it messed up: whole disks would appear empty within the
blink of an eye!
I was working on the phone as what we called a
'techie', so it was not uncommon to be talking to very
upset people after PartitionMagic made all their data
disappear. Our official policy was to tell people to
restore their backup in such an event, which ... 9 out of
10 times they didn't have. So people were still upset.
Now, maybe because of my background (I worked as a
psychiatric nurse before), upset people were always
transfered to me.
And this is what sparked my interest in what
actually happened on a hard disk and how data is stored.
And with the help of my mentor at PowerQuest I started
looking and poking around on hard disks at a lower level
using a disk editor. A disk editor is a piece of
software that allows you to look (and edit) a disk at the
sector level. And then you look around often enough,
you may start to recognize structures. It's magical! It's
almost like seeing the Matrix! The layer below fancy
icons and graphics and neatly sorted files and folders.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, I arrived at a level
of understanding hard disk structures where I was often
able to help people calling the PowerQuest tech support to
get their data back. I'd have them fire up a disk
editor and they would have to tell me exactly what they
saw at sector n at byte offset m, etc.. It scared the heck
out of people ... "OMG, the screen just filled with
hex". Officially I was not allowed to do all this as
it took way to much time.
This lead to the creation of a set of free-ware
small command line utilities that allowed people to
create report files they could then sent me, and others
that could be run using a batch file and do stuff on a
hard disk at the sector level. So people would sent me
reports, and if I determined I could fix it, I sent a
batch-file in return that would automatically edit their
disk, without the need for talking hex language while
on the phone.
I did that all from home in my spare time. I had
this simple 'one-page' website that listed the tools and
some explanations on how to use them, and it had an email
address that they could use to contact me. At the same
time I further developed the utilities to make them more
generic so they would be able to help people to
recover data that was lost not due to PartitionMagic FUBAR
The first thing that had something like a user
interface, that scanned the disk for file system
structures was called RepoMan. It was simple enough
for a lot of people to be used and all it did was scan a
disk and produce a text file. A buddy of mine (Tom)
wrote mbrtool and based on that I wrote mbr-rescue.
Mbr-rescue brings us back to the command line again, and
it accepted a bunch of command line arguments.
Result was, that when I came home from work, it was
not uncommon for me spending hours on replying to emails,
going through RepoMan reports and creating batch files for
people to fix hard disks using mbr-rescue. It was
simply too much. I then started charging a small fee
for support, I think it was $7.50 back then. the tools
themselves were free, but if someone wanted me to analyze
their reports etc., they had to pay this small fee.
Meanwhile an improved version of mbr-rescue was
released. It incorporated the RepoMan scan feature and
it would also allow people to interactively to undelete
partitions. It was also capable of handling disks that
were larger than 8 gigabytes!
Some of the principles that still exist in DiskPatch
today originate from that tool. For example, prior to
making repairs to the disk, it allowed users to back up
the current disk structures. More and more features were
added and it became too complex to tell the program what
to do by supplying command line arguments and the
'solution' was a kind of DOS like environment. It had DOS
like command like 'help' to display a help, or 'cls' to
clear the screen. It allowed deleted partitions to be
'mounted' after which a DOS like 'dir' command would
display a directory listing. If I recall correctly, we
charged $17.50 for that tool.
For the first time we had a real domain,
diydatarecovery.nl. I picked that one because it
described so well what I (back then, just me) was doing;
enabling people to recover their own data, to do it
Rescue Console (the 'blue screen of hope' rather than
Windows' blue screen of death) was pretty 'hard-core', so
it generated a lot of support emails. back then, there
wasn't much else. There was a program called
Tiramisu (like the Italian desert) which was acquired
by Ontrack and outrageously expensive. There was
DataBack, that was later acquired by PowerQuest and
continued as Lost & Found. And there were a few other
that I can't recall. Oh! How can I forget, there was
Norton's Utilities! Not the bloat they sell today
under that name, but a really nice set of DOS utilities!
Eventually Rescue Console became DiskPatch.
Hacking your disk at the sector level is called 'patching'
and diskpatch was also the tool you programmed in an
assembly language programming book by Peter Norton (yes,
the Norton Utilities guy); you were shown how to do a
really basic disk editor in assembly.
How different things are today. Do a internet search
for data recovery software and there are hundreds of
results rather than a few. No skills required, or
that's what they want you to believe. Many of the data
recovery software offered is by companies that haven't got
the slightest notion of data recovery. I can do another
article on that ...
I also maintain a personal projects page here: