OWC Mercury Elite Pro Qx2: Data Recovery

OWC Mercury Elite Pro Qx2
OWC Mercury Elite Pro Qx2

This OWC external enclosure is a common sight on the desks of Mac users with big storage needs. It’s a pretty standard 4-bay box, styled somewhat like a cousin of a PowerMac G5 or 1st generation Mac Pro. Inside are the usual options of RAID 0 to RAID 5 with a few additions like JBOD & RAID 10 thrown in for good measure. There are a few variations of this device but the back panels commonly have USB, Firewire, and eSATA ports for direct connection to a PC or Mac. There is no ethernet port on these drives which makes the Qx2 a DAS (Direct Attached Storage) rather than NAS (Network Attached Storage).

Aside from massive name, the OWC Mercury Elite Pro Qx2 also comes with a potentially huge amount of storage. Currently up to 32TB on the OWC store, but also available diskless or BYOD (Bring your own disks). With so much storage space, these drives often become the one and only repository for vast lumps of important data. The benefits of RAID give a false sense of security that the data is safe from drive failures. Unfortunately, there are a number of reasons why the RAID array alone will not protect from certain failures. Most of  these failures can be overcome by us in our workshop, but they are not one-button fixes. It is helpful to understand why a seemingly rock-solid platform can be even more risky than a simple external USB drive.

Redundancy

Under common settings, the Qx2 will use RAID 5 for the array. With four 2TB drives this gives you a 6TB volume on a Mac or ~5.5TB on a PC[1], and can cope with a single disk failure. There is a lot of debate about how good RAID 5 really is for such large drives[2]. In our example this means that if a single disk fails, it will need to be replaced, and then the new disk rebuilt with 2TB of data calculated from the other disks. This will take many hours, even under optimal conditions, but if anything goes wrong before it completes the array could stop showing up all together. At this stage, the data is probably recoverable but don’t panic. One wrong move and the data could be gone for good.

If the data is crucial then get assistance from a RAID recovery service now and you should get back all or most of the data.

If any disks are removed or replaced at this point the array could get reinitialised and either make the recovery more complicated or wipe the data completely.

Other Failures

Aside from all the problems with a RAID setup, the volume could also fail in the same ways that a standard hard drive can. There could be deleted files, a reformatted or corrupt partition, or even the RAID controller failure. RAID cannot protect against those types of failure at all.

Recovery

Our first step would be making read-only copies of each disk in the array. This protects against further disks failing, and also allows us to work from copies without risking the original disks. In fact, once the disks are copied, we put the originals to one side and don’t touch them again until all the data is recovered and supplied back to the user.

Once we have our copies, they are loaded into our own hardware where we recreate the RAID in a virtual environment. Again, we don’t use the original hardware, as that may have been the root cause of the problem.

When the virtual RAID has been loaded and all the data extracted, the files are supplied back on whatever alternative storage is suitable, (not the original device!) Once the data has been delivered to the user, and backups made, the old unit can then be destroyed, or returned and reused.

Avoidance

Anyone using RAID on a regular basis should know that RAID is not a replacement for backups. If anything, the increased number of disks makes failure more likely. This needs to be addressed by either making backups to another device, or an online service (preferably both). You ideally want backups that keep historic versions of the files, so that inadvertently deleting a file or changing a file by mistake will not also replace the backup version.

If you are having problems with an OWC Mercury Elite Pro Qx2, give us a call or send a message via the form on this page. We give free advice and could help you avoid permanent data loss.

1. Macs now use 1000 bytes for 1KB but PCs use 1024 bytes.

2. Even RAID 6 does not solve the long time required to rebuild a disk, even though it allows for two disk failures.

iOS vs Android Secure Erasure

I’ve previously written about the difficulties recovering data from modern iOS devices. This new post by Avast(!?) shows it from another angle.  What happens when you sell an old device?

TL;DR

Because iOS uses hardware encryption on the main storage, recovery is almost impossible without the passcode. In contrast, Android phones (usually, by default) don’t encrypt the main storage. Also they allow external SD cards which may not be encrypted either. This means if an iPhone and an Android phone are sold or lost without being carefully erased, the iPhone will not easily give up the data but an android phone will. It also means if you forget your iPhone passcode you are unlikely to ever get the data back.

 

What To Do When You Run Out Of Space

It’s a common problem that as we generate more data each year we start running out of space to put it. This is now even more of an issue in the smartphone market, where built-in cameras are generating increasingly large photos and videos, without providing much in the way of additional storage. The most common iPhones are still 16 & 32GB but the photos they now produce can be megabytes in size, with videos easily reaching 1GB.

What To Do When You Run Out Of Space
What To Do When You Run Out Of Space

It’s tempting to take that data and put it somewhere else, so either a laptop or external hard drive. Then once you’ve copied it all you delete it from the phone and gain back all that space. Problem solved.

Not So Fast…
If that copy on your laptop is now the only copy, then you could be one spilt coffee from disaster. If the laptop goes up in smoke, gets stolen, dropped or any of the myriad other ways of failing then it’s bye bye data.

The Fix

The key to making backups is redundancy. The key to making backups is redundancy. The key to making backups is redundancy.

You need to make extra copies of your data to different types of storage. This could be an external hard drive, NAS, USB Pen, SD card, anything. But don’t just pick one of those. Make a few backups. Put one in a locked safe somewhere. Send photos off to the cloud. Store a copy of your music at your nan’s house. If any of those copies gets lost or broken you can just replace it with another copy.

So let’s run through an example. All those photos on your iPhone have filled it up. Here’s what I would do:

  1. Copy the photos to my computer. Check them.
  2. Backup the computer as usual. (You’re already doing that, right?)
  3. Make another backup, or copy the photos to an online storage service like Dropbox.
  4. Now it is safe to delete the photos from the iPhone and revel in all that fresh space.

Note: Deleted photo recovery is virtually impossible for all modern iPhone versions due to encryption. 

Here’s another example for when your computer runs out of space instead:

  1. Is it possible to upgrade the internal storage? If it is then you should do that.
  2. If this is not possible, or too expensive then you will have to get creative. It will be more fiddly but copy all data to two external hard drives.
  3. You always want to avoid just leaving your data in one place. All electronic devices can (and will) fail, and they have a terrible habit of doing so at the worst possible moment.

So, just remember that no single copy of your files are safe. Making extra copies is cheaper and easier than waiting until something fails.

Thanks to Alexander Armstrong for inspiring this post.

Recovering Deleted Data

In the vast majority of cases, deleted data is actually still lurking around on your hard drive. If you put data in the Recycle Bin or Trash, and them empty it, all you are actually doing is telling the system that it can reuse those parts of the disk when it wants. Until you replace those areas with new data, the old data will still be there.

Recovering Deleted Data

The Filing Cabinet

The tried and trusted analogy is of a filing cabinet. When you delete a file, you are removing the index card from the front of the drawer, but the actual file is still in there.

This is why it is really important to switch off your computer as soon as possible if you have accidentally deleted some files. You may not realise but even small actions like checking e-mail or browsing the internet can write cache files to the disk. That is when data could be lost.

Overwritten / Deleted Data

We often hear about the FBI being able to recover overwritten files. While this may have been possible on very old – low capacity hard drives (~100MB), it is unlikely to be possible on modern hard drives. The magnetic material is far too densely packed. Even then, it would only be tiny fragments of data recovered, and not whole files.

The Problem With SSDs

Solid state drives bring a whole new problem of their own. Due to the way the data is distributed around the device, known as wear levelling, you can never be sure of which sector you are writing or overwriting. Wear levelling is necessary to prolong the life of an SSD, but it means the drive could be moving data around behind the scenes, making deleted files much more difficult to track down.

Specifics

In most cases, we can recover deleted files with the original file names and folders. With deleted Mac data, this is often not possible. In that case we have to use a special type of scan, which finds all files of a given type and saves them to numbered files. This means camera photos may be recovered into a JPG folder, with files named like photo0001.jpg, photo0002.jpg and so on.

If required we can process certain types of these files into more meaningful order. For photos we can arrange into folders by date taken, and for music files we can arrange into Artist / Album order.

The Important Bit

If you accidentally delete some files, they are likely to be recoverable. It’s the actions you take next which can make the recovery difficult – if not impossible.