Consumer Experiences

how I recovered my own damn data when my LaCie Little Big Disk took a crap

Oh what a terrible tale! This is one of those lessons that was so painful and expensive to learn that I feel compelled to share it. It all has to do with an external hard drive called a LaCie Little Big Disk Thunderbolt 1 TB. Mine died, then I had frustrating tech support from LaCie, then I got a replacement, then that one died too, and then I took matters into my own hands and started fixing the problem.

Chapter 1: My Little Big Disk Failure

The Little Big Disk model I own has since been discontinued because there are bigger, faster ones on the market now. But when I bought it, this was probably the fastest external hard drive around. It is one external drive case that contains a pair of 2.5″ (laptop type) hard drives. These connect to a computer using a Thunderbolt cable, which is almost exclusively seen on Macs. You can configure the pair or drives in a few ways, but the way I chose was the factory default, which is RAID 0. In short, this is a means of pairing two hard drives so that data access is faster than it would be from either one alone. Think of it like two hard drives that each have half a file on them, so when you ask for a file they can both send it to you in parallel at the same time. This is perfect for video editing, so I bought this drive to be my main project drive for Final Cut Pro.

The downside of RAID 0 is that because there are two drives, if either one fails you lose all your data. So as a unit, it’s twice as likely to fail in a given amount of time. Because of this, it’s a good idea to back up the hard drive often. However, Beth and I moved recently, and the hard drives that I back up my LaCie onto were in a box. So I went nearly two months without doing a backup. Oops. Of course, during that time the hard drive went tits up.

Mac OS’ Disk Utility could see both the drives that make up the array, but reported that one of them had failed. I submitted a tech support ticket with LaCie, and they had me try a bunch of stuff that didn’t solve the problem – reverse the direction of the Thunderbolt cable, try a different cable, try it on a different Mac, try a different power cable. (“Try a different power cable?” Like the cable could provide enough power to spin up both drives but only pull data off one of them? I thought that was the stupidest suggestion, but the tech support guy insisted that there’s a failure mode for these that results in the symptoms I saw.)

I eventually convinced LaCie that the drive was bad. Fortunately, it was still under warranty. The options, as they explained, were:

  1. mail them back the drive and they’d mail a replacement
  2. pay for shipping of the replacement drive and they would send it first, then I mail the origin later
  3. hire their data recovery arm to take the drive apart in a clean room and try to get the data off – at a cost of $600 to $3000

I went for the second option. The data I had on the drive since my last backup was important, but not $600 important.

They sent me a replacement, and I found the two-month-old backup I’d made of this drive before we moved. When the replacement arrived, I restored my data onto it and went about my business.

But then three days later, the “new” drive failed in exactly the same way! I couldn’t believe it. Once again, I swapped out the cable, tried a different Thunderbolt port, tried a different power supply, etc. Nothing.

Chapter 2: Taking Matters Into My Own Hands

Now with two dead drives on my hands, I did some deep thinking and online research. LaCie doesn’t have a great reputation for reliability, so there are lots of articles I found through Google about this. One guy who had a similar paired drive from them (different model but the same design approach) took his apart, pulled out the two drives, and found that they actually both still worked. In his case, the problem was that the controller board failed. The drives were fine.

I have a Dyconn Dubbler Dock, which is a double SATA hard drive dock. Each of the two slots can take either a 3.5″ SATA drive or a 2.5″ SATA drive. So I figured what the hell. I opened up the case, took out the drives, and popped them in the Dubbler. Mac OS detected they were part of a RAID pair, and showed the one as being failed in the same way as when the drives were in the Little Big Disk case.

Then I downloaded some software called R-Studio for Mac, which is a data recovery tool. It can do a lot of different things, and I assume most people use it to undelete files they accidentally deleted. But it also fixes RAID problems like this. The main approach is that you can mount two (or more) drives that were members of a RAID array, and then build a new virtual software RAID out of them. That done, you can then restore files from the virtual array onto another drive. R-Tools Technology, makers of R-Studio (and a bunch of other stuff) lets you try a demo version of the product to see if it can recovery any data from your drive. In demo mode, you can only restore files less than 64 KB. That’s pretty small these days. In fact, I had a hard time finding any files that small on my drive later, but I did. If it works OK in demo mode, then you pay $80 and get an unlock key to restore the whole drive.

With a little trial-and-error and reading various posts on their user forum, I found the set of parameters that worked. I was able to see the contents of my RAID array, and restore a file correctly. So I paid for the full version, and set it to work.

One gotcha I should point out: Choosing the correct block size is important. If you don’t get the right number, you’ll be able to see the file system on the failed drive, but when you restore files they will be corrupt. In my case, when I did that, I got off a text file, but the contents were all binary gobbledygook. And I restored a PNG image, but no image viewer could read it. But once I found the right block size to use, the restored file worked like a charm.

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