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Data Recovery from a Failed Operating System

Has the Operating System Really Failed?

Telling the difference between a hard disk that is physically failing and an operating system that has become unusable can be difficult at times. It can be helpful to examine the circumstances around the time of failure to try and determine the cause of the problem. Under what circumstances did the operating system fail? Was there a new program installed or an old program removed? Did someone edit the windows registry? Was there a virus detected on the machine that necessitated the quarantine or removal of a system file? Was there a power failure or the computer switched off in an incorrect fashion? These are all circumstances that may cause the operating system to fail despite having a very healthy hard disk, though even here the line can be blurry because an incorrect shutdown of your computer can cause physical damage to your hard disk drive.

Recovering the Lost Files and Data

If it is definetely an operating system only failure with no other external influences you may be able to recover your data and the operating system itself. Later versions of Windows as an example have a feature called Safe Mode, where the operating system boots with very minimal configuration and additional drivers and features are not loaded at startup when they normally would be. Safe Mode in Windows is reached by pressing the F8 key as the computer boots up, you will often be prompted how you would like the computer to start up and in the instance of Microsoft Windows Safe Mode or Safe Mode with Network Support are two good choices.

If you have a network with mapped network drives etc you may be able to copy the data across to another computer whilst in safe mode and recover it from another machine instead. Alternately if the computer boots into safe mode successfully you may be able to burn your data to a CD or copy it to a USB drive. Once you have ensured the safety of your data you may even consider using Windows System Restore feature and/or Chkdsk program to try and recover the operating system. Or boot the computer from its installation disk and attempt a repair of the operating system. If the data on the disk is important or valuable recovering the data from the machine should take precedence over recovering the operating system.

Assuming that the hard disk is healthy and able to be read by a computer but it cant boot into safe mode successfully there are still plenty of options available to you. The most easiest by far is to simply install the hard disk into another computer as a secondary drive. Boot the second computer as normal and it will detect the second disk and assign it a drive letter such as D: or E: and you can then browse its filesystem and recover your lost data and files. It is highly recommended if you choose this route to copy the contents of the entire drive to a folder on the C: drive of this computer. That way if you intend to format the drive and reinstall or repair the operating system you have a complete copy of the entire hard drive, just in case your forgot to recover something. As you copy the files from the troubled disk to the host computers disk watch for errors in the copy process that can be a telltale sign that the disk is failing.

If you dont have a second computer data recovery can be just a fraction trickier, but if you keep a cool head you will still be able to recover your lost files. One quick and easy solution is to purchase another hard disk drive for the computer, removing the existing troubled drive from the machine completely to avoid confusion and accidental data loss. Perform a clean install of your operating system onto the new disk and then install the disk with your data as a secondary drive and recover your files and data from it then. You might also consider installing a parallel installation of your operating system onto the hard disk so that your files may be accessed. This is not one of my preferred methods but it is fairly easy to do. When you install your operating system do not format the drive and install the operating system in an alternate directory. This works particularly well with Windows, install your operating system into c:\windows2 as an example. This will allow you to get the machine functional to the point where you can copy your data onto a CD or USB drive.

Yet another option on a single PC data recovery is to employ a Live Operating System that can be booted off a CD or USB drive. BartPE and Ubuntu Rescue Remix are two example of Live Operating Systems that can be used to access the data on your hard drive in the event of the computers operating system failing. Live Operating Systems or Live CD's are unique in that they have the ability to run a complete operating system on PC's lacking usable secondary storage. The operating system is loaded directly from the CD, DVD or USB drive and gives the user the ability to access the contents of the hard drive directly and recover the data it contains. Once you have booted off the Live CD locate your data and copy it to a USB drive, floppy disk or similar removable device. Some Live CD's even have CD/DVD burning software that you can use to burn your files to disk and recover your data that way.

Once you have performed your data recovery you can focus on the root cause of the disk or operating system failure and return the computer to operation. A final word of advice, if you feel that there is even the slightest doubt as to the integrity of the hard disk, replace it. If the cause of your operating systems failure is a failing hard disk drive you will find yourself performing another data recovery in the near future, and perhaps it may not be as successful as the one you may have just performed.