Jul 22, 2011

Recovering Memories

Sometimes, I do "computer work" (as they say) on the side as an independent consultant. I don't do it often enough to quit my day job, but it often gives me a chance to do things I don't usually handle on a daily basis.  Enter one such case. 

NTI Backup Now Ez 2010A friend asked if I would mind looking at her external hard drive to see if I could recover her pictures, videos, etc from it.  She used NTI Backup Now EZ (apparently, a member of the Geek Squad recommended this software).  That software has two backup options: Files/folders and whole partition.  She chose to back up the entire drive using the partition method.  Had I been in her shoes, I probably would have done the same.  Backing up the whole partition makes a perfect image of your computer's hard drive(s) so that should your computer die, you can stick in a new hard drive, run the restore, and have your machine running exactly as it was when you did the backup. At least, that's the theory. 

I hooked the hard drive up to my computer to see just what was on the drive.  Turns out there were several files and folders, many of which are related to booting from the external drive with a Linux loader and restore software.  The backup folder had several files in it: a CAT file (the backup catalog), a .NBP file and a .NBZ file.  The NBP was about 125GB and the NBZ about 4GB.  Based on the filenames, the 125GB was the C drive and the 4GB the D drive.  I knew at this point, I would need a drive to restore things to.  When I talked to our friend about it, she said she had two computers she could bring and I could do what I needed to restore the data.  The first computer turned out to be a P-III with a 40 or 80 GB hard drive. That's no good for this restore.  The other computer had a 320GB hard drive and a 500GB hard drive.  The 500GB hard drive was making some sporadic "clacking" noises, so I had my doubts about using that.  But, the backups were about 140GB and I had a 320GB drive, so we'll call that good to go.

I hooked up the external drive and booted the system from it.  The software came up and recognized the CAT file. When I tried to restore it, though, the software just reported "Failed to restore system - No space left on device." Okay, well, I figured that meant it didn't like the fact the hard drive was already formatted (it had XP on it).  I reformatted the hard drive and tried again. Nope, same error.  Okay, something weird is going on here.  I found tech support contact info for NTI and shot off an email for help.

While I waited for tech support (this was over a weekend, so I had time to play around with it), I downloaded the trial versions of the newest flavor of EZ.  That didn't accomplish anything.  I used the new software to burn a bootable CD to see if maybe the software was just outdated. Nope.  I downloaded the trial version of NTI Backup Now 5.5 to see if it had advanced features I could use to bust open this backup.  The software does have features that "should" have let me in, but when I tried restoring, I got the same error (or basically the same). Actually, thinking back, the program wouldn't find the backups, so I ran a quick backup to see what kind of file(s) it created.  Then, I changed the extension of the existing files to match. It was worth a shot. At least at that point, the program saw the files and TRIED to do something with them.

I'm not sure why, but something told me to examine the files more closely, specifically the CAT file.  Generally, the catalog file tells the backup program what to look for in the backups.  I downloaded a HEX editor, copied the content of the external drive to the 500GB hard drive (clacking and all) and began digging.  As it turns out, the restore program was looking for the backup filenames ending with a NBF extenstion instead of the ones mentioned before.  Okay, that's easy to fix. I changed the extensions, booted up to the linux program and tried the restore. BZZZT. Same problem - No space on device.

By this time (a couple days later), I received a reply from NTI tech support explaining that the error is most likely due to drive sizes.  That is, the drive I am trying to restore TO is smaller than one used to create the backup.  She also asked me to zip the catalog file so she could check it for errors.  I did, and she did, and she sent back a fixed CAT file.  I tried the restore and it still failed.  This time I sent an email to tech support, I was much more specific: I told her about the file extensions (which I had changed back to their original once I got the catalog file back) and about the environment I was using (size of the external drive, size of the the drive trying to restore to, etc).

The next day, I received a reply: I needed to restore to a 500GB drive or larger and the extensions did, in fact, need to be NBF (which I had seen in the hex editor, if you recall).  I did not mention that I took a hex editor to the files. I thought it better not to bring that up.

In any case, I grabbed a 500GB hard drive (not the clacking one) and fired up the external drive.  Sure enough, the program was happy with the fixed catalog file and the breathing room it wanted!

As it turns out, the files our friend wants are the very last photos and videos taken of her father before he passed away.  Sometimes, we get stuck working on a difficult project and we just can't seem to let go of it no matter how many roadblocks we run into.  Rather than throwing in the towel, we have some inner drive to figure it out.  In my case, I had no idea what the pictures were, just that she wanted them very badly if at all possible.  Now that I know why, I'm glad I sometimes lose myself in a project beyond the point many folks would have simply walked away.  I don't say that to say that I am better than other folks who do the same kind of thing. I say it because *I* had very little to do with it.  For me, it was as though the Lord was whispering to me the whole time, prodding me to try things I normally wouldn't do (like the hex editor).  I have to give Him the glory! Only because of Him in life was I able to recover our friend's memories.

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