Linux helps rescue a damaged Windows disk

When all seemed to be lost for a Windows PC, Linux saved the day.

drawing by Russ Bellew
Contents of client’s disk

I was given a client’s Windows XP Pro PC with a hard drive with 50,000 hours of power-on time. This machine is mission-critical: it functions as both a server and a client for a 2-user version of Quickbooks and runs a proprietary point-of-sale system. The client had almost run out of storage space on the drive’s System partition. It was overdue for replacement.

There are 3 disks in this saga:

  1. The original disk
  2. The second (larger) disk, to which I hoped to copy the programs and data from disk 1
  3. A third disk, which I found was necessary


There are a number of programs that make the cloning process easy: Drive Image, Norton Ghost, and Acronis True Image. Each boots from the CD-drive. I used Acronis True Image. All went smoothly until I tried to boot from the new drive: it wouldn’t boot. No error message. Nothing. I repeated the cloning process, with the same result. I replaced the original disk and booted from it. The BIOS reported “An operating system can not be found”. Uh-oh. I had a computer that wouldn’t boot from either disk 1 or disk 2.

Has system hardware failed?

At this point, I began looking for hardware problems. Flaky memory can cause boot problems. I removed the four memory sticks, cleaned their contacts, and tried again. No joy. It was late Saturday night so I booted the DOS Ultimate Boot CD and ran memTest86 overnight.

By Sunday afternoon memTest86 had looped through all memory 6 times and found only one bad memory cell during just one of its 6 passes. I chalked this up to a random cosmic ray hit. The problem wasn’t memory.

Partition Magic won’t load partitions

I wasn’t sure what my next step would be, but I guessed that I’d need the surface of another disk to work with, so I bought another (250 GB) disk and installed Windows XP Pro on it, followed by Partition Magic, and hung both damaged disks on the same machine. Partition Magic reported that the original disk had no partitions on it. Partition Magic wouldn’t load when the second disk was installed, complaining that the disk’s System partition was too damaged. Yikes!

Linux (Ubuntu 10.04) to the rescue

I booted from a Linux (Ubuntu 10.04) Live CD and examined the disk with Ubuntu’s gnome disk utility. To my relief, it allowed me to mount the damaged partition. I rebooted Ubuntu with disk 3 and learned that while Partition Magic wouldn’t always mount partitions that had been created by gnome’s gparted (gnome partition editor), gparted and gnome disk utility would always mount partitions that were created by Partition Magic.

Partition Magic and Ubuntu’s disk tools co-operate

I used Partition Magic to create a new primary (bootable) NTFS partition on disk 3, installed both disks 2 and 3, booted from Ubuntu Live CD, and mounted the damaged System partition on disk 2. Then I used gnome’s disk utility to copy the entire contents of disk 2’s damaged System partition to the new NTFS partition on disk 3. I performed a similar operation for disk 2’s Data partition.

Then I just needed to boot from disk 3 (using the copy of Windows that I’d just installed on its first partition), run Partition Magic, move the partitions around and rename them so that it would boot from the System partition into which I’d just copied all those files. Crossed my fingers, restarted, and . . . it worked!

What had happened to disk 1?

Both Windows’ Partition Magic and Ubuntu’s gparted reported that it had no partitions on it(!) — that it was all “unallocated”. It appears that the sectors where its partition table and MBR (master boot record) are located failed during the cloning process. Cloning a disk works it pretty hard, reading every sector from sector 0 to its last sector.

Summary of our 3 disks after this saga:

  1. The original disk is scrap.
  2. The second disk will be used to provide an image backup
  3. Installed and working in client’s computer.

All that remains is to create an image backup from disk 3 to disk 2, and everyone can sleep peacefully.

All’s well that ends well.

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© Russ Bellew · Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA · phone 954 873-4695

3 thoughts on “Linux helps rescue a damaged Windows disk”

  1. Sounds like quite an ordeal, especially when you compound the problems with a buggy QuickBooks update:
    (IMPORTANT NOTICE: We are working to resolve issues with the R8 update for QuickBooks 2011 and Enterprise Solutions 11.0. If you already installed the update, follow these instructions. Otherwise, stay on your current release, and we’ll update our site when we have a solution. )

    I have taken my programs off auto-update, except one has to let windows update automatically due to security issues (notwithstanding the fact that MS was traditionally one of the worst companies in releasing buggy software prematurely).

    I like the idea of imaging an old disk as a back-up instead of simply saving the data as I’ve been doing and just ordered a Connectland USB external enclosure for SATA/IDE drive to use my old drives (since I have several in good condition) to add to my external drive collection.


  2. Imaging an entire disk to a second disk is an excellent way to prepare for quick system recovery. In a corporate environment with site licensing, one can use one image to restore to multiple identical machines.

    At recovery time, once you have a new disk with image in place and booting correctly, you just need to restore your backed-up data from tape, off-site, or wherever. and you’re back in business

    I’ve used Drive Image to create an image file and written it to tape or disk. At recovery time, one just needs to boot from the Drive Image recovery CD (it runs DOS) and attach the device that contains the image file . . . and there’s the rub, because in DOS this means loading the proper device drivers via config.sys, etc. One can spend hours just preparing a recovery disk that contains the proper drivers. I used to prepare such diskettes/CDs ahead of time and store them near the media that contained the drive images.

    More recently,, Acronis True Image Home works great and saves time: when you boot from its CD, it’s able to find USB devices such as external hard drives or thumb drives and either clone from or clone to the internal drive. (No messing with device drivers!) In automatic mode, it’s very easy to perform routine disk imaging. It also includes a disk wipe function, so that you can wipe the old disk clean before trashing it.

    Damaged Windows NTFS partition
    There may be a Windows program that could have read the damaged partition and maybe even repaired it, but I was so happy to find those Linux programs that could do so, that I stuck with them and copied the files from the partition while I could.

    Quickbooks Pro R8 update
    Your conservative approach to updates seems wise.

    I can’t remember the last time that a major accounting software vendor admitted publicly that their users shouldn’t update to their latest release because it caused so many problems.


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