When all seemed to be lost for a Windows PC, Linux saved the day.
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:
- The original disk
- The second (larger) disk, to which I hoped to copy the programs and data from disk 1
- 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:
- The original disk is scrap.
- The second disk will be used to provide an image backup
- 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.