Welcome!

Linux Containers Authors: Yeshim Deniz, Pat Romanski, Elizabeth White, Liz McMillan, Amit Gupta

Related Topics: Linux Containers

Linux Containers: Article

Why Recovering a Deleted Ext3 File Is Difficult . . .

and why you should back up important files

We have all done it before. You accidentally type in the wrong argument to rm or select the wrong file for deletion. As you hit enter, you notice your mistake and your stomach drops. You reach for the backup of the system and realize that there isn't one.

There are many undelete tools for FAT and NTFS file systems, but there are few for Ext3, which is currently the default file system for most Linux distributions. This is because of the way that Ext3 files are deleted. Crucial information that stores where the file content is located is cleared during the deletion process.

In this article, we take a low-level look at why recovery is difficult and look at some approaches that are sometimes effective. We will use some open source tools for the recovery, but the techniques are not completely automated.

What Is a File?
Before we can see how to recover files, we need to look at how files are stored. Typically, file systems are located inside of a disk partition. The partition is usually organized into 512-byte sectors. When the partition is formatted as Ext3, consecutive sectors will be grouped into blocks, whose size can range from 1,024 to 4,096 bytes. The blocks are grouped together into block groups, whose size will be tens of thousands of blocks. Each file has data stored in three major locations: blocks, inodes, and directory entries. The file content is stored in blocks, which are allocated for the exclusive use of the file. A file is allocated as many blocks as it needs. Ideally, the file will be allocated consecutive blocks, but this is not always possible.

The metadata for the file is stored in an inode structure, which is located in an inode table at the beginning of a block group. There are a finite number of inodes and each is assigned to a block group. File metadata includes the temporal data such as the last modified, last accessed, last changed, and deleted times. Metadata also includes the file size, user ID, group ID, permissions, and block addresses where the file content is stored.

The addresses of the first 12 blocks are saved in the inode and additional addresses are stored externally in blocks, called indirect blocks. If the file requires many blocks and not all of the addresses can fit into one indirect block, a double indirect block is used whose address is given in the inode. The double indirect block contains addresses of single indirect blocks, which contain addresses of blocks with file content. There is also a triple indirect address in the inode that adds one more layer of pointers.

Last, the file's name is stored in a directory entry structure, which is located in a block allocated to the file's parent directory. An Ext3 directory is similar to a file and its blocks contain a list of directory entry structures, each containing the name of a file and the inode address where the file metadata is stored. When you use the ls -i command, you can see the inode address that corresponds to each file name. We can see the relationship between the directory entry, the inode, and the blocks in Figure 1.

When a new file is created, the operating system (OS) gets to choose which blocks and inode it will allocate for the file. Linux will try to allocate the blocks and inode in the same block group as its parent directory. This causes files in the same directory to be close together. Later we'll use this fact to restrict where we search for deleted data.

The Ext3 file system has a journal that records updates to the file system metadata before the update occurs. In case of a system crash, the OS reads the journal and will either reprocess or roll back the transactions in the journal so that recovery will be faster then examining each metadata structure, which is the old and slow way. Example metadata structures include the directory entries that store file names and inodes that store file metadata. The journal contains the full block that is being updated, not just the value being changed. When a new file is created, the journal should contain the updated version of the blocks containing the directory entry and the inode.

Deletion Process
Several things occur when an Ext3 file is deleted from Linux. Keep in mind that the OS gets to choose exactly what occurs when a file is deleted and this article assumes a general Linux system.

At a minimum, the OS must mark each of the blocks, the inode, and the directory entry as unallocated so that later files can use them. This minimal approach is what occurred several years ago with the Ext2 file system. In this case, the recovery process was relatively simple because the inode still contained the block addresses for the file content and tools such as debugfs and e2undel could easily re-create the file. This worked as long as the blocks had not been allocated to a new file and the original content was not overwritten.

With Ext3, there is an additional step that makes recovery much more difficult. When the blocks are unallocated, the file size and block addresses in the inode are cleared; therefore we can no longer determine where the file content was located. We can see the relationship between the directory entry, the inode, and the blocks of an unallocated file in Figure 2.

Recovery Approaches
Now that we know the components involved with files and which ones are cleared during deletion, we can examine two approaches to file recovery (besides using a backup). The first approach uses the application type of the deleted file and the second approach uses data in the journal. Regardless of the approach, you should stop using the file system because you could create a file that overwrites the data you are trying to recover. You can power the system off and put the drive in another Linux computer as a slave drive or boot from a Linux CD.

The first step for both techniques is to determine the deleted file's inode address. This can be determined from debugfs or The Sleuth Kit (TSK). I'll give the debugfs method here. debugfs comes with most Linux distributions and is a file system debugger. To start debugfs, you'll need to know the device name for the partition that contains the deleted file. In my example, I have booted from a CD and the file is located on /dev/hda5:

# debugfs /dev/hda5
debugfs 1.37 (21-Mar-2005)
debugfs:

We can then use the cd command to change to the directory of the deleted file:

debugfs: cd /home/carrier/

The ls -d command will list the allocated and deleted files in the directory. Remember that the directory entry structure stores the name and the inode of the file and this listing will give us both values because neither is cleared during the deletion process. The deleted files have their inode address surrounded by "<" and ">":

debugfs: ls -d
415848 (12) . 376097 (12) .. 415864 (16) .bashrc
[...]
<415926> (28) oops.dat

More Stories By Brian Carrier

Brian Carrier has authored several leading computer forensic tools, including The Sleuth Kit (formerly The @stake Sleuth Kit) and the Autopsy Forensic Browser. He has authored several peer-reviewed conference and journal papers and has created publicly available testing images for forensic tools. Currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Computer Science and Digital Forensics at Purdue University, he is also a research assistant at the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security
(CERIAS) there. He formerly served as a research scientist at @stake and as the lead for the @stake Response Team and Digital Forensic Labs. Carrier has taught forensics, incident response, and file systems at SANS, FIRST, the @stake Academy, and SEARCH. He is the author of File System Forensic Analysis (Addison-Wesley, ISBN 0321268172).

Comments (6) View Comments

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.


Most Recent Comments
theusr 07/09/09 09:29:00 AM EDT

The figure 2 maybe misleading: the links between the address blocks and the file content are still there (though the address blocks are unallocated), that what's make the recovery possible.

Mike Kay 01/15/08 03:57:07 PM EST

Excellent article. Followed it step by step and successfully recovered a .XLS spreadsheet that had been deleted from the /tmp folder on Ubuntu Gutsy. It also found an associated .jpg that I wasn't looking for!

Saved me hours of retyping. Thanks a lot.

Jahangir 10/22/07 05:26:36 PM EDT

This was really the best article i could find inspite of 3 hrs of googling.

But what if you are trying to recover a 6GB VM.
Since VMware files are not recognized by foremost, how can we get the magic number to get the header for the VM files ??

ruintower 04/23/06 09:07:29 PM EDT

Trackback Added: ext3 undelete;   I “mis-deleted” a big file several days ago. So I umount the the partition immediately and searched the recovery method because I knew (but forgot) some methods to recovery file in Linux. However, the result is disappointed. Alt...

marco 03/13/06 08:04:20 AM EST

U have saved my life.
I had lost all my application files under tomcat with de deploy command... no backup ..gulp
now I have a 128MB ascii file with my lost files, it's great.

U are a GURU,
thanx

marco 03/13/06 08:04:04 AM EST

U have saved my life.
I had lost all my application files under tomcat with de deploy command... no backup ..gulp
now I have a 128MB ascii file with my lost files, it's great.

U are a GURU,
thanx

@ThingsExpo Stories
SYS-CON Events announced today that Dasher Technologies will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 - Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Dasher Technologies, Inc. ® is a premier IT solution provider that delivers expert technical resources along with trusted account executives to architect and deliver complete IT solutions and services to help our clients execute their goals, plans and objectives. Since 1999, we'v...
Enterprises have taken advantage of IoT to achieve important revenue and cost advantages. What is less apparent is how incumbent enterprises operating at scale have, following success with IoT, built analytic, operations management and software development capabilities – ranging from autonomous vehicles to manageable robotics installations. They have embraced these capabilities as if they were Silicon Valley startups. As a result, many firms employ new business models that place enormous impor...
SYS-CON Events announced today that TidalScale, a leading provider of systems and services, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 - Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. TidalScale has been involved in shaping the computing landscape. They've designed, developed and deployed some of the most important and successful systems and services in the history of the computing industry - internet, Ethernet, operating s...
Coca-Cola’s Google powered digital signage system lays the groundwork for a more valuable connection between Coke and its customers. Digital signs pair software with high-resolution displays so that a message can be changed instantly based on what the operator wants to communicate or sell. In their Day 3 Keynote at 21st Cloud Expo, Greg Chambers, Global Group Director, Digital Innovation, Coca-Cola, and Vidya Nagarajan, a Senior Product Manager at Google, will discuss how from store operations...
Nordstrom is transforming the way that they do business and the cloud is the key to enabling speed and hyper personalized customer experiences. In his session at 21st Cloud Expo, Ken Schow, VP of Engineering at Nordstrom, will discuss some of the key learnings and common pitfalls of large enterprises moving to the cloud. This includes strategies around choosing a cloud provider(s), architecture, and lessons learned. In addition, he’ll go over some of the best practices for structured team migrat...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Taica will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Taica manufacturers Alpha-GEL brand silicone components and materials, which maintain outstanding performance over a wide temperature range -40C to +200C. For more information, visit http://www.taica.co.jp/english/.
SYS-CON Events announced today that MIRAI Inc. will exhibit at the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) Pavilion at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. MIRAI Inc. are IT consultants from the public sector whose mission is to solve social issues by technology and innovation and to create a meaningful future for people.
Recently, REAN Cloud built a digital concierge for a North Carolina hospital that had observed that most patient call button questions were repetitive. In addition, the paper-based process used to measure patient health metrics was laborious, not in real-time and sometimes error-prone. In their session at 21st Cloud Expo, Sean Finnerty, Executive Director, Practice Lead, Health Care & Life Science at REAN Cloud, and Dr. S.P.T. Krishnan, Principal Architect at REAN Cloud, will discuss how they bu...
As hybrid cloud becomes the de-facto standard mode of operation for most enterprises, new challenges arise on how to efficiently and economically share data across environments. In his session at 21st Cloud Expo, Dr. Allon Cohen, VP of Product at Elastifile, will explore new techniques and best practices that help enterprise IT benefit from the advantages of hybrid cloud environments by enabling data availability for both legacy enterprise and cloud-native mission critical applications. By rev...
Join IBM November 1 at 21st Cloud Expo at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, and learn how IBM Watson can bring cognitive services and AI to intelligent, unmanned systems. Cognitive analysis impacts today’s systems with unparalleled ability that were previously available only to manned, back-end operations. Thanks to cloud processing, IBM Watson can bring cognitive services and AI to intelligent, unmanned systems. Imagine a robot vacuum that becomes your personal assistant tha...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Datera will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Datera offers a radically new approach to data management, where innovative software makes data infrastructure invisible, elastic and able to perform at the highest level. It eliminates hardware lock-in and gives IT organizations the choice to source x86 server nodes, with business model option...
With major technology companies and startups seriously embracing Cloud strategies, now is the perfect time to attend 21st Cloud Expo October 31 - November 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center, CA, and June 12-14, 2018, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY, and learn what is going on, contribute to the discussions, and ensure that your enterprise is on the right path to Digital Transformation.
Infoblox delivers Actionable Network Intelligence to enterprise, government, and service provider customers around the world. They are the industry leader in DNS, DHCP, and IP address management, the category known as DDI. We empower thousands of organizations to control and secure their networks from the core-enabling them to increase efficiency and visibility, improve customer service, and meet compliance requirements.
Digital transformation is changing the face of business. The IDC predicts that enterprises will commit to a massive new scale of digital transformation, to stake out leadership positions in the "digital transformation economy." Accordingly, attendees at the upcoming Cloud Expo | @ThingsExpo at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, Oct 31-Nov 2, will find fresh new content in a new track called Enterprise Cloud & Digital Transformation.
SYS-CON Events announced today that N3N will exhibit at SYS-CON's @ThingsExpo, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. N3N’s solutions increase the effectiveness of operations and control centers, increase the value of IoT investments, and facilitate real-time operational decision making. N3N enables operations teams with a four dimensional digital “big board” that consolidates real-time live video feeds alongside IoT sensor data a...
SYS-CON Events announced today that NetApp has been named “Bronze Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. NetApp is the data authority for hybrid cloud. NetApp provides a full range of hybrid cloud data services that simplify management of applications and data across cloud and on-premises environments to accelerate digital transformation. Together with their partners, NetApp emp...
Smart cities have the potential to change our lives at so many levels for citizens: less pollution, reduced parking obstacles, better health, education and more energy savings. Real-time data streaming and the Internet of Things (IoT) possess the power to turn this vision into a reality. However, most organizations today are building their data infrastructure to focus solely on addressing immediate business needs vs. a platform capable of quickly adapting emerging technologies to address future ...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Avere Systems, a leading provider of hybrid cloud enablement solutions, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 – Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Avere Systems was created by file systems experts determined to reinvent storage by changing the way enterprises thought about and bought storage resources. With decades of experience behind the company’s founders, Avere got its ...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Avere Systems, a leading provider of enterprise storage for the hybrid cloud, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 21st International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on Oct 31 - Nov 2, 2017, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Avere delivers a more modern architectural approach to storage that doesn't require the overprovisioning of storage capacity to achieve performance, overspending on expensive storage media for inactive data or the overbui...
SYS-CON Events announced today that IBM has been named “Diamond Sponsor” of SYS-CON's 21st Cloud Expo, which will take place on October 31 through November 2nd 2017 at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, California.