P2P Tech Support: Hardware Matchmaking on the Blogosphere

After months apart, me and my Vaio Flip are back together again. I had shelved it because its achilles heel, the dodgy CPU fan, had begun to die again. This had happened before and I replaced it myself, winning about a year of use before March of this year. This time, it began failing again and then stopped effecively cooling the CPU entirely. So, it went on the shelf until I had time and funds to repair it, and I picked up my trusty backup: a slightly battleworn Lenovo u300s.

The Lenovo served me well for 2.5 months, offering great battery life, a low weight, and reasonable performance.

Then, it died. With as much warning as the foregoing, the laptop simply went black mid-July, leaving me without a workhorse just as we were preparing for the IndieBio EU Demo Day. In fact, it broke about an hour before I was due to board a train to Dublin, so I had to race home to fetch yet another backup Laptop and burn a quick Ubuntu image to get it rolling on the way North.

Of course, I tried opening the laptop to recover the SSD..only to learn that it wasn't a form-factor I could work with. A frenetic search prior to my dash to the station yielded only that it was an M.2 drive..but later research on the train showed that whether it was M.2 or not at the chip/protocol level, the connector was certainly not an M.2. Indeed, I eventually landed on a blog-post from a fellow victim of Lenovo's terrible laptop design, whose SSD had burned out in 2013, and learned that the SSD was a single-use design for the u300s only and was impossible to replace, much less extract data from.

So, let me step back a minute and throw in some flavour. I normally keep regular backups using restic, so I have versioned backup snapshots on an external drive to work with. This Summer, I had forgotten to make my snapshots for about two months. In that time, I had:

  • Converted my two blogs entirely to Markdown in Hugo, which involved loads of (still incomplete) fixes, and some custom modifications to a theme I liked to make it more private. Yes; the only usable copy of this website was, at that time, on the Lenovo SSD.
  • Made big changes to a largeish project I've been developing, a sort of small, libre alternative to Sendgrid. Due out soon, but still a work-in-progress for now.
  • Started several projects, including a challenging rewrite of someone's URL-parsing finite state machine, which were mid-completion.
  • Gathered and sanitised large datasets of contact information for people relevant to IndieBio and Forma Labs, which were kind of immediately important when I lost them.
  • …etc…

..and all the foregoing data was locked in a non-standard, unnecessarily-bespoke SSD design that Lenovo had used once and then abandoned entirely. My only fellow victim in the world appeared to be Stuart Langridge of Kryogenix, who wrote scathingly about Lenovo's complete failure to properly design and support a flagship laptop with the u300s.

I tried a few avenues for repair including my preferred laptop repair shop in Cork. My second back-up laptop was already threatening to die for reasons of its own, so I finally dropped off the Vaio for repair, too. Nothing worked out; my attempts to get the Lenovo repaired only confirmed that it was irrepairable E-waste, and that the SSD was unreadable garbage without it. So, as a last resort, I reached out to Stuart on Twitter and asked if he still had his SSD-less laptop from 2013.

Back-up again a bit: it may appear strange, even with all of the above valuable information, to rely on the largesse of a stranger for data recovery, even one that looks as awesome as the good Stuart. Let this be yet another nail in the door for the “Encrypt all the things” manifesto, then. I encrypt all my hard-drives, because it gives me privacy, and because it makes them easy to wipe for re-use, and because it means that I can harvest the SSD from my dead laptop, send it to a total stranger, and ask kindly for a disk image. Had I not encrypted it as a matter of habit, I could not do so later without my laptop, and I would have had to think long and hard about sending my private data to a heretofore-unknown Birminghamberger whose irate blog I had found on a quick search.

Stuart, as you have probably guessed by my continued blog activity, kindly obliged. The deal was straightforward; a free replacement for said bespoke SSD in exchange for a straight disk image of the drive, returned on another drive, which I could then decrypt and recover my data from.

It wasn't exactly bump-free, and it turned out I had sent Stuart a hard drive that was too small to contain the disk image, so he did me the favour of buying a new drive to send back. He did offer another avenue, to SSH into his laptop and decrypt / resize the drive remotely, but (apart from my other reservations) I felt it would undermine an otherwise great story about zero-knowledge data recovery.

A week or so later, I received a packet back from Birmingham with a neat new drive containing the image, and within two hours I had my data safely backed up..including this blog.

The moral of the story: Encrypt all the things, and then don't be afraid to reach out to others for help. This is actually not my first experience of the P2P repair phenomenon, but it never stops being amazing how the internet can help people to help one another.

Sincere thanks to fellow linux nerd and computer wizard, Stuart.

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