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This section covers hardware that might be employed in the forensics process.
22.1.1 Hard Drives
The hard drive is a computer's permanent storage unit; it retains information even after the computer is powered off. It consists of several spinning plates called platters . The platters hold information accessed by mechanical read/write heads that sit very close to the surface of the platters. The number of platters varies, but there can be up to 12 platters spinning at the same time inside a hard drive. The platters are split into tracks , or segmented rings of storage space on the platter. The tracks, or rings, are further divided into sectors . It is in these sectors that the data exists. The reason hard drives are split into small sectors is to make it possible to quickly find data and to prevent a complete hard drive failure in the case of a small disk error. In addition, the sectors can speed up data retrieval if the drive knows in what general location to look.
In order to read information from a sector, a small arm holding sensitive magnets (the head ) is held very close to the surface of the platter. A hard drive stores information in the form of positive and negative charges, which correspond to zero (0) and one (1). Using a very sensitive magnet , the hard drive can detect the charge at each location on a plate and convert that charge into a one or a zero. This stream of bits is combined into the data that is used to create files.
Filesystems on hard drives often become fragmented as the OS and applications write and update data on them. While some filesystems (such as FAT and FAT 32) are more prone to fragmentation than others (NTFS and ext2/3), the phenomenon touches most of the modern filesystems to some extent. As data is read from and written to the hard drive, blank spaces are often left behind. If this blank space is big enough, a hard drive may store other information in it. This usually means a file's data ends up scattered across the hard drive, which can greatly increase the time it takes for you to retrieve a file. As a result, your computer appears to run slower. You can correct this with a defragmenting program that reorganizes the hard drive. In the case of a hard drive that has not been defragmented, a faulty sector may contain information for multiple files. Any file that has data in that particular sector will be unusable. If the hard drive has been defragmented, the bad sector is more likely to contain related data, thus decreasing the chance that you will lose multiple files.
Hard drives come in many sizes. Although bigger is usually better, that's not always true because of the time it takes for the hard drive to retrieve information. A bigger hard drive also means more surface to clean when you are trying to wipe free space.
The RAM, or Random Access Memory, stores data that is actively being used by running programs. This data is volatile (temporary), because it is lost when the computer is turned off. This is one of two main differences between RAM and the hard drive. The other difference is that RAM has no moving parts . Whereas a hard drive uses spinning plates and magnetic charges to store data, RAM uses a complex system to transfer electrons.
RAM uses transistors to control the flow of electricity and capacitors to temporarily store charges. It takes one transistor and one capacitor to control each bit that is stored in RAM. This means that in 64 MB of RAM, there are lots of transistor / capacitor pairs, all of which fit into a piece of hardware about the size of two fingers.
There are different types of RAM, including DRAM (Dynamic RAM) and SDRAM (Synchronous RAM). DRAM needs to be refreshed, or re-energized, more often that SDRAM. Since SDRAM can hold its charge a lot longer, it is the more expensive of the two types. There is also another type of RAM called RDRAM (Rambus DRAM). This RAM is many times faster than either SDRAM or DRAM. RAM works best with a permanent data reservoir , where the connection between RAM and the hard drive is made. Every time you access a program or file, you are immediately reading it from the RAM. The computer pulls all the information you need into the RAM and temporarily stores it. As soon as the data has been used, the RAM is overwritten with new data.
What happens when a program needs a file or group of files that is too big for the RAM? The hard drive serves as a temporary addition to the RAM. This "swap space" is used by many different operating systems. However, since reading data from the hard drive is many times slower than reading it from RAM, a computer slows down as it pulls information from the hard drive. Wiping swap space is covered later in this chapter.
In forensics, RAM is a special challenge. For example, a clever hacker won't touch the hard drive when performing a cybercrime . In this case, your only chance to recover physical evidence on-site is to capture the data running on the hacker's RAM while the machine is still plugged in. With such a "live" computer, you must image its RAM to another storage medium before turning off the power.
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