Geoff Garbers

Husband. Programmer. Tinkerer.

Recovering recently deleted files from an EXT3/EXT4 (with journaling) partition

Dec 15, 2010

Just recently (yesterday, in fact), I made the stupid mistake of deleting some rather important project files. It wouldn’t have been too bad had these files been in Subversion. However, they weren’t. As such, I didn’t find the prospect of spending an additional 3 weeks’ development rewriting the lost code.

So, I began searching for some sort of file recovery utility for the EXT4 partition type with journaling. Initially, the results didn’t seem too positive. Most of the responses were suggesting that I’d basically need to perform a sudo strings /dev/sdaX > /home/geoff/dataPartition.txt in order to get all the string data on the partition into a file, and parse through the file from there, extracting out the data I need.

That sounded like a lot of work. Considering I had just deleted the files, I figured there had to be something better. Eventually, I found a ridiculously useful (and awesome) file recovery application, named extundelete. It’s an open source project that is available from SourceForge. You can view the project’s homepage at

What follows is an account of the processes I followed in using extundelete to recover my deleted files. Please note: I am merely providing this account in the hope that it might help someone else. I cannot take responsibility for any damage caused by replicating this process on your own computer.

1. Make sure no more data can be lost

Before making any changes, if the files you’re trying to restore are residing on a separate partition, you’ll probably want to remount that partition as read-only, to prevent any accidental over-writing. You can do this using the following command (assuming there are no processes accessing files on it, and you’ve replaced “X” with the corresponding partition number):

$ sudo mount -o remount,ro /dev/sdaX

2. Download and extract the source files

Next, you will need to visit the extundelete project page on Sourceforge, and download the source files. After downloading, extract the source files to a location of your choosing, on a partition that is writable. If you’re happy to do this to the directory into which the archive was downloaded, it is a simple case of executing this command:

$ tar -xvvf downloaded-filename.tar.gz

3. Install additional dependencies

Before I was able to run the compilation process successfully, I found that I was required to install some additional dependencies. If you too haven’t built from source before, you will probably need to do the same. The below are the commands I performed in order to successfully build from source:

$ sudo apt-get install build-essential
$ sudo apt-get install ext2fs-dev

4. Compile the source

Once the dependencies have been installed successfully, issue the following commands from the application’s source file folder to build the application:

$ ./configure
$ make

If you want to “install” it, so that it is available from your /usr/local/bin/ directory, you can issue the following command:

$ sudo make install

5. Begin file recovery

Once you have finished compiling the application, change to the src/ directory within the source file directory. The compiled application should be residing there, in a file called extundelete. Executing ./extundelete -h will provide you with a list of options available to be used with the application. I found that the following invocation worked for me:

$ sudo ./extundelete /dev/sdaX --restore-all --after 1291845600

There is apparently an option that can be specified which will change the save directory of the recovered files which is used by adding --restore-directory /home/username/recovered_files/. However, I only read about this on another blog, and couldn’t find it in the extundelete help contents. Attempting to add it to my command line invocation didn’t seem to work either.

This means that all recovered files will be saved to src/RECOVERED_FILES/. Considering the recovery was performed as root, you’ll find that the recovered files will be owned by root. You won’t be able to modify the files, even though you will be able to access them.

Once extundelete has completed running, you should find the recovered files available for you to copy and paste as you see fit. I found that extundelete managed to recover almost all of my deleted files. There were some files that needed to be downloaded and copied in again, but on the whole, the bulk of the lost files were recovered successfully. So what could have been days worth of work in recovering the files, turned out to only be about 2 - 3 hours worth of work in recovering weeks’ worth of work.

Not bad, methinks. I hope you’ve found this helpful. If you have, I’d really like to know about it. If you need any specific help, hit me up in the comments, and I’ll try to help you out where possible.