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When troubleshooting whether it's possible to recover a lost base VMDK file using a snapshot, it helps to look at how VMDK files and snapshots work within vSphere.
How snapshots work
When we take a VMware snapshot, we don't actually duplicate any data from the original disk. Instead the original disk is placed into a read-only state and a new redo log -- sometimes called a delta disk -- is created. This delta disk is a placeholder for any writes occurring on the VM from that point forward.
Figure 1 helps illustrate how the snapshot process works. Imagine a disk holding the word "SNAPSHOT" with each letter residing in its own block. When we take a snapshot of the disk, the original word becomes read-only and a new delta VMDK is created. The second block is changed to "L" and an "S" is added in the ninth block to create the new word "SLAPSHOTS."
With all files intact, we have a couple of options. We could delete the snapshot, which would simply merge the new blocks into the original VMDK and commit "SLAPSHOTS" to our VM -- or we could revert to a point in time, meaning we could revert back to when the disk read "SNAPSHOT." Each time a snapshot is created, a new delta disk is made, meaning we could revert to any point in the snapshot chain.
A doomed rescue mission?
If the original VMDK gets corrupt or deleted, a lot of challenges are presented. As you can see in Figure 2, the original disk containing the word "SNAPSHOT" is gone. What we are left with now is a delta disk which contains the letters "L" and "S," with metadata pointing to a disk that no longer exists.
As you can probably conclude, without the original disk or the original blocks containing "SNAPSHOT," there is no way to reconstruct anything with the partial data left in the delta file.
Recovery depends on what is missing
Recovering a lost base VMDK from just a snapshot file is not possible, but depending on which base VMDK file is lost you may have some options. A virtual machine disk is made up of two different files; the -flat .VMDK file -- the most important portion of the virtual disk -- holds all the data and is a descriptor file that tells the virtual machine's configuration file -- the .vmx file -- all about its respective disk.
If the -flat.VMDK file is lost, there isn't much you can do except hope a backup exists. If the descriptor file is missing, then you can use the ESXi command line to perform a recovery. See VMware's knowledge base article 1002511 for the steps to perform this.
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