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Set up to deal with data disaster:

No matter how well a computer system is set up, no matter how expensive the hardware or how extensive the software, that system will someday fail. Through no fault of your own, despite all precautions, no matter what- a system which remains in use eventually will fail.

It's not a matter of if, but when...

For businesses that rely upon the data that a computer system holds, a simple power failure can be as catastrophic as any fire, flood, or tornado. Fortunately, since system failure is a known and quantifiable risk, there are steps which can be taken to minimize its impact.

The following eight points are some factors we consider to be important. In some cases, they may exceed generally accepted practices. Nonetheless, you may wish to consider them in minimizing the effect of future system problems.

1. Insulate your data.

It is a very good idea to establish data storage areas which are entirely separate from those which house system software. If problems arise in the operating system, you can replace the afflicted component without impacting your data.

2. Back up your data.

Data files must be duplicated and stored in multiple locations. This must be done frequently on a regular basis. Any data which is not backed up is subject to loss. The backups must be complete and durable. They must be self-contained and readily accessible from multiple machines. Moreover, since fire, theft, and other physical disasters are a threat, you should maintain copies of these backups outside your offices.

3. Back up your systems.

In the event of an individual system failure, it can be very time-consuming to reinstall and reconfigure all of its software. Each system should have a "disaster" backup which would enable quick and reliable restoration of the system software, settings, and configuration. This is particularly important with a central machine on which others must rely.

4. Maintenance

Computer systems are very complex devices that rely on an appallingly convoluted storage and retrieval sub-system. They require periodic intervention to assure that the storage and retrieval sub-system remains fully functional.

5. Modularity

A business computer system should be configured so that the failure of a single component will not disable the entire system. Individual components should be readily and economically replaceable and interchangeable.

6. Simplicity

Although personal computers can be set up to do almost anything, they cannot be set up to do everything. A business system should be no more complex than the actual work requires. The fact that a computer can do something does not necessarily mean that it should.

7. Usability

Your system must enable you to do the things you need to do as easily as possible. The more you expect from it, the more complex it becomes. The key is to decide which features are essential and which ones you could do just as well without.

8. Manageability

Any computer system requires some degree of technical expertise. In general, the more complex the system, the more costly it is to properly maintain, and the fewer choices you will have in obtaining services. You must strike a balance between the required complexity of your system and the expense of maintaining it.

The tools for the job

In setting up hard drives for improved operating system and data security, we have found software tools from PowerQuest to be invaluable.  If you're serious about your computers, find out more about PowerQuest's DriveImage and PartitionMagic, as well as Symantec's SystemWorks.

Basic system maintenance...

Things to take care of now...

Top of computer section... 


Recovering lost data:

When your data files are inaccessible...

Your office is suddenly shut down. Your data files have vanished. Depending on the circumstances, the effect may be a minor inconvenience or a full-blown disaster. With an adequate backup system in place, it may not be that big a deal. But what if, like many small and home office operators, your backups are incomplete, out of date, or non-existent?

Don't panic...

Sometimes missing files have merely been misplaced. If your system boots up normally and only a few files or folders have disappeared, try using the FIND function from the START menu in Windows 95 and later . This can locate files by date, size, or text content. If a file has been inadvertently moved or renamed, this is the easiest way to find it.

If the search is fruitless and the missing information is not in the recycle bin, stop. Exit Windows and shut down your computer. Utilities from OnTrack (Easy Recovery) or Symantec (Norton Utilities) can recover inadvertently deleted files that have not been overwritten. Do not install this software on the affected computer after files are lost. Doing so is likely to destroy all chances of recovery. Instead, arrange to run the software from a floppy disk. Read, understand, and follow the instructions carefully.

Of the two utilities we recommend for this purpose, Norton is less expensive and you get more for your money, but is primarily intended for preventative measures.  The OnTrack package is much easier to use when the data's already lost, and is capable of dealing with more serious data recovery problems.

More serious problems...

Missing files are one thing, but a computer that tells you that there's no operating system or to insert a boot disk in drive A is something else. Hard drive failure is the most serious problem an office computer can develop.

If you're still using an older system and you're lucky, a dead CMOS battery can make a hard drive seem to disappear. When the power's off, the system "forgets" that it even has a hard drive. Try running SETUP at system boot and instruct the BIOS to install the hard drive. This could put you back in business.

If not, or for newer systems which automatically detect a hard drive at system boot, your problem's not so simple. It is likely that your hard drive has suffered a mechanical failure or corruption of its logical structure. If the data it contains is important and you do not have a backup, you could be in for a major expense.


If possible, try to ascertain that the hard drive and not some other component is at fault. Temporarily install it as a second drive in another system. If it's properly installed and the contents remain inaccessible, it's time to consider data recovery.

Because data recovery is an expensive proposition, it pays to be certain the drive is really at fault.  Sometimes the problem isn't as bad as it seems.  Don't rely on the office computer geek.  Before you pack up your drive with the typical $200 diagnostic fee, get a second opinion from an expert.

Mechanical failure

A drive that does not make a soft whirring sound when powered up (or one that emits a series of clicking noises), most likely must be sent to a qualified repair facility. Hard drive repair is an expensive proposition, one that requires specialized equipment, "clean room" facilities, and technicians dressed in space suits. Be prepared to spend up to several thousand dollars to get your data back.

Logical failure

A drive that is physically functional (one that spins normally when powered but reports no contents or claims to need formatting) provides more options for recovering your data. Here, the likeliest problem is corruption of the data structures that keep the hard drive organized. Your options range from hiring a local technician to sending your drive to one of the national companies equipped to handle virtually any hard drive problem.

If the data is there, the top-tier companies will recover it, generally at an average cost in the neighborhood of $2500. A local computer technician, on the other hand, may be able to repair the damage for a couple of hundred dollars. Or, depending on the tools and techniques employed, he may render your data irrecoverable at any price.

Alternative recovery services generally have more dedicated recovery tools, equipment, and experience than a local technician, particularly in the smaller markets. Since they do not have the huge investment and service range of top-tier companies, their prices can be much lower.

Do it yourself?

If your own equipment is adequate (you have access to a second hard drive and plenty of system RAM), you might try
EASY RECOVERY from ONTRACK DATA INTERNATIONAL, leaders in the field of data recovery. 

The program requires minimal technical knowledge and can deal with a wide range of data recovery needs- from single files and floppies to hard drive partitions & more.  You'll find a link to Ontrack in our free software section...

Another product that may help is Hard Drive Mechanic Gold, which provides a relatively easy interface and corrects a wide range of "crashed drive" problems.

Direct Connect: Buy now at Amazon.com: Hard Drive Mechanic Gold


Maintain your options

Although you may very well not need the resources of a multi-million dollar facility, we believe they should remain an option. There are many variables involved in recovering data from a malfunctioning hard drive, and the extent of damage is not always immediately apparent. Sometimes you do need top-tier resources. We strongly recommend that any service you employ anticipate this possibility.

The main thing is to ensure that recovery attempts do not make matters worse. We recommend "cloning" the original drive and working with the duplicate.  If the damage is sufficiently complex to need more extensive procedures, these will not be complicated (made still more expensive) by prior efforts at recovery.

We like PowerQuest Drive Image for this purpose. In addition to enabling preservation of your drive "as-is" before attempting data recovery with something like Norton Utilities' Disk Editor, this package now includes real-time data protection to guard against future losses.  More about Drive Image...

If your problem is within the capabilities of their equipment and if their procedures include these safeguards, an alternative recovery service can be an economical and viable option, potentially saving you thousands of dollars.

An iffy proposition

Whether you decide to go straight to the top-tier services or opt for a more affordable solution, you should be aware that recovery efforts, no matter who provides them, may not be 100% successful. Depending on the nature and extent of the damage, some files may contain minor errors, some may consist of garble, some may have vanished completely, while others may be perfect.

Typically, your recovery service will charge a non-refundable diagnostic fee for examining your drive, and provide a list of recoverable files with a confidence factor for each expressed as a percentage. You will then have the option to proceed with the recovery at an agreed price for the service. 

Data recovery is not a substitute

At best, the recovery of lost files is time-consuming and expensive. At worst, the files you need may be simply and irretrievably gone. You must weigh the price of the recovery against the cost of replacing your data, or trying to do without it. A regular, scheduled program of backups and maintenance will help ensure that you never have to make these choices.

More about backups...


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