Hard Drive Crash: Minimize the Carnage

By Drew Robb | Posted June 14, 2006

With the size of modern hard drives now exceeding 40 GB, it's no surprise that many people carry their business files and customer databases around on their laptops. While this may be incredibly convenient, there is a major downside. All it takes is one hard drive crash and all your data is history. And unless you've prepared for the worst, you could be in serious trouble.

I learned this painful lesson on a recent trip to Europe to visit family — and considering that I've been writing about technology for the last nine years, you'd think I'd know better. It seems that over-confidence can be just as dangerous as lack of knowledge or inertia.

Fortunately, I was able to recover my lost data, thanks to good software, my online backup provider and a very good computer technician. In this article we lay out what to do when your hard drive gives out. Take it from me — a little preparation will help you avoid a lot of anxiety and frustration.

Translating Tech Support
About six months ago, I made the move from a desktop to a laptop (an HP Proliant) as my working computer. It's convenient; my data's all in one place, and I've got one machine that goes everywhere I go.

But I soon learned that the old expression about keeping all your eggs in one basket applies all too well in the computer age. After a week on the road in Europe, my computer crashed and would start no more. I had written a couple of articles that I still needed to turn in, and I hadn't been able to back them up.

With my niece on tow as a translator, I headed into Warsaw in search of a computer technician. We found Zbigniew, who diagnosed the trouble as a hard drive crash and tried to recover a few files using a utility (I never did find out which one due to translation issues). He recovered more than 600 files, including the two lost articles.

When I went through the rest of the files, though, I discovered that about half were no good. Some were corrupted and wouldn't open and others were duplicates — I ended up with about twenty copies of one old article.

Zbigniew wanted to charge me $700 for a new hard drive, new Microsoft XP and Office licenses and labor to get the machine working again. I declined as I had the licenses back in America, and I could get it repaired cheaper there.

Tech Support American Style
Once home, I called my online backup provider, @Backup , and explained the situation. Techs there helped me to recover my files onto my desktop in moments (I love that company, by the way. For sixty dollars every six months it handles my backup needs).

But when I opened up my restored files I suffered a severe disappointment. Several hundred files were indeed recovered in perfect condition. But I was still missing almost all the files to the various magazines for which I write. That included 10 stories I wrote just before I left for Europe. If I couldn't find those, I wouldn't get paid — and editors were waiting impatiently.

How could this be? The culprit was not spyware, the online backup vendor or a virus. To find the responsible party, I had to look squarely in the mirror.

When I made the move from my desktop to the laptop, I had moved my backup software over with me. However, at that time, I only had a few new files to back up. I made up a few folders, clicked the appropriate boxes in my backup application and ensured they were being backed up correctly. Then — rather smugly — I stopped thinking about backup. Yet over the next few months I added dozens more folders and failed to update my backup program to ensure they were also protected every day.

Was I sunk? Would I have to rewrite a dozen articles and, since I'd also lost my article notes, would I have to reschedule all of the interviews? That's when I knew it was time to call my computer guy.

Based in Sherman Oaks, Calif., Hamid Azar of Azar PC has been fixing my machines for over five years. And he does a great job handling the technology needs for my small business. I took him the laptop and explained the situation.

Based on the earlier diagnosis of a failed hard drive, he gingerly tried out the drive and found that the disk was once again spinning. As he expected it to crash again at any time, he used Drive Image by PowerQuest (now owned by Symantec) to copy the data.

Author's Note: Azar says Norton Ghost by Symantec is just as good and costs around $70.

Using the software, he took an image of my entire drive and transferred it to another hard drive. It took about an hour. "If there's something wrong with a hard drive, don't waste time looking for individual files. The drive could crash and then you might not find anything," says Azar. "Take an image of it, and you are safe 99 percent of the time."

Sure enough, Azar called me up to tell me that everything was in order. He had recovered all my lost Word files and a repository of graphics files I had completely forgotten.

Next he ran the Microsoft ScanDisk utility on my old hard drive to repair a few areas that had suffered some damage. Then he ran a few more tests to check the entire hard disk surface and to see if the hard drive mechanism was sound, or was in actuality about to fail. His verdict — the original diagnosis from the tech in Warsaw proved faulty.

"Your hard drive may have overheated and temporarily stopped working, but it is perfectly fine," says Azar. "However, the Windows registry suffered damage and that's why it wouldn't boot up."

All it took at that point was to wipe the hard drive, reload Windows XP and Microsoft Office and then add my folders. But for good measure he ran further tests on the memory and other components to ensure everything was in good working order.

Helpful Hints
Azar has a few additional tricks he recommends. If a hard drive spins but the files can't be seen, he suggests using Ontrack EasyRecovery. This utility recovers a wide array of data in several different ways.

EasyRecovery Professional, the most robust version of this do-it-yourself recovery tool, offers data recovery, file repair and disk diagnostics for $499. The lite version is $89 (it lets you recover 25 files per recovery session). Additional business, enterprise and commercial editions range from $799-$1,499.

If that can't recover your data, one further option remains — shipping the hard drive off to a company that specializes in retrieving data from damaged drives, such as the Ontrack's In-Lab Data Recovery Service. Ontrack reports that the typical minimum recovery cost for a Windows desktop workstation is $1,000, which includes a $100 evaluation fee. The evaluation fee buys a listing of all recoverable and unrecoverable files before launching into to the full recovery. This way, customers know exactly what data will be recovered.

Even then, Azar cautions that you may not get all your data back. If the hard drive mechanism is faulty, technicians can read the disk platters and you should get all your files back in one piece. But if the platter is damaged, be prepared to lose some data.

Lessons Learned
This experience taught me several valuable lessons:

•Never get complacent about backup
•Perform a restore every couple of months to verify that the backup system is working properly
•Go into the admin screen of your backup application once a month and verify that all the files you need to protect are  scheduled for back up
•Keep your data in several different places. I have a complete copy burned on a CD, on a USB drive and on my desktop. b Plus, I use @Backup daily to backup all new files
•A good computer guy is well worth the money you pay. I thought I would have to send my computer to Ontrack, so he  saved me over $1,000 easily — not to mention all that time I would have spent rewriting those articles

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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