What's the worst that could happen to your data?

Think you've heard it all? Get a load of these disk drive failure horror stories!

What's the worst that could happen to your data?
By Hal Glatzer

Desktops roasting in an office fire.
Laptops road-killed by a truck.
Macs ship-wrecked in the Amazon,
And hard drives mired in the muck.

Think you're out of luck . . . ?

Wait -- there is hope.

When rainstorms flooded Caracas, Venezuela, a civil engineering firm sent 17 ziplock bags filled with soggy hard disk drives to CBL Data Recovery Technologies, Inc., in Armonk, NY. The drives held critical maps of streets, sewers and water mains that the engineers needed in a hurry to repair the city's infrastructure.

"The wet drives had been deliberately frozen in the (mistaken) belief that freezing would minimize damage," said president and CEO Bill Margeson, "but they'd thawed in transit, so the bags were half-full of water anyway. And someone on site had tried to power up two of the drives, but dirt had come in with the water, and particulate matter is especially troublesome. Still, we got data from all of the drives except two."

Tips from the Pros
Should disaster befall your hardware, here are some tips from the pros:
  • Perform Triage. Determine what, exactly, has been lost: are they day-to-day workfiles, or mission-critical data? Don't try running disk-utilities on mission-critical data. If you'd be out of business without something, don't even think of recovering it yourself.
  • Let Logic Prevail. If a bad drive hasn't sustained physical damage, get an IT person who's technically savvy to set it up as a "slave" to a working computer, and determine whether the problem is a logical (software) or physical (hardware) one. If it's logical , the technician may be able to access the data in the drive.
  • Listen and Live. If the problem is physical, there's probably nothing you can do to fix it. And if it's making noises you've never heard before, power it down immediately, and send it to a lab.
  • Keep Wet Drives Wet. It's air...not water...that you want to keep out of a soggy drive, because the real threat is oxidation. If necessary, add water to the bag you ship it in. Salt water is more corrosive than fresh, but if that's what got into the drive, keep the bag full of it.
  • Assume the Worst, Anyway. Don't wait for the technician's report or the lab's evaluation. That could take a day or more. Assume that your data is gone. Do a restore operation from your backup copies, and get back to business right away.
  
Floodwater was only one problem with the HDDs that a Texas animal research laboratory sent in plastic bags to DriveSavers, in Novato, CA. Hundreds of disease-ridden lab rats had drowned and decomposed in the summer heat. "The bags," said DriveSavers president Scott Gaidano, "were full of gruel. They had warning labels! We had to go into full isolation gear, with breathing packs. But we recovered the data."

Facilities such as CBL and DriveSavers charge a hundred dollars or more for a preliminary evaluation, and their final tab for data recovery will be based on the time and resources a job consumes. They would be hard-up for business if everybody backed up their files securely. But even so, HDDs, tape and optical disk drives do, sometimes, just stop. "Every drive will fail, some day," said Gaidano, who noted that shrink-wrapped disk utilities are a mixed blessing. "Those programs have become very powerful, he said, "but that means they can wreak havoc, too. If you can't 'see' the drive...if it doesn't come up when you call it up...you probably can't pull the data off it."

"A recovery lab's first task," according to Margeson, "is to clone the problem drive. We?ll do a 'forensic' read of every physical bit of magnetic signal on the tape or disk and capture the data that way. Then we tackle the problems at the hexidecimal level. Rather than 'repair' something, we extract the data, and make it usable to the client, again."

It's more difficult, incidentally, to recover data from compressed files than from uncompressed files. So, if you normally save data files in compressed formats (as most tape systems enable and encourage you to do), make extra backup copies.

For more information about CBL or DriveSavers, go to their Web sites: http://www.cbltech.com and http://www.drivesavers.com.


About the author: Hal Glatzer has covered the computer industry for more than twenty years, focusing on storage technologies, products and trends since 1990. He is also a jazz guitarist, and creator of the award-winning murder mystery "Too Dead To Swing".

Additional Resources:
* Share your experiences and post questions in our Storage Management discussion forum.

* It would be easy, particularly these days, to be swept up in a frenzy of disaster recovery (DR) implementation. But look before you leap, this tip advises. Check out "Disaster recovery: Know what you really need."

* Check out our recent featured topic on disaster recovery.

This was first published in December 2001

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