Cyberangels to the Rescue

September 1, 1996
When the data on a single computer diskette corrupted, the Detroit Zoological Society faced the possible loss of seven years of important personnel records—none of which had ever been backed up. Responding to an advertisement, Lisa Kimpe, network specialist for the Society, sent the disk to DriveSavers, a Novato, California-based data recovery company. For about $200, DriveSavers was able to save 97% of the data on the diskette and save the Society a considerable amount of grief.

DriveSavers is one among a limited number of companies that perform a specialty known as data recovery, or data rescue—retrieving data from damaged hard drives, diskettes, cartridges or other storage media. For businesses whose faith in the digital gods results in infrequent backups or irregular maintenance, these companies can be miracle workers.

"Since our experience, I keep the entire company's numbers in both my Rolodex and my planner," says Kimpe, who has since used DriverSavers on other occasions. "A data recovery service is well worth the money, if you deem the data important enough."

Adds Rachel Stewart, a member of DriveSavers' marketing team: "Surprisingly few people know that companies like ours exist." As a consequence, she explains, a lot of data that could be recovered is written off as lost.

Hear some tales of woe.
Damage to data and storage devices can occur in any number of ways: power surges and spikes, hardware failures, computer viruses or simple human errors. Sometimes, files can be damaged simply because the operating system "hiccups" while two pieces of software are interacting. One serious problem, and one of the hardest to fix, is a head crash—when the heads within a hard drive physically scrape the surface off the disks on which data are stored. Symptoms of this problem are persistent grating or clicking sounds. The longer the problem is left unchecked, the greater the damage, and the greater the likelihood important data will be destroyed.

Although in most cases the tales of loss and recovery are not glamorous—a hard drive or diskette simply dies and the data later are resuscitated—some stories are more exotic and humorous.

Stewart relates how DriveSavers restored data from diskettes that were chewed by a dog (a real-life "dog-ate-my-homework" scenario); damaged when a laptop dropped from an air tower; retrieved from the bottom of the Amazon River; run over by a car; and (the author's favorite) thrown across a room and repeatedly beaten by a hammer during a nasty predivorce argument.

In some cases, the ability to retrieve data has gone beyond what seems realistic. In one instance, DriveSavers was able to save files from diskettes that had been in a fire, coated with fire-extinguishing foam and then shoveled into the ground in a forest. Another miracle fell within the realm of domestic disputes. During a particularly nasty predivorce argument, in which one spouse suspected the other of maintaining an online "little black book," the jealous spouse threw the computer to the floor, beat it open with a hammer, then filled the broken casing with sand. DriveSavers was able to restore the data—but not the marriage.

"People assume if they can't access data, the data must be lost," says Steve Burgess, a data recovery engineer with DriveSavers. "In reality, they're often still there, but you simply can't pull them all together." Burgess explains that data often aren't structured in complete documents, as it appears they are on a screen, but they're broken apart and stored in chunks. When asked, the system finds the appropriate chunks and pieces them back together. If the hard drive or other media fail, you may lose the pointers that direct the computer to the relevant data. A data recovery specialist can help reestablish the pointers.

Data recovery engineers must exercise extreme caution to ensure they don't increase the damage to stored data. For example, in the process of taking apart a drive, cleaning it and putting it back together, even minute amounts of dust can have a significant effect. For this reason, much of the recovery work takes place in a clean room. As the name implies, this is a room that's free from microscopic particles that could seriously damage a hard drive. As Burgess observes, "A miniscule smoke particle can be like a little Mt. Everest to a hard disk." All air entering the clean room is first filtered. Then the air is filtered further in an enclosed bench area where the recovery work is done.

Utilizing the services of a data recovery service may not be necessary in all cases. When you first encounter a problem, the first line of defense is to contact your internal technology staff. For many routine recoveries, or to clean hard drives that have already been backed up, utilities such as Norton Utilities (from Symantec) may be able do the trick. Some operating systems also come with their own utilities.

In some cases, the problem simply may be that an internal or external cable has popped loose. However, if the problem is mechanical—such as when a hard disk makes grating noises—software utilities can do little good. In fact, trying to recover data in these cases may actually add complications. In no case should you try to recover data on the drive where the corruption may exist, because data that may have been recoverable could then be destroyed.

The costs of a data recovery service vary, based on the computer's operating system, the size of the drive and the required turnaround time. A floppy disk may cost $75 to restore, whereas a complex system in which an array of interrelated systems has failed could cost as much as $20,000. DriveSavers estimates a typical recovery falls in the $1,200 to $2,400 range.

Anticipate Murphy's Law.
The best solution to the problem of data loss, of course, is to prevent the problem from occurring in the first place. Anticipate worst-case scenarios—fire, flooding, theft and viruses, for example—and build in safeguards against them. More than anything else, save yourself from tremendous grief by regularly backing up files and storing them offsite. Surge protectors offer a degree of protection against power surges and spikes that can seriously damage equipment. An uninterruptible power supply (UPS) will protect your system in the event of a sudden power failure. When the power goes down, the UPS will allow you a few minutes to save any open files and then close out of your applications. Starting at about $100, a UPS is an inexpensive way to gain some peace of mind. Also, simple routine maintenance by your systems people can help prevent some of the more common causes of failure.

But even taking precautions can't always stop Murphy's Law from striking. One DriveSavers client regularly conducted automatic backups and archived tapes of data for several years. In spite of this caution, when the personnel system went down, the human resources manager discovered the backups contained no data accessible to HR. Fortunately, the recovery engineers were able to rescue all of the necessary data and make the information available. From time to time, it's important to check backups, perhaps by restoring some information from tape to ensure the data is clean and accessible.

DriveSavers' engineers feel there are special considerations for human resources executives who may require the support of a data recovery service. In particular, they emphasize the importance of keeping personnel data isolated from other data. By keeping them separate, you can minimize the number of noncompany eyes who may see the data during the recovery effort. Within DriveSavers, "high security" level data are accessed by one person who is bonded and has security clearance from the government. No copies of high-security data are maintained by the vendor.

When choosing a vendor to provide data recovery support, recognize there are many companies who offer some degree of expertise and capability, but relatively few who offer more than basic recovery using commercial software. When selecting a vendor, consider the reputation of the company. Because there's no regulatory body that defines who can or can't call themselves data recovery specialists, the rule of thumb is definitely "buyer beware."

With these data recovery magicians around, can we all breathe easy now, safe in the knowledge that no matter what we do, we'll have a second chance? Absolutely not. Some damage, such as that caused when a diskette comes in contact with a magnet and data are scrambled, can't be corrected. What data recovery services can offer, however, are better odds.

Personnel Journal, September 1996, Vol. 75, No. 9, pp. 146-148.