AFTER WEEKS OF BURNING THE MIDNIGHT OIL, you’re finally wrapping up an important project. While envisioning yourself stretched out on a tropical beach with a Mai Tai in your hand, you click on File/Save, and make a note to call your travel agent in the morning.
A screech jolts you back to reality, followed by an alarming crunching noise and a sickening thud as your hard disk grinds to a halt. You threaten, cajole, and beg your PC to come back to life. Just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, you remember what else is entombed on that disk–your customer database, accounting records, marketing materials, and more. Do you know what to do next?
Data disappears from our desktops for a variety of reasons: According to Ontrack Data International, an Eden Prairie, Minn.-based data recovery service, 44 percent of data is lost to mechanical failures, 32 percent to human error (which includes fire), 14 percent to software problems, 7 percent to viruses, and 3 percent to natural disasters. While the best defense against data loss is regular backup, backups aren’t foolproof, nor can they protect your data against physical damage to your hardware.
Our data recovery guide introduces software tools and services that can bring your data back from the dead, offers strategies for recovering lost files, and provides insider tips for keeping data safe in the future. You’ll also learn how two home office users bounced back from data disasters.
WHAT’S YOUR POISON?
Key to recovering data loss is recognizing whether the problem was caused by hardware failure or software (including human) error. If your hard disk stops dead or has been physically damaged, don’t attempt a file rescue mission using a software utility. Instead, call a professional data recovery expert. On the other hand, if your data has been accidentally deleted or is the victim of a computer virus or other software-related problem, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to rescue the files yourself, if you act quickly and use the right tools.
For example, perhaps you sent a product photo to the Recycle Bin and then changed your mind, or maybe your kids dumped the file by mistake. First, realize that deleted files stay hidden on your hard disk until you overwrite them with new data. Therefore, the moment you realize data is missing, stop downloading or saving new files. Next, install a data recovery product such as PowerQuest’s Lost & Found ($70; 800-379-2566, www.powerquest.com). Lost & Found employs a powerful search algorithm to find and restore missing data. It can even recover files lost due to hard disk reformatting, as long as no new data has been written to the disk.
Next to human error, viruses are another frequent source of sabotaged data. While antivirus tools may be able to remove the offending bug, you could still be left with missing files. Lost & Found may also be successful here; PowerQuest says the product rescued data from hundreds of PCs affected by the Chernobyl virus last spring.
To recover from more severe file corruptions–such as those caused by conflicts with recently installed software or unexpected internal errors–you’ll want to arm your system with a rollback utility such as Wild File’s GoBack 2.1 ($70; 888-945-3345, www.goback.com) or PowerQuest’s Second-Chance ($70) before trouble strikes. This way, if you experience a general protection fault (known to Windows buffs as the Blue Screen of Death) and lose files when you reboot the system, you’ll be able to send your system back in time to when the files were intact. Because such programs monitor and record every change made to your computer–from single file deletions to entire software upgrades–they can roll back to before the crash and let you grab the document. Or, if bad software is to blame, they let you revert your system to preinstallation settings, remove the conflict, and recover your data in the process.
A JOB FOR THE PROS
When your hard disk quits working, or your business is ravaged by flooding, earthquakes, or fires, retrieving data from a physically damaged computer may seem impossible. But not always.
Data recovery companies such as DriveSavers in Novato, Calif. (800-440-1904, www.drivesavers.com) and Ontrack Data International (800-872-2599, www.ontrack.com) make it their business to rescue data after the most outrageous computer catastrophes.
“If you can think of it, we’ve probably seen it,” says DriveSavers president Scott Gaidano. The Museum of Bizarre Disk-asters on the company’s Web site showcases such improbable success stories as a laptop flattened by a tour bus, computers baptized by fire, and an Apple PowerBook that spent two days submerged in a river.
While OnTrack also offers remote data recovery services for software-based problems, hardware failures require you to ship the system or hard disk to the company for recovery. When you call to arrange shipment, you’ll need to describe what caused the loss and how much data was involved. In return, you’ll get a cost estimate over the phone, and an explanation of the expertise required to restore the data. Costs typically range from $.200 for a floppy disk to a few thousand dollars for a large disk drive or network server.
Once your hard disk arrives, clean-room technicians perform an initial evaluation. Dressed in special suits, hairnets, face masks, and gloves, they attempt to get the drive going long enough to make a copy of the data. Next, a second team of software specialists works to piece together the battered data. In many cases, data is restored in two days or less, but more severe situations require a week or more. The data is then delivered to you on the medium of your choice, Gaidano explains.
If you find yourself the victim of a hardware meltdown, you can improve your chances of getting your data back by following these tips from Gaidano:
* If your computer is making any unusual clicking or grinding sounds, turn it off immediately. “Strange noises are trouble,” says Gaidano. Turning the system off will help avoid further damage.
* Don’t use file recovery utilities if you suspect hardware failure. “Improperly using tools like Norton Utilities could render data unrecoverable,” he says.
* Never save work to your hard disk if you’ve accidentally deleted data or you discover files are missing. “If you must save a work in progress, save it to a floppy or alternate location.”
* Don’t attempt to clean or operate any hardware device that’s been dropped, crushed, exposed to heat, or damaged by water or smoke.
IT HAPPENED TO ME
NAME: Tracy Spears, owner of MizTech Marketing Communications, Santa Cruz, Calif.
DISASTER: Mac meltdown
SOLUTION: Data recovery service
Spears required the services of a data recovery firm after the unexpected crash of her Power Mac 8100 last May. “Although I had some files archived, of course I didn’t have any of my current client’s work backed up,” she says. To add insult to injury, she had recently ordered a backup system that hadn’t yet arrived.
The MizTech owner first contacted a friend with Mac expertise, but since her hard disk was damaged beyond repair, Spears’s friend failed to recover the data. She then called a local data recovery company that “worked for three days straight on my machine and, in the end was able to recover nearly all the data,” she says.
Spears says she considers herself lucky: “1 paid a paltry sum compared to what it would have cost to redo the work.” And her recommendation? Back up often.
“If you can buy or create an automated [backup] system, do so. If not, take the time to manually back up at least once a week. It will save many headaches later on.” says Spears.
IT HAPPENED TO ME
NAME: Paul Mayer, president of Paul’s Web Designs and ZPay Payroll Systems Inc., St. Petersburg, Fla.
DISASTER: Accidental deletion of source code for his software product SOLUTION: Software recovery utility
Since the early 1980s, Mayer has developed and distributed shareware programs from his home office. Back when the company was starting out, Mayer experienced his biggest data loss. “We didn’t do backups in those days,” he recalls, so he had nearly three years’ worth of work stored on his hard disk–including the source code of his payroll utility, ZPay–when he attempted to install a new accounting package.
“I just went through the install pages clicking on the default prompts,” recalls Mayer, “and then the message in the middle of the screen said, ‘Now formatting the hard drive’!” Mayer pulled the plug of his PC in an effort to recover the data, but the formatting had already begun. “Three years of source code for the payroll software we sold [was] lost in less than a second,” he says.
Mayer managed to recover all the files using some low-level disk tools, but the process was painstaking and took several months. “I sorted through thousands of files to piece back what we had in source code,” he sighs.
These days, Mayer preaches the importance of backup every chance he gets: “Time is money, and if you have more money than brains, then go ahead and play Russian roulette with your data. But if you’re sensible, be sure to have a good backup system and a program to back up your data. And most important, do it religiously–as though your life depended on it.”