What to do when your hard drive really crashes

February 1, 2005

Recovering valuable data when those drives crash or burn—and counseling clients in crisis—has become a $20 million-a-year industry.

Your computer's hard disk drive is a tiny, complex machine that is very reliable, with a mean time between failures of perhaps 100,000 hours. However, keep in mind that all disk drives will fail sooner or later.

Some disk drives will be damaged in flood, fires, accidents, or damaged by power surges or lightning strikes on the power lines. A visit to the DriveSavers OnLine Museum of Diskasters (http:// http://www.drivesavers.com/museum/index.html) should be enough to motivate you to back up your disk drive. This article offers some advice about what to do when disaster strikes.

Most computer users, in particular at medical offices, have some sort of system for backing up their disk drives. But backups may not be frequent or complete enough to fully restore all the data if there is a disaster. Backups themselves may be faulty, so be sure to verify that your backups are capable of restoring the needed files.

To their horror, they found tape after tape completely blank. No one had verified that the data had been backed up successfully. In 5 years, not a single byte had been written to the tapes.

Data recovery firms Fortunately, help is available (for a price). Recovering valuable data when those drives crash or burn-and counseling clients in crisis-has become a $20 million-a-year industry, dominated by two firms: DriveSavers ( http://www.drivesavers.com/) in Novato, CA, and Ontrack Data International ( http://www.ontrack.com/) in Eden Prairie, MN.

The cost depends on the size of the hard drive and the operating system involved. Some operating systems are more difficult to recover than others. Jobs can range from $100 for a floppy-disk recovery to several thousand dollars for a multigigabyte array.

Normally, when a drive comes into a recovery service, technicians determine whether it's a hardware or software problem. If it's software, programmers can go in and undo whatever damage was done to the directories on the hard drive and thereby bring back the data.

If it's a hardware problem, the drive goes into a sophisticated "clean room," so it's not fouled by additional dust or dirt. The drive is opened, and an engineer has to literally rebuild it to get it running long enough to extract the data. The data is transferred to another drive, checked for errors, and then put onto media of the customer's choosing.

About nine times out of 10, technicians are able to retrieve a significant portion of the customer's data, said Nikki Stange, a data crisis counselor at DriveSavers who once served as a volunteer on a suicide prevention hotline in Boulder, CO.