Data Recovery - Todays Repair Shop

by : Bill Margeson

Every manager knows that protecting computer data is important, but how many can be completely confident that their backup systems will work when needed?

At CBL Data Recovery Technologies, we see some of the most extreme examples of data loss. In recent years, our assignments have ranged from recovering the entire welfare system of a European country to a UFO enthusiast's RAID array, from a rural school board that thought it lost pupils' marks to an international freight company's $700 million billing records. Our work spans an incredible range of challenges. Fortunately, many of them are avoidable.

How Data Gets Lost

The two largest contributing factors in data loss are hardware or system malfunctions and human error. Together, they account for almost 75 per cent of all incidents. Software corruption, computer viruses and 'physical' disasters like fire and water damage make up the rest.

There are three major trends in data loss today, representing industry-wide shifts in technology and market behavior.

First, because we are storing more data in smaller spaces, the impact of a data loss incident is magnified. Ironically, the very same technological advances that allow us to do 'more with less' contributes directly to the increasing severity of data loss.

The media that stores data is fragile, whether it is tape, flash memory or hard drive. Even 'hard' surfaces like CDs can be physically damaged. The mechanical components in a hard drive must work with greater precision. The distance between the read/write head and the platter where data is stored is steadily decreasing. Today, that distance is 1-2 microinches (one millionth of an inch). A speck of dust is 4-8 microinches and a human hair 10 microinches. Even a slight nudge, a power surge or a contaminant introduced into the drive may cause the head to touch the platter and cause a head crash. Data in the contact area may be permanently destroyed.

Second, data is more mission-critical. Users are storing greater amounts of critical personal and commercial data like bank accounts, hospital patient records and tax records on their desktops and networks.

By definition, loss of mission-critical data brings major business processes to a halt. In the worst case, that can mean bankruptcy.

Finally, most of the backup technology and practices are failing to protect data adequately. Most computer users rely on backups and redundant storage technologies, and for many users, this is a successful
backup strategy. Others are not so lucky.

How Is Data Recovered?

Data recovery is more than pulling strings of bits from mangled disk drives or tangled file systems. There are large elements of problem solving and crisis management. Clients bring a diverse and vast array of technology problems to data recovery companies, looking for cost effective and, above all, timely solutions. How corporations and individual people respond to a data crisis is often a revealing look at how they conduct their day-to-day business. Typically, the ones that confront a challenge directly are the most successful.

First of all, users and managers must recognize that any loss of data is an immediate and urgent problem. It may not be confined to one system or network and its impacts could reach beyond a single branch or department. For example, an entire organization may have purchased machines that all have faulty hard drives or installed corrupted software.

Denial is dangerous and costly. Escalate the situation promptly. By far the majority of situations are successfully

handled in-house. The customer should only 'surrender' immediately and call for outside assistance when there is a 'new' noise coming from the hard drive or when the data is so valuable as to be priceless. In most cases, working through a planned recovery checklist will bring back the data. If it does not return when reasonable measures have been tried, then the organization has to accept that the data is really not coming back. At this point, decisive action can literally mean corporate survival.

Data recovery is the last resort when everything else, including commercial software, fails. When customers need data recovery, they need it fast. In three cases out of four, we can recover all the data within 24 hours or receiving the media, so reducing the time in transit is important. Over the years, CBL has become adept at the logistics of getting clients' drives and media into our laboratories from anywhere in the world. The Internet may be creating a world without borders but the word has not reached the world's major airports. As well, technicians have often become skilled at finding the parts necessary to rebuild rare or obsolete equipment.

Data recovery typically occurs in an emotional climate of great distress. Personally and professionally, a great deal is riding on a successful outcome. Dealing with a client's psychological state, as individuals and organizations, is a large part of a successful data recovery project. While a project may literally call on the talents of every member of a team, clients should only deal with one person, to facilitate the creation of a bond. That relationship is designed to be an immediate and continuing comfort to the client, but it also ensures that there is clear communication, built on shared experience and a common vocabulary.

Clients are almost invariably reassured to learn that while some damage to data is permanent, it is a rare case that absolutely no data all is retrieved. In most cases, some of the data can be recovered, even in extreme conditions.

Data recovery companies should provide a report within one business day after receiving damaged media, outlining how it plans to perform the data recovery. Some projects may require several days, or even weeks, but about 75 per cent of all assignments should be turned around in less than 48 hours.

Close communication and understanding can be critical in those unfortunate situations where choices have to be made about the data. Which files do you need first? Which ones are you willing to sacrifice? Do you want the data in text format now or would you prefer to wait to see it we can recover it in the original format?

There are no manuals for data recovery. There is no one set way to retrieve data. Each project should be analyzed on an individual basis and only then an action plan be developed.

It is best never to work on original media. Data should be duplicated bit by bit to reduce the risk of causing further damage to the data.

Sucessful Outcomes

For most projects, success comes from a combination of innovative logistics, applied problem solving and what can be called 'technology triage', where answers are looked for from within the issues.

Projects always pick up where others have left off. As the 'repair shop of last resort', data recovery experts do nothing but provide solutions.

Our business is all about restoring order in chaotic circumstances. We force rebellious technology to fulfill its promise to our clients by making everything right again. And it is kind of fun to do the impossible.

Co-authors: Darryl Peddle, Lisa Smith