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Saving the day (and the data)


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 19, 1998

About a foot of water fell from the sky and gallons gushed from broken pipes in the basement, flooding the Factory Outlet Carpet store in Milwaukee and Kathy Hawley's computer with it.

Then a bad day became worse. A technician who called in to fix the problem told her the data backups that were supposed to provide a safety net for just such a business disaster had not worked.

"I looked at him in almost total disbelief," said Hawley, the store manager. "I almost had a heart attack."

The tech gave Hawley the names of several data recovery companies. She ended up having her waterlogged hard drive packed up and sent to Clearwater, where Data Recovery Labs (http://www.drlabs.com) rescued her drenched data.

Data Recovery is one of a handful of companies around the country that specialize in saving the seemingly lost data from hard drives or disks that crash, burn or drown.

Hurricane Georges spared the Tampa Bay area, but last month's near-miss was a reminder that in a world that relies on electronic data, one can never take too many precautions, or make too many backups.

When such precautions fail, the salvage process can be costly. Two of the major data recovery companies, Ontrack Data International (http://www.ontrack.com) and DriveSavers Date Recovery (http://www.drivesavers.com), charge $100 to $200 just for an initial evaluation. Depending on the complexity of the problem, the actual work can run into the thousands of dollars.

Adam Sharp, president and chief executive of Data Recovery Labs, said average fees there range from $50 to $75 for an evaluation, then $250 to $1,500 for the recovery.

"We make our money on the recovery, not the evaluation," Sharp said. But, he added, that is less costly for a business or user than starting from scratch to replace lost data.

Sharp said his customers have included the National Football League's New York Giants (they were very pleased to get back a lost playbook), Florida Power and GTE.

Hawley, who now makes sure her company creates multiple backups of important computer files, said she chose Data Recovery Labs because "they not only gave me information that made sense to me, but also communicated it in a way that was understandable."

When a hard drive crashes or is damaged, or data is accidentally deleted, data recovery companies examine the drive in a "clean room," where technicians wear special clothing and take other precautions to prevent dust from getting on sensitive parts. The experts make a copy of the entire drive so they can probe to find and, in most cases, restore the data.

Sharp, 24, started his business when he was 19, doing PC repair and assembly. About four years ago, he began looking into data recovery services when he needed to recover a customer's lost file.

"I'm your typical self-learner," said Sharp, who has worked with technology since he was 14.

The business has grown from three people to about 20, and Sharp expects revenues this year of about $1-million. By comparison, Ontrack of Minneapolis, which is publicly traded, reported second-quarter revenues of about $9.1-million.

Like Hawley with her drenched computer in Milwaukee, a lot of people and businesses find out too late that backups didn't work, or that they failed to do any backups at all.

And when they realize that days, weeks, even months of computer work might be lost, many take it like a death in the family.

"The extreme emotion that I've heard a lot on the phone is betrayal," said Nikki Stange of DriveSavers Data Recovery near San Francisco. People build up trust using a computer and "when it fails, it can bring up issues of betrayal and abandonment."

Stange is a former suicide crisis counselor who now is a data crisis counselor. She helps people who call DriveSavers handle the emotional impact of such situations.

"What they're upset about is losing nine years of work writing a novel, seven years of building a business, or corporate information that thousands depend on," Stange said.

Getting people through the initial crisis, panic and despair, Stange said, involves a lot of listening.

"I let them vent and voice their emotions," Stange said. "Sometimes people are uncomfortable about having such intense feelings. It's not the computer they're attached to, but the data" in which they have so much invested.

The experts say what people shouldn't do is try to fix the problem or find the data themselves because that can make matters worse.

"If your computer crashes or it's behaving erratically, don't act in haste. Don't just start pressing keys," said Stange, whose company has salvaged data for celebrity customers such as Sting, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, and the writers for The Simpsons TV show (12 episodes saved).

"The best thing to do is nothing," said Sharp of Data Recovery Labs in Clearwater.

Resurrecting lost data is something of a treasure hunt through the maze of a hard drive, where even a file that ostensibly has been deleted may still lurk. Deleting a file does not remove the information, said Sharp. It remains on the hard drive until something else "overwrites" it, taking its place.

Sharp and others said even rebooting a crashed computer can cause further damage and make retrieval more difficult, as can using diagnostic software, such as ScanDisk on Windows.

When a computer drowns, they suggest putting the hard drive in a sealable plastic bag, water and all, and shipping it to them. Allowing it to dry could leave deposits on the cylinder. Trying to restart the computer after it has been wet could cause additional damage.

One company that takes a different approach is Ontrack. It has free software, called Data Advisor, available on its Web site. People can use it on a disk to boot their computers. The software will check to see if there is a hardware or software problem.

If it is a software problem, users are told to call Ontrack. The company sets up a modem connection to Ontrack's server, where one of its engineers will fix the problem remotely for a fee. That method saves time and the hassle of shipping hard drives, said Mike Burmeister, Ontrack's director of data recovery.

Crashes just happen, said Burmeister, who added that some computer disasters are caused neither by human error nor natural disasters.

"The common problem we see is just failed hard drives, failed media," he said. "It's not necessarily something people do other than trusting the hard drive to last forever."

Even people who try to do the right thing can end up making mistakes.

For example, people spend a couple of hours doing a tape backup but don't take the extra hour to verify that a good copy was made, Sharp said. Or they make a tape backup and put it somewhere where it can be damaged, such as a desk drawer with magnetic rails.

He recommends that people make multiple copies and put them in safe places. During a hurricane or other emergency, he suggests taking the tape with you, just as you would important personal papers such as insurance.

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