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Nightmare on server street

As more and more businesses rely on their corporate server structure and document storage volumes, it is critical to have a comprehensive disaster plan in case the unexpected occurs.

The on-call IT tech is jolted awake from a terrible dream, his heart pounding. Lightning crashes overhead as he glances as the clock–2:59 a.m. The server isn’t down, it was just a dream.

3:00 a.m.: While the tech is still awake, the IT on-call pager goes off. This could mean any number of things: a fire, a break-in, a failed air conditioner in the server room, or even a main business server crash.

3:25 a.m.: The on-call IT tech arrives at the site and evaluates the situation. There is no fire, no evidence of a break-in, and the server room temperature reads a cool 18 degrees Celsius. A quick check of the servers shows that most of them are at a login screen. After checking two or three machines, it is obvious that the room lost power at some point. The UPS units verify a failure; all three massive battery units are showing failures and heavy load percentages.

3:40 a.m.: The on-call IT tech calls the lead technician and department manager and informs them of the situation; both are on their way to the site. They leave instructions to check the main business application servers; one of them holds the company’s customer database, payroll, and accounting system, and the other is the company’s messaging server.

3:55 a.m.: The on-call IT tech discovers that the RAID array for the business database server is not coming back online. The messaging server has rebooted but the messaging application is returning errors when it starts up. The tech realizes that the messaging server was performing incremental backups during the time of the outage.

4:00 a.m.: The lead tech and manager arrive. Assessments of the other servers are made. The lead tech begins working with the messaging server. The on-call tech works with the failed RAID array. The firmware shows the array has failed; the controller only recognizes three of the 10 drives. After a complete power down and restart of the server and drive enclosure, the firmware shows the drives are back online, however the array is shown as “Failed.”

4:30 a.m. The-on call technician calls the RAID array manufacturer’s technical support. The choices in the firmware menu are vague and the IT tech wants to know if forcing the drives online will get their array back. The manufacturer’s technical support says that the array will come back; however, there is a slight possibility that the data on the volume may be corrupted. The manufacturer’s technical support asks how recent their latest backup is. The IT Tech responds that the data is one week old and that is unacceptable; they cannot lose a week of transactions. The IT tech hesitates in deciding what to do next…

Disaster waiting to happen

Business system disasters like this happen every day. Despite the redundancy in backup systems or storage array systems, failures occur. Some failures can be hardware-related, others can be due to software, and still others are the result of human error or natural disaster.

As more and more businesses rely on their corporate server structure and document storage volumes, it is critical to have a comprehensive disaster plan in case the unexpected occurs.

The scenario listed above is only one of many that can occur to cause data loss on your server. Looking at a few of the different causes provides a good idea of the challenges IT departments face on a constant basis.

Partition/volume/file system corruption disasters: When trying to resize their partition/volume settings, a company’s utilities program caused severe damage to the partition, making a great deal of data inaccessible. They tried to recover the missing documents using third-party recovery software, but were unsuccessful. As a last resort, they reinstalled the operating system, but it couldn’t find the second partition/volume and made the entire system fail.

Specific file error disasters: On a company’s Windows 2000 server, the volume repair tool damaged the file system, rendering the target directories unavailable. Complete access to the original files was critical so restoring their one-month old backups was not a viable option.

Hardware-related disasters: On a Netware volume server, a failing hard drive made the volume inaccessible. Although errors in the drive were not in the data area and the drive was still functional, Netware would not mount the volume.

Software-related disasters: A company was doing a partial drive copy overwrite using third party tools. The overwrite started with no problems, but then crashed 1 percent into the process. This caused file system corruption and made the data inaccessible.

User error disasters: A user’s machine had the operating system reinstalled with restore CD. Unfortunately, this overwrote the file system completely and the user couldn’t find the PST file where there were a lot of important messages and attachments needed for their business.

Thankfully, data recovery can assist in every one of the situations described above. From legacy systems and post-mainframe storage devices to the latest high-end SANs, data recovery can be the solution a company needs to get back to business as quickly as possible. Traditionally, disassembling the server and sending in the drives for repair was the only recovery option available. This method can get back the most recent data, but might not be quick enough if data is needed immediately due to the time needed for shipping the drives. New technology, however, is making it possible for data recovery to happen faster than ever.

Data recovery performed remotely over a modem or Internet connection is available 24/7 from anywhere in the world, and recovers data in as little as one hour. If the hardware is functioning properly, engineers can perform lab-quality recovery service through a secured connection using a proprietary communication protocol, encrypted packets and safe facilities. The recovered data can be restored to the system or copied to a new destination and is accessible upon completion. Remote data recovery can even work on RAID systems where one drive has physically failed. Not every data recovery provider can offer this method of recovery, so it’s important to inquire specifically about the service.

Recovery tactics

Data disasters will happen; accepting that reality is the first step in preparing a comprehensive disaster plan. Time is always against an IT team when a disaster strikes, therefore the details of a disaster plan are critical for success. Establishing a relationship with a data recovery company is the most important factor toward maintaining business continuity–but following a few simple steps can make server recoveries much easier.

— Use a volume defragmenter regularly–a defragmenter moves the pieces of each file or folder to one location on the volume, so that each occupies a single, contiguous space on the disk drive. This helps improve the quality of recovery, making files and folders easier for data recovery specialists to locate. Do not run defragmenter utilities on suspected bad drives–if drives are bad, this could have damaging effects.

— Perform a valid backup before making hardware or software changes.

— If a drive is making unusual mechanical noises, turn it off immediately and get assistance from your data recovery company.

— Before removing drives, label the drives with their original position in a RAID array.

— Never restore data to the server that has lost the data–always restore to a separate server or alternate location.

— In Microsoft Exchange or SQL failures, never try to repair the original Information Store or database files–make a copy and perform recovery operations on the copy.

— When replacing drives on RAID systems, never replace a failed drive with a drive that was part of a previous RAID system–always zero out the replacement drive before using.

— In a power loss situation with a RAID array, if the file system looks suspicious, is unmountable or the data is inaccessible after power is restored, do not run volume repair utilities. Do not run volume repair utilities on suspected bad drives.

The fictional, true-to-life IT scenario at the beginning of this article illustrates the types of situations and decisions that IT staff must make. Businesses without access to their data run the risk of losing millions in revenue every day. The fact is, today’s systems are relied on more then ever for consistent and available data.

The speed and quality of recovery are extremely important–especially on large servers. The best data recovery companies offer unique services that can provide the fastest method for solving server recovery nightmares.

Jim Reinert serves as director of software and services for Minneapolis-based Kroll Ontrack.

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