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The big chore

The bad news is that your hard drive is going to fail at some point; it’s just a matter of time. The good news is that you don’t have to just grin and bear it. Here’s how to take some action.

The bad news is that your hard drive is going to fail at some point; it’s just a matter of time. Knowing this, you can be prepared by making regular backups of data which you will lose when the crash happens. Still, it’s unlikely that your hard drive will wait to fail until the day that you’ve just backed up every little byte of your data.

Most of us don’t back up our files every day, and if we do, we don’t keep those backups in a secure, offsite location. So when our hard drives fail we will almost certainly lose something important. My friend Michael had just completed a thorough copy of his business records when his house, including his backup, burned to the ground. A safe deposit box might be a good offsite location if your data is critical. At least take a copy your personal data to work or to a trusted friend’s home and leave it in a secure place.

Rule number one is to organize your data. The My Documents folder is good for this. You’ll be surprised at how little space your data actually uses. For most users everything you need to back up will fit nicely onto one recordable CD. If you store lots of photographs, you may want to use a recordable DVD drive for your backups. In many cases, though, you will be able to copy your files onto a small USB thumb drive that can fit in your pocket.

Why do hard drives fail? According to Scott Selley of ActionFront Data Recovery Labs, the tolerance rates for some computer media are so low that the heads that read the data can bump into it, making it unreadable. Still, any number of things can cause your drive to fail, from heat to a sharp knock.

Data recovery companies are not always successful in trying to get your information back. When the process does work, it can be very expensive. The average rates I found started at $500 for a fairly straightforward recovery. Prices can easily get into the thousands of dollars.

Data recovery specialists sometimes have to find one or more exact copies of your hard drive in order to retrieve your data. That was the case with a bad hard drive that I sent to ActionFront for a test. Their search for an exact match of the drive came up empty. Luckily, though, this company does not charge a customer unless the data is recovered. When you look for a data recovery firm, you might want to make sure there are no upfront fees.

What do you do when you get an error message telling you that your system drive is unreadable? First, make sure that you don’t destroy your data. Unless you make saving your information a priority, a technician might think that you only want the machine to run again, and he might try erasing the hard drive to start fresh. A new hard drive should cost less than $100, and it will allow you to send your original drive to a data recovery company.

One question you might need to give yourself a candid answer to is, do you really need all the data from your personal computer? If you’ve backed up your Microsoft Money or QuickBooks program to a floppy, you may be surprised at how little you really need your other files.

Philip Butler Smith, owner of Data Rescue Services, has been in data recovery for decades, and has even retrieved data from computers that have been through fires. He says people who lose data go through a weeklong “desperation index.” The first day or two you think you’re going to die if you don’t retrieve your information, a few days later, the longing has eased somewhat, and by the end of the week, you’re thinking that the data just might be nice to have.

For his corporate clients, Smith recommends a RAID-5 setup where five different hard drives back up the data. When one drive fails, the others shoulder the burden until it is replaced. He says other clients, such as brokerage houses, have set up “hot sites” in several places around the country. These sites have copies of the company’s entire computer operation (including data) so that in an event like the Northeastern power outage last summer, the whole operation can be moved to another city.

Individuals and small businesses cannot usually afford such expensive strategies, and might consider using an online backup service. I tried one from Iomega, IStorage. It’s safeguarded by encryption, and it may be just the thing for a limited number of documents. There is a 30-day free trial of the service. A similar company with a free month is If you use one of these solutions, data is easy to recover and your backup is automatically taken offsite.

Alan Thornton owns Decatur Computer Help, an on-site technical support business in the Atlanta, GA area. Write him at [email protected]

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