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Harold Shair
21 Kara Drive
Pittsfield MA 01201

Q. What is the size of a sandwich and can ruin your business?
A: Your hard disk drive.

Not many people know what’s really inside the computers that run their businesses.  After all the talk of Megabytes, Gigahertz, RAM, ROM, etc., when you get down to the nitty-gritty, the data you depend on is stored in one place, your hard disk drive, the weakest link in your computer.

Unlike your computer’s solid-state electronic components, hard disks and fans are mechanical devices.  Inside your disk drive are disk platters coated with magnetic material that spin at 4000 to 10,000 revolutions per minute.  Laptops use the slower speeds that consume less power and extend battery life.  Network server computers, which are asked for data by multiple other computers, use the fastest speeds.  A typical desktop computer can have a disk that spins at 5400 or 7200 rpm.   The data is read by a magnetic head that is positioned very precisely over a portion of the spinning disk, sort of like a phonograph tone arm.  Actually there are multiple platters and heads and both sides of the platters are used to hold data.  As the disk spins under the head, the heads both read and alter the magnetic properties of the disk to get and place all the important data in your computer.  The heads ride on a thin layer of air as close as they can get to the platter without touching it.  If it ever touched the disk, it would scratch the surface and “crash”; the result: no more data.  If the motor or bearings that spin the platters fail or turn too slowly, you can’t read any data (although it can be recovered as we will discuss later).  If the heads do not go back to the exact spot over the platter due to wear or other mechanical faults, the data may be misread or not read at all.  Finally, due to imperfections in the coating or just plain bad luck, the magnetic information on a platter may degrade becoming too weak to be read reliably. 

Steve Gibson, of Gibson Research, the creator of Spin Rite, a program used to test and recover disk data explains the reason on his website:

Why Drives Die

We put a man on the moon, and a motorized skateboard on Mars ... So why can't we make a failure-proof disk drive? The answer, of course, is that we could. But the question is whether manufacturers should? You know that a more reliable drive is going to cost somewhat more to make, and therefore needs to sell for a higher price. But you can't SEE the reliability of a drive when you look at it. They all appear to be pretty much the same, so there's no way to tell that one drive will be more reliable than another.

Thus, from the perspective of the manufacturer, putting more reliability into their drives is wasted money, since no one will buy their drives for that reason. If one drive costs 20% more than another, say $239 instead of $199, and the drives are the same size and seem identical, wouldn't everyone save the $40 and happily take home a new drive for $199? Of course.

That's why, when you're in the business of making hard drives the first thing you learn is that ...

Reliability Isn't Profitable!

Therefore, NOT ONE DIME is spent on RELIABILITY beyond the barest minimum required. What we get instead, are drives that work "well enough" and are equipped with multi-year warranties to cover the percentage that statistically die sooner than is reasonable.

But what IS reasonable? Your prematurely dead drive is replaced for free. Thank you very much. But what about your data? Nope. There's no guarantee for your data. It's gone forever. Period. And if your drive happens to statistically outlive its warranty, then when it dies you still lose all of your data ... and your drive too. “

Actually, the warranty periods of the newer larger disk drives are going down, to as little as one year, so the manufacturers are bailing out even sooner and the risk to your data is going up.

Sometimes your data is messed up and it is not the hard drives fault.  Some other failure or just plain bad programming can cause bad data to be written on a perfectly good drive.  It doesn’t matter what the cause, your computer will not start or the accounting program says the data file is not readable any more.

Quoting Gibson again:

It's clear that if you care about the data on your system's drives you must think of your drives as HIGHLY VOLATILE storage that's been manufactured as cheaply as possible. And since the drive's manufacturer won't take any responsibility for your data ... YOU must.

So what can you do?

The best place to start is with a little paranoia.  Assume that nothing will work the next time you approach your computer.  You can even assume the computer has been stolen or the office consumed by fire.  How will you recover if that comes to pass?  And how long will it take to get back in business even if you have taken the proper precautions?

So, what are the proper precautions?

The first step in assuming a disaster is identifying what data is absolutely essential to your business.  Every computer has standard programs that can be purchased again if necessary.  But the files that are unique to your business such as customer lists, accounts receivable, orders, contracts, payroll, and the Great American Novel cannot be purchased; they must be protected and duplicated.

Since we quoted from Gibson, we will describe his product, SpinRite.  This protects your data on your original hard drive.  Here’s how it works.  Every computer assumes that the data might not be read correctly on the first try.  If the drive is defective in one or more spots, it might try up to 10 times and then give you the message that you are screwed.  It doesn’t tell you if it required one try or five tries while it was reading the data correctly.  So you can have a situation that your drive is degrading and you are in the dark until your data is unreadable.  Gibson’s program tests the drive with your data in place and finds the areas where it requires more than one pass to read the data.  It then rewrites the data and sees if it can be read on one pass again.  If it cannot, it finds a place where the data can be written reliably.  It also gives a report as to how many places required rework.  If it is too high you can replace the drive and move the data before disaster strikes.  This program is best run overnight and you can see what it has to say in the morning.

Another way to survive a disk failure is to have a computer with two disk drives.  If connected in a manner known as “mirroring”, all the data will be written on both disks simultaneously.  When the computer needs the data, both disks are read.  The mirroring program will recognize if one of the drives is bad and then only use the good drive.  At the same time, it will warn you of the situation.  After you replace the bad drive, you can ask the computer to remirror the data so the drives are identical again.  No loss of data, and, if you remirror overnight, no loss of time either.  With the low cost of hard drives, it is not a great financial decision to buy such a computer.   “White Box” suppliers can build computers at low cost with high quality standard components with mirrored drives.

If the failure was due to dropping your laptop into a lake, there are companies that can disassemble the soggy drive, place the platters in a test bed and recover the data.  People dressed in space suits do this in a special “clean room”.  These same companies can also recover the data when the motor or bearings fail.  One such company is DriveSavers of Novato CA.

A second best, but similar solution, is to make a clone of your disk drive periodically.  There are programs (Norton’s Ghost is one) that will allow you to install a temporary second disk drive and clone the data from your permanent drive.  If there is a disk failure, the clone disk, taken off the shelf, will contain the operating system and your programs.  The computer will start up after you install the clone drive. That should save you at least a half-day compared to installing a totally blank hard disk.  You should renew the clone periodically to minimize the time to total recovery. 

Another situation, even more likely than a drive failure is a human failure.  You erased some important data and can find no sign of it, or it is corrupted and therefore useless. Even if you have two mirrored drives, they are identically data deprived.  What you need now is another copy of the data file, hopefully identical to the one that was erased.  You probably can give up hope because hardly any small business has a real time copy of every file.  You can however take precautions that will let you recover your data, as it was yesterday, and the day before yesterday, and the day before that, etc.  The process to achieve this is known as archiving.

Every day, you make a copy of your important data files in a new directory that you rename with today’s date. If it will fit, put it on a new floppy disk or a Zip Disk.  If you have a tape drive, put it on a new tape.  Even better, if your computer is part of a network, you can copy the file to a new directory on a different computer.  If you have a copy of the program on this “backup computer”, you can survive a failure of the original computer and get back to work very quickly on the second computer.  You will, however, be missing the work you did between the time of the copy and the time of the failure.  With a network, two or more computers can crisscross their files, each being the archive of the other.

Since Murphy’s Law is alive and well, the same person who erased the file also forgot to make archives for the past month especially if you have to put in a new tape or diskette every day.  To avoid this, programs can be written that take advantage of the Task scheduler feature on just about all computers.  At an assigned time every day, this program makes the new directory and copies the files into it.  If the computer is connected to the Internet, it can send emails proving it ran on schedule.

For computers connected to the Internet through a permanent connection such as DSL or a cable modem, you have the means to send your important data to a computer in another part of the country.  As a bonus, you get a web site and company specific email.  At a price starting as low as $10 per month, you can get a remote web hosting account with disk space to spare.  You can create directories, that are not part of your website, that can hold copies and/or archives of your important data.  Using a process known as FTP, your important files can be copied back and forth.  A scheduling process can perform the copy automatically together with a confirming email. If your data requires total confidentiality, such as medical records (HIPPA), services with encryption such as Back Up My Info! are available

Although this article just scratches the surface of data protection, it is essential that every business owner have these precautions in mind and perform data saving maneuvers.

Harold Shair is the owner of and is a pioneer in the Personal Computer industry.  He installed the world’s first personal computer for public use in the White Plains Public Library and opened the first computer store in Westchester County, NY.  In his long career, he has taught college physics, tested electronic products for Consumer Reports, and was V.P. of research and development at a marketing research firm.  His firm specializes in computer assistance and “White Box” computer construction for businesses, medical facilities (HIPAA), and individuals.