Data Recovery — Today’s Repair Shop

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Every IT contractor knows that protecting computer data is important, but how many can be completely confident that their clients’ backup systems will work when needed? Perhaps recent statistics will prompt a review:


    ·A study by the accounting firm of McGladrey and Pullen estimated that one out of every 500 data centers will have a severe disaster this year, that 43 percent of those companies that do experience a disaster never reopen, and 29 percent of them close within two years.


    ·In “Disaster Recovery Planning: Managing Risk and Catastrophe in Information Systems,” Jon Toigo wrote that half the companies that experience a computer outage lasting more than 10 days go out of business within five years and that most never fully recover financially.


    ·According to the Contingency Planning Research group, each hour of computer downtime at a retail brokerage costs an average $6.45 million. At a credit card sales authorization center, the hourly loss is $2.6 million, and at home shopping channels, the loss is $113,750. And the average business experiences two hours of downtime per week.


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 tape cartridges, 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 to data loss are hardware or system malfunctions and human error. Together, they account for almost 75 percent 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 contribute directly to the increasing severity of data loss.

The media that stores data is fragile, whether it is tape, diskette or hard drive. Even “hard” surfaces like CDs can be physically damaged. Today, a hard drive can store up to 9 GB of data on a smaller surface than a hard drive used 10 years ago to store 40 MB. 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 to 2 microinches (one millionth of an inch). A speck of dust is 4 to 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. Certainly system administrators can lose their jobs, and companies can lose customers’ trust when they fail to deliver promised goods and services. There are also financial and legal consequences that can put companies and individuals at risk.

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.

More than 80 percent of our customers back up their data, but those backups turn out to be useless when they need to restore their data. The backups and redundant storage systems fail because the systems rely on a combination of technology and human intervention for success. Backup systems not only assume that the hardware is working properly; they also assume that the user has the training and the time to back up properly. They further assume that the backup media is in good condition and that the backup software is doing its job.

How often does such a chain of assumptions fail at a weak link? An IT consultant acquaintance claims that in 10 years of challenging clients, not one has ever been able to restore a randomly selected file from backup.

How Data is 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 often provides 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, 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, you can recover all the data within 24 hours of receiving the media, so reducing the time in transit is important.

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 in order 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 at 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 percent 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 wa

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