Hot Stuff! The Poor Man’s Desktop Data Failsafe

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On a recent Monday morning, I sat down in front of my Windows XP desktop, ready to start my week a little bit early, to try to get a jump on things. Such hubris probably led to what happened next—regular crashes with just a tantalizing flash of a blue screen, which turned into a reboot too quickly for me to catch any error information. Although it took me half a day to get everything squared away and back to work (and thanks to friends and colleagues at Valiant PC and James Michael Stewart for their great help and advice), I was able to resume activity with not much more lost than time. I’m now working on a different machine, but have access to all my regular working files, Outlook e-mail files, and so forth.


For years now, I’ve been building desktop machines so that I use a separate physical disk to store all my data files: Word and XML documents, spreadsheets, presentations, notes, e-mail stuff, and so forth. Furthermore, I always make sure to buy plain-vanilla drives—in this case a 14 GB Matrox ATA/EIDE hard disk that plugs into nearly every motherboard built since 1999.


Once I booted from a recovery floppy and was able to determine that I couldn’t access the operating system files on my system drive (C: in my case), I became convinced we were dealing with some kind of hardware failure. At that point, I removed my data drive from the sick machine, and recruited Michael Stewart to help me get it up and running in another PC. Total time for that repair was less than an hour—far faster than restoring a backup would have been (based on recent personal experience).


What took the remaining three hours to get back up and running was reconfiguring numerous Office components (most notably, Outlook), installing a few small but important applications I didn’t want to live without, and cleaning up my new desktop (deleting old and unneeded files, defragging the disk, and so forth) before returning to work.


If you can afford to put enough drives in your primary personal productivity systems to separate data from operating system files, and you’re reasonably sure that the data drives you use will run on most (if not all) of your available systems, this is an excellent way to secure a hot backup when a desktop goes down. Please don’t think this means you can do away with backups (what if that drive had gotten clobbered?) and keep on building your emergency repair disks and tools, too. But put this in your arsenal as a way to keep these going with minimal interruption when the loss of key systems can impose severe productivity losses otherwise.

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