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When Disaster Strikes

Volume Number: 20 (2004)
Issue Number: 12
Column Tag: Programming

When Disaster Strikes

by Julie L. Mohr

My laptop was frozen. I rebooted and heard this awful noise. It began as soon as the hard drive began to spin and sounded like rubbing a rock slowly against the side of a rusty can.

Error #2

The geek in me said, "I can fix it!" I took the case bottom off the laptop, pulled out the drive examined it, put it back in and rebooted. Same noise. That was my second ill-fated mistake.

Error #3

In the past, I have had a hard drive park the head. Thought maybe somehow the head had parked on the drive. So I took the laptop bottom back off, pulled out the drive and this time tapped it slightly (well I won't admit how hard I really tapped it.) I put it back in, said a Hail Mary and turned the machine back on. I repeated the same mistake and got the same horrible noise.

Error #4 & 5

I was in panic mode now. I got out my copy of Norton and booted from the CD. I tried to use the application to recognize the disk and found nothing, not even a device ID. I then connected the laptop to my desktop machine. I booted the laptop in target disk mode and attempted to use Norton on the drive again. Heard the same sound. Now I have started the machine four times and heard the same horrible noise. Something was definitely wrong and I knew I wasn't going to be able to fix it.

Unless you have actually experienced something like this yourself, it is difficult to explain the intensity of your emotions, the sheer pain in your stomach and the rolling waves of nausea. You have feelings of incredible loss. I had my first completed, published book and my second, in-progress book on the drive. The only copies I had. As I explained it to my friends, "This is as if I lost a member of my family. You spend so much of your life, devote so much energy and thought on a work of art, and it is just gone. Completely gone." So educated, and yet how stupid could I be not to have a backup.

The amount of data that we store on our machines is increasing as hard drive sizes hold more and more data. We are storing our music, our pictures, our taxes, our legal documents, our businesses, our development and all of our contacts. On a 40 GB hard drive you can be certain that a large portion of our lives is contained in the sectors and tracks of those little platters, spinning at 7,200 revolutions per minute or in my case, having its digital bytes ripped out of existence.

Even with memorable disasters like the infamous PowerBook 5300, the Macintosh has always been a robust hardware platform. All in all, the hardware is durable, reliable and lasts until you are ready to upgrade to a faster chip. In all my years supporting and using Macintosh computers, I have never had a hard drive failure. I have owned everything from an Apple IIe in 1981 to my recent PowerBook G4. I have seen my fair share of OS, Finder and file corruptions, but I have never heard the click of death. Until an ill-fated, 104 degree day in the heat of the Northern California summer, after working for three days straight to catch up with orders, requests and database updates - the laptop overheated and it happened. On an Excel file save, I got the spinning rainbow cursor icon followed by an unfamiliar and very unfriendly sounding scratching noise.

Error #1

At this point, I was in major panic mode. Now you are probably wondering why I started my counting with Error #2. Well, the first and biggest mistake I made was not making regular backups. I had my entire business on one machine, no recent backup. I know how important backups are, but in my case, my backups were deleted off my backup hard drive in order to make space for a backup image of another computer that was being cycled out for an upgrade, and on top of that, a PC.

One of my connections in my years of support was a company called DriveSavers out of Novato, California. I had their business card in the top of my desk drawer just in case. I pulled out the old, tattered card and called the number.

DriveSavers (, 800.440.1904) specializes in retrieving data even off the most damaged drives, claiming above 90% recovery rate. At this point, my last hope was that they could do something with my drive. They have varying levels of service - standard, priority and economy. The priority service is the fastest and get ready to dish out some major funds. I chose the economy, one-week service and prepared to spend my time while I waited developing a more robust backup plan to ensure that this never, ever happened again. Within about two hours I had shipped the drive to them over night and began the arduous task of recovering data off of CDs, DVDs and my other three computers in my office.

The backup drive had contained an image of my machine from six months ago. Norton Utilities ( has a suite of tools just for the backup and recovery of data. The Disk Doctor utility assists with the regular diagnostics and repairs of a hard drive. It examines the partitions, directories and files for errors or problems and also checks for defective media. Since my drive was not recognized, the utility did little to assist with my problems. The Volume Recover utility can help to restore data from a crashed hard drive or help to rebuild directory structures. The recover feature was of no use as well because again it could not find my drive in order to make any repairs. The only utility that could help me was the Unerase utility. This utility scans your hard drive looking for potential files. It will look for all pre-defined, popular files types and types that you define from your own unique applications. Since I once had a backup copy on an external drive, my only hope was to use the Unerase utility to recover any and all data.

The initial scan or quick search did not find any files. In order to conduct a more thorough scan, I clicked on the customized search. The customized search allows you to search the Catalog Tree, by file type, or by Text Search. Utilizing a search by file type, I successful retrieved all my semi-important files including Microsoft Office, Adobe PDFs, Graphic files, FileMaker Pro, Flash, IE Bookmarks, Photoshop, and Safari. Initially I searched for only Word files since both of my books were in Word. The file type only matched older Word files but did not recover my books that had recently been converted to Office X. When I selected the Microsoft Excel-PowerPoint 98-X file type, I recovered a substantial amount of files numbering over 20,000. All of these recovered files were recovered as PowerPoint files type. This is highly misleading, as the files could be any of the Microsoft application data files. Opening them with the default application would result in many files that appeared to be empty. Using contextual menus (Control-Click on the file) I used the Open With option and many of these files turned out to be Excel or Word files and useable. My book was back and so was my work in progress, even if it was six months old.

The tool did not recover many useable PDF files. Out of 800 recovered only 20 could be opened and fewer than that were useable. After Microsoft files and PDF files there were few of the remaining file types that were of help. The FileMaker Pro file type did recover the relational databases I had created to conduct analysis of my website log files. It also successfully recovered my customer database. Since I develop for the web, most of my development files were actually on the web, either accessible or hidden in protected directories. Thank goodness for hosting my sites in a cooler climate.

Many of my important files had been recovered, however some of my important files did not have definitions in the file type list included with Norton Utilities. I had to create file types for Entourage and QuickBooks. This proved not as easy as it sounds since you have to have a sample of the file to create the file type. For both, I had to create a generic file, save it to the hard drive and then open up the Unerase utility again. From the Tools menu, you select the Create File Type Template. Click on Add Files and search the local drive for the file you just created. The file type, if successfully created, will be added to the file type list available in the tool within the filter and customized search features. The Entourage filter I created did not recover any of my lost email correspondence. The QuickBooks filter I created did recover a backup copy of the company structure.

In the end, using Norton Utilities, I was able to recover about 40% of my data from a six-month-old backup that had been erased and overwritten on my backup external hard drive. All in all, it gave me a lot to do and think about while I waited for my drive to return from DriveSavers. True to their committed service levels, within one week I got my call from DriveSavers. The technician called me personally to give me the bad news. Apparently all of my no-brainer errors resulted in zero recovery of my data. For an entire week, I productively focused all of my energy on recovering data from my backup drive. It kept me busy and lessened the blow of such an incredible loss of a huge portion of my life.

Quick Fix

In order to prevent this mishap from ever happening again, I purchased a 160 GB hard drive from Western Digital at Fry's Electronics. It comes standard with the Retrospect Backup client and has enough capacity to backup all the music on my iMac jukebox, all the data on my PC doorstop and my entire business on my "Just Try Dying Again on Me" PowerBook G4 laptop. All devices now backup on a weekly basis over my wireless network by mounting the drives to my desktop and running the client off of the iMac. It isn't the best solution but for less than $200 it works.

Other Simple Ideas

If you have a few critical files and you hit the road frequently, consider purchasing a USB flash memory pen drive and utilizing web-based file backup services such as a .Mac account with iDisk ( or BackJack ( If your computer fails on the road, having those must have files on a USB device will enable you to use them on any machine. Web-based backup services will ensure that you can access large amounts of data on the road or restore critical files once your machine is back up and running. But make sure you do a full back prior to hitting the road. The Macintosh might be robust but by no means is it invincible.

Living Within Acceptable Tolerances

Hitachi has developed a new type of drive with a Temperature Indicator Processor. The device is called Drive-TIP. The temperature sensors basically help to ensure that the environmental stresses of use do not cause failures. According to Hitachi, environmental conditions that affect the life of a hard drive device include ambient temperature, cooling airflow rate, voltage, duty cycle, shock/vibration, and relative humidity. Lets evaluate how each of these conditions contributed to my hard drive failure.

In the summer, temperatures outside can reach and exceed 100 degrees. My home office is on a concrete slab, cold in the winter and cool in the summer. I have two large shade trees outside my office. So even on the hottest days outside, my office still remains at least 10 degrees cooler inside. On this particular weekend, temperatures were topping out at 104 degrees. Given the location of my office, the maximum temperature inside was 94 degrees. With no central air, I have few options to keep my computer cool. "Within a drive, the reliability of both the electronics and mechanics (such as the spindle motor and actuator bearings) degrades as temperature rises. Runny any disk drive at extreme temperatures for long periods of time is detrimental and can eventually lead to permanent data loss." Under the conditions in my office, my laptop had experienced prolonged usage in high temperatures.

External devices, especially firewire devices that are powered by the laptop, cause the internal operating temperature to increase even further. Running on external power also increases heat as it trickles juice to the battery.

Another potential increase in the operating temperature is whether you are using the "lap" in laptop computing. Clothing will restrict the airflow. The slight clearance provided by the small feet on the bottom of the laptop, when placed on a flat surface, provides sufficient airflow to keep the drive and chip cool. On fabric, little or no air flows through the vents on the back of the machine that are located the closest to the internal fan. On the inside of the machine, there is even a greater problem. Over time, the space just in front of the fan on the laptop will collect sufficient amounts of dust. By removing the keyboard, you can visually see the buildup and remove it from time to time. The lack of sufficient airflow both internally and externally will increase the internal temperature significantly.

The Macintosh technical specifications specify operating temperatures requirements of 50 - 95 degrees F. The combination of running on battery power until dry and recharging, working non-stop for three days, lack of airflow and internal temperatures of about 90 degrees, it is easy to see how quickly the computer and the hard drive overheated.

The work I was performing also required many reads and writes to the drive. It is hard to know exactly how hot it was inside the case, but the bottom of the laptop was too hot to rest on my legs. Since humidity is not an issue in my dry client, it is safe to say that the heat was the root cause of the problem.

The final issue would be the vibration and shock. While the laptop was hot and experiencing a failure, I had introduced yet another of the environment conditions that can contribute to significant data loss. Shock. Tapping the drive, no matter how minor it may seem, will only increase the likelihood of data loss.

Another Quick Fix

To conquer the heat, there are a couple of cheep fixes. Make sure that the airflow around your processor and fan are clear of debris. In order for them to operate effectively, airflow must be unrestricted. A simple dinner tray will help to provide the laptop experience while at the same time allowing for airflow through the vents and permit the appropriate space between the laptop and a flat surface. Over time, my laptop "feet" had begun to rub off on my desktop surfaces, thus reducing the clearance. I purchased a set of self-adhesive rubber disks to replace the worn feet. Remember, with the laptop battery location, you will need to replace the foot on each of your batteries to keep the height consistent through battery swap outs when operating solely on battery power.

I tested just how much airflow helps to keep the temperature down. I placed a small desktop fan next to my laptop. The internal fan cycled through half as much as it did without it. So if you can't afford an air conditioner, a simple and inexpensive desk fan placed in close proximity to the computer can keep the temperature down.

Given that I have four systems and two printers in a small bedroom-sized office, I felt I had no choice but to invest in a window air conditioner. Now available in a regular 110V plug (versus the only 220V models), for less than $300 you can cool your office to more acceptable levels.

A Tough and Lasting Lesson

It is difficult to quantify the loss of data in monetary terms. My lesson cost me about $500 in new equipment for backups and cooling. But the loss of my business data, approximately 200 customers and the revenue generating activities for nearly four weeks while I recovered, can not be measured.

As computers manage more and more of our daily lives, we become more and more dependent upon their existence. Data recovery is never full proof. In even a minor failure with working backups, your most recent data between backups will still be lost. You must develop your backup strategy upon the financial significance of lost data. If you can recover from a week old backup, then a less robust scheme can be deployed. If two hours is a disaster, then robust and redundancy are in order.

Once you develop an appropriate backup scheme, you must create a work environment that eliminates the potential causes of hard drive failure (heat, humidity, airflow, usage and shock). The technology is built with tolerance, but extreme operating conditions with multiple potential failures, must be eliminated.

If you do one thing and one thing only, go check your backup. Make sure that your system is still working and protecting your data and your livelihood.

Julie Mohr is the publisher of a service desk enhancement website at She maintains industry expertise and presence through conference speaking engagements and publishing articles on best practices. Julie is the best selling author of The Help Desk Audit: Blueprint for Success.

Ms. Mohr is a Managing Consultant for Alternative Resources Corporation. She has 14 years of experience in the IT industry with eight years of progressive management responsibility in information technology services. Julie has a degree in Computer Science from the Ohio State University and is a Certified Helpdesk Director from Helpdesk 2000.


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