States turn here when drives crash

All data from this Apple PowerBook's drive was saved after the unit was submerged in the Amazon River and retrieved by a scuba driver.

Hard drives are not immortal. That's a lesson state and local government officials are learning the hard way.

'Every drive out there is going to die some day,' said John Christopher, an engineer with DriveSavers Data Recovery Inc. 'Some will die right out of the box, some will die after five years. We're seeing most drives last about three years.'

Several state and local government officials have turned to the Novato, Calif., company when PCs or servers are dropped, waterlogged, smashed or burnt.

'We're kind of like the emergency room' for drives, Christopher said.

Oregon's Parks and Recreation Department recently had a 6G hard drive fail, said Bill Hopkins, network support analyst with the agency's Information Services Division. The drive was crammed with graphics files from the Public Services Department. 'I must admit, we didn't do a backup like we should have, either,' he said.

It turned out the drive's reading arm was malfunctioning. 'DriveSavers recovered all the data'Adobe Photoshop files, PageMaker files, everything, and sent it back to us on DVDs. I just hope I never have to call them again,' Hopkins said.

Even the best-laid IT plans go awry. The Cincinnati Police Department faithfully backed up its server, said Tom Lind, the department's senior computer program analyst and network administrator. Early this year, while he was upgrading a Novell NetWare server, one of the hard drives wouldn't respond.

'We do backups, but the backup was corrupted,' he said.

Lind shipped the drive off to DriveSavers. Within a week, the company shipped back CDs with 100 percent of the data recovered. 'It was probably a failed drive motor,' Lind said.

Stuck in first gear

Someone in the Soldano County, Calif., district attorney's office dropped a hard drive about six months ago, said Sgt. Dave Bettin, a supervisor on a nine-county computer crime task force.

The drive wouldn't spin, so it was sent off to DriveSavers and within a week it came back fixed, said Richard Johnson, an investigator with the D.A.'s office.

'We get requests to do high-technology investigations from all over,' Bettin said. 'Disks and drives come to us in all states of disrepair. We've used DriveSavers three times.'

With so many low-cost backup devices around, 'you'd think there'd be no need for our services,' Christopher said. 'But maybe the backup fails, or the person responsible for backing up data left. People get busy with big projects and don't think about backups.'

Much of DriveSavers' work is manual, Christopher said. Engineers work with a damaged drive in a clean room to prevent dust or bacterial contamination. The company keeps an inventory of about 10,000 drives for spare parts.

People call for help for many reasons, said Doreen Griffiths, a government account executive with the company. Most often, the drives have a mechanical failure. Viruses and worms are also a frequent cause of data loss. 'Our call volume goes way up when a virus like ILOVEYOU or Nimda is on the loose,' she said.

Customers' drives have been charred, melted, run over by trucks and menaced by piranhas, as shown in a series of bizarre accidents listed on the company's Web site at www.drivesavers.com.

For example, a cruise ship sank in the Amazon River. A woman who had abandoned her Apple PowerBook in the shipwreck returned two days later in scuba gear to retrieve it from the sunken ship. DriveSavers recovered all the data.

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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