Recovery is sweet – and sweat

[Editor's note: I asked Jim Bagley of Storage Strategies NOW to relate his experience with a failed hard disk and the recovery of his data.)

I awoke recently to the worst nightmare of anyone who is totally reliant on their computer for a livelihood – a message at boot time that said the hard disk was not present. It advised me to check the cabling. Now, since my laptop had an embedded 250GB SATA drive, I knew I could check the cabling until doomsday, but one glance told me that the drive was still screwed into the socket, that no gremlins had unplugged it overnight and I was basically into recovery mode. Of course I dutifully ran the BIOS diagnostics, but they reassured me of the fact that I was off to the computer emergency room.

After consulting with Deni Connor, my ER visit started with a call to Dell Support (despite the many advisories while I sat on hold, I did not have a way to go to Dell.com). I finally spoke to the friendly technician and after exchanging service codes and numbers, as well as the error codes from the BIOS diagnostics I had already run, the determination was made that the hard disk was in a totally unrecoverable mode (fried). Since my laptop was only six months old, Dell quickly responded with the dispatch of a replacement drive and I received it a day earlier than expected. My call was on Friday and first thing Monday FedEx was knocking on my door. Thanks to Dell for the quick and reliable response.

This is how backup software should work

Now here is the punch line. I had acquired a Rebit backup appliance about the same time as my computer but had a relatively low level of confidence due to some major anomalies (like system crash) when I would try to look at the contents of a given backup. Nevertheless, I would plug my Rebit into my machine about every two weeks, (it would start complaining vehemently after about a week). I had several interactions with Rebit support about the anomalies, but they assured me that since the recovery process was outside of Windows using a Linux load, the problems that XP was having viewing the data would not preclude a full recovery. A further problem was that a complete system shutdown was necessary to disconnect the Rebit. It would not respond to the 'Safely Remove Hardware' function.

It was with great trepidation that I carefully installed the new Toshiba drive (replacing the Seagate drive that had failed) and I even ran the full set of diagnostics (for about an hour) before I booted from the Rebit recovery CD. It found the most recent snapshot, and I selected the point-of-no-return commit that would erase the nice, fresh Vista load on the new drive and begin recovering from the last snapshot of my old Windows XP environment.

Nothing seemed to happen for the longest time. Even the progress bar didn't move. I had a sick feeling and even put my ear down to both the appliance and the hard drive (my Dell Inspiron laptop doesn't have a disk access LED, a major defect) but I did hear the tell-tale whirr and scritches of spindles and an access arms. After about 15 minutes, I was informed that the recovery was starting and the progress bar began moving at about a percent for every two minutes. A bit more than two hours later, I was informed that the drive had been recovered and advised to press the 'RESTART' button. I did but was not rewarded with anything. A good two minutes passed before the screen went blank and the familiar Dell boot information appeared, followed by a regular Windows boot screen. My neighbors, already certain that I am crazy, must have thought they had a maniac on their hands when I began whooping, squawking and moon-walking.

While this miracle of technology was not quite serendipity, it obviously had exceeded my expectations. My only regret is that I lost about two weeks of e-mail because of my low level of confidence in the recovery. There remain some issues with Rebit – had I wanted to proceed with a file-by-file recovery into the new Vista (or a Windows 7) environment, I would not have been successful due to some problems with Windows utility support in the current Rebit product. And, had my whole computer (rather than just the disk drive) fried or was otherwise lost, stolen or destroyed, it is not clear that I would have been in such great shape, unless I could have found an identical Inspiron configuration. Good luck on that after six months.

Nevertheless, I am up and running with a real automated recovery, I never even had to track down and copy any .PST files. And every bit of personalization, like my Favorites bars, was just as I had before the crash. As a practice SSG-NOW covers Enterprise, SMB, and client backup products. Rebit certainly is a personal favorite for the client side, and we look forward to the improvement in its Windows utility support.

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