Volume 19, Number 4
June 2002


Voodoo Computing
Bringing Your Computer Back from the Dead

By Greg Olson

Today more than ever, data loss occurs when it is least expected-whether from power loss, disaster, virus attack, flooding, technical malfunction, or even accidental deletion. Individuals and businesses are storing more and more data electronically, from legal and financial documents to business plans, tax returns, and personal files. Losing this valuable yet vulnerable data produces not only loss of control over vital information but also, sometimes, serious repercussions for day-to-day business activities.
Computer users and many experts often classify lost data as permanently destroyed with no hope of recovery. But too many users do not realize that delete doesn't always mean deleted. Because so much information about lost data is inconsistent or inaccurate, it's important to understand that data is indeed recoverable much of the time, and individuals and businesses should have a data recovery plan in place to protect themselves.

Common Causes of Data Loss
Data from Ontrack clients indicates the main causes of data loss break down as follows:
o Hardware or system malfunction: 44 percent
o Human error: 32 percent
o Software corruption or program malfunction: 14 percent
o Computer viruses: 7 percent
o Natural disasters: 3 percent

Despite technological advances in the reliability of storage media, data loss is already commonplace and continues to rise, making an understanding of when and how data recovery is possible more important than ever.
The first reason for the increased losses is that today's hard drives are smaller, even though they store exponentially more data than drives from a decade ago. Increasing storage capacities amplify the impact when loss occurs, making mechanical precision more critical. Additionally, the sheer volume of data generated by modern companies and the decentralized way it is produced, collected, and stored are problematic. As more businesses and organizations open their doors to the Internet, threats to data integrity and data security are compounded.
Second, data today is more mission-critical than in the past. Users now store a wide variety of information topics, the loss of which can mean staggering financial, legal, and productivity ramifications for both businesses and personal users.
Third, backup tools and techniques never are 100 percent reliable. Most computer users rely on backups as their safety net in the event of data loss-but Ontrack has found that 80 percent of its data loss customers regularly find their backups less than adequate at the critical moment they need to restore them. Backups assume that hardware and storage media are in working order, data is not corrupted, and the backup is recent enough to make a full recovery possible. They do not always provide comprehensive data protection.
Another factor is that data backup plans developed by many companies simply are not fully realized or are haphazardly followed. If a backup is faulty, a simple data loss can quickly become a data disaster-even a successful backup contains only data collected during the most recent backup session, and other current data can be left unprotected. In many cases, employees' individual desktops are not included in a comprehensive backup protection plan. Instead, IT departments leave it up to each staff member to follow established backup proceedings, and many workers do not unerringly follow through.

Impact of Data Loss
The common causes of data loss share two characteristics: They are unpredictable and, in many cases, uncontrollable. Therefore, precautions taken to safeguard company data are not always able to prevent a data loss disaster. This reality should prompt business executives to ask themselves some serious questions: What are the business risks and legal and financial repercussions of data loss? How susceptible are storage devices to corruption and crashes? What can be done to properly protect and recover critical data?
According to a study conducted by David M. Smith, a labor economist and assistant professor of economics at Pepperdine University, over 6 percent of all PCs will suffer an episode of data loss in any given year. Taking into account the cost of technical support in the recovery effort, lost productivity due to user downtime, and possible costs associated with permanently lost data, each data loss incident costs, on average, approximately $2,557. Multiply this figure by the more than 70 million PCs in use, and data loss turns out to cost U.S. businesses nearly $12 billion a year (not including more abstract costs like losses in revenue and damage to a firm's reputation).
Disaster recovery expert Jon Toigo paints another grim picture. According to his book Disaster Recovery Planning: Managing Risk & Catastrophe in Information Systems (Yourdon Press 1989), the average company experiencing a computer outage lasting more than 10 days will never fully recover financially; 50 percent of them will be out of business within five years.

Financial and legal costs of data loss can put a company's future at severe risk. Legal precedents exist that can be used to hold a company accountable to those affected by its inability to cope with, or recover from, a disaster. A temporary or permanent data loss thus could unnecessarily expose a business to customer lawsuits and other related legal actions.

These potentially high financial, professional, and legal costs make it imperative that firms-large or small-develop and follow a plan for maintaining data integrity and ensuring data security. In order for such a plan to be effective, particular emphasis must be placed on protecting data, detecting potential data loss situations, and correcting data loss conditions before or immediately after they occur. Implementing such a plan can help any business avoid the considerable costs caused by data loss.

Data Recovery Solutions
It is important to understand the professional, financial, and legal implications of data loss and to proactively explore the various options available for maintaining data integrity and information security, but it is equally important to not panic in cases where data loss occurs.
In many cases, data recovery is not just the most practical and economically feasible method for data protection and retrieval; it is the only method available. Data recovery specialists often offer a variety of solutions, from do-it-yourself software that can be purchased or downloaded online to services that restore lost data on hard drives at their labs. With an Internet connection, data may also be recoverable through a remote data recovery option that takes only a matter of hours, reducing downtime and minimizing losses. (See "Data Recovery Tips")

The Future of Data Recovery
Data recovery options are constantly evolving. In the legal world, data recovery technology is gaining in popularity as a viable tool for criminal investigations and electronic discovery. Attorneys today are faced with an overwhelming array of new challenges created by the proliferation of information stored in electronic formats. Issues about what electronic data is discoverable, how it should be produced, and who will bear the costs of production are being played out in courts across the country. More and more proactive data recovery specialists are quickly and wisely moving into this field of "e-discovery."
Of course, incidences of hacking and information theft are increasing proportionately as well. When data is intentionally stolen, altered, or destroyed, professional data recovery services often can locate and analyze computer data evidence and, at trial, offer expert testimony. This past spring the field of computer forensics was in the news almost daily, tracking the continuing Enron/Andersen situation or reporting on networks of cyber-terrorism. This new application of data recovery technology will likely continue to expand.
Understanding the benefits of maintaining control over valuable data and learning how to protect and secure it are now essential, as is knowing available options should data loss financially, professionally, or legally compromise a business. Most "lost" data is indeed recoverable, and bringing a computer back from the dead can save the life of a business.

Greg Olson is senior director, data recovery, for Ontrack Data International, Inc., in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.


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