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March 2011
Reaching for Data Recovery
By Carol Gifford

     It’s happened to everyone—and usually at the worst possible time. You finish a project on the computer, coming in just under deadline, and you go to save it. And then … your computer crashes, your hard drive fails, and you fear all your work is lost. Sometimes it’s even worse than just one project; a computer crash could affect all your saved data.

     Before panic sets in, it’s time to call the Southeast area office of Data Recovery Group, or DRG, here in Charlotte. Other offices are in California and Michigan. Since opening in 1987, the company has successfully completed over 30,000 data recoveries and worked for more than 7,000 companies.

     The Charlotte office works with hundreds of companies from Maine to Florida and services accounts located as widespread as England, the Bahamas, and Puerto Rico. Data Recovery Group also provides private label data recovery services for computer repair companies located on the East coast.

     From desktops and multi-drive servers to USB jump drives and camera media cards, DRG can go on a “search and recover” mission for data. Other kinds of media serviced by the company includes: floppy and zip disks; Ipods, PDAs, and MP3 devices; micro drives, and legacy drives.

     “We specialize in data recovery—that’s our only job,” says Ron Davis, regional manager of the Charlotte office. A typical repair job at DRG takes three to five days. “We’ve been doing this for almost 25 years. We work with everything and can recover data from any size computer—from a small digital camera to multi-drive server systems.

     “Your hard drive is going to fail,” says Davis, “it’s just a question of when. You don’t know if it will last five minutes or five years.”

     DRG specializes in recovering data from servers, including NAS and SAN systems, says Davis. Recovery services are available for all operating systems including Windows, DOS, Apple/Macintosh, Novell, UNIX, Linux, and Free BSD. Davis says 65 to 70 percent of DRG’s work is business-related.

     “No data loss situation is too large or too small,” he says. “The process is the same regardless.”

     “My data was on an external hard drive that simply failed,” says Venita Seward, owner of OHH Snaps photography in Charlotte. “I had years of photographs and documents for my small photography business that were secured on the hard drive.

     “There was a sense of urgency to recover the data because another company failed to do it. The other company told me it had recovered the data and placed it on an external drive, but when I got it home, I found out it didn’t work. DRG came to the rescue.”

     Seward appreciated that DRG told her what the problem was and kept in touch throughout the process, even honoring her quoted price with the other company.


An End to Paper Trails

     With most companies promoting a reduction in the carbon footprint and use of paper or hard copies, protecting data becomes even more important. Recent surveys on data show that most of it is in electronic format and that between 50 to 75 percent of business documents never get printed onto paper, adds Davis.

     A hard drive is a delicate and very tightly calibrated device that spins at high speed. Sometimes for no rhyme or reason, they just fail, explains Davis. Surges in power, extreme temperatures or a bumped or jarred drive can all be responsible for hard drive failure.

     Davis recommends that all users routinely backup their data. There are several methods including external drives, burning data to DVD, or using an online backup service. “If your data exists in multiple locations, you reduce your exposure to losing vital documents in a computer crash,” says Davis.

     With many employees now working on laptops in remote locations, from home or in the field, many companies find it difficult to check to see if backup recommendations are followed.

     There are warning signs, says Davis, that users should heed and being attentive to them can minimize possible data loss.

     If the hard drive is making unusual noises such as a buzzing, clicking or knocking, you should turn off the computer, says Davis. Noises signify a mechanical problem that will not go away.

     “Some computer makers include error codes in some hard drives that put out sounds like a Star Wars attack when something goes wrong,” says Davis.

     In such a situation, don’t wait, advises Davis. Call a trusted IT professional immediately. If your data does exist elsewhere and can be reproduced without much cost or time, you may be okay with replacing the hard drive and re-installing the information.

     “And,” he warns, “be careful about those recovery programs that offer free downloads to run on your hard drive. Running IRU, or I Run Utilities, software on a physically failing drive could overwrite and actually destroy the data you’re trying to recover.”


DRG Solutions

     One client chose DRG because of its cost-free initial evaluation.

     “I looked on the Internet for help and had picked out a company, but they wanted $200 just to look at my drives—and DRG was going to do the consultation for free,” says Gary Loden, IT manager at WSFA TV in Montgomery, Ala. “We were saving archives of our video stories on digital files on computer storage units with RAID capabilities, allowing us to use multiple hard drives to reduce the likelihood of losing data.

     “But our system experienced a total mechanical failure, probably due to a random power spike or drop, or it could have been heat-related, we don’t really know.”

     Loden says he sought help from several of his 40+ Raycom Media Inc. stations to no avail. He consulted with another area TV station IT person and then sent the data to a local data recovery company, However, that company was unable to recover the data, even after working on it for weeks.

     After contacting DRG, Loden found out the data was recoverable after the consultation.

     “I sent DRG the drives and it probably took them only about an hour to figure out what was wrong!” says Loden. “Within 48 hours, they had solved the puzzle. It was very important archival data that we were really happy to get back.”

     The cost of the project was reasonable, says Loden, and they were able to solve the problem quickly and professionally.

     “DRG can even save hard drives damaged in disaster conditions like fires and floods,” says Davis. “In spite of how fragile the hard drive is, it is usually so well-protected that even catastrophic conditions might not ruin the data.

     “Fire and water problems might damage the outside casing but may not get inside to the disks,” he continues. “If you experience a catastrophic event, don’t turn on the power to the computer. You don’t want to spin up the drive motor and contaminate the data on the platters. Usually the problems are between the head and the platter.”

     In emergencies, DRG will send someone to a location to pick up computers or hard drives. “Once emergency service is started, we’ll work 24/7 until the data is fully recovered,” Davis adds.

     One unusual DRG recovery story involves a laptop that went through a washing machine.

     “I received a frantic phone call on a Friday night from a woman who said she had put her daughter’s laptop in the washing machine,” says Davis. “She was doing her daughter’s wash and unknowingly loaded the laptop into the machine with the dirty clothes.

     When she realized what happened, she called me right away and asked me to come over and get the computer. I took her drive to the lab and determined that we could recover her data.


The Path to Recovery

     Data Recovery Group was started in 1986 by a retired partner from Ernst & Young. Better known to early customers as Drive Repair Services Corporation, the primary business was hard drive repair, but as an added value for customers, it routinely recovered data from repaired drives.

     In 1994, as hard drive prices declined and demand for recovery solutions increased, Data Recovery Group redefined its mission to become one of the premier data recovery sources in the world. It ceased offering permanent hard drive repair and began specializing in the recovery of data from failed hard drives and multiple drive servers and RAID systems.

     The company’s history provides a “leg up” in data recovery services. Davis explains:

“Although we no longer permanently repair hard drives, hard drive repair is still an integral part of our business. Mechanical failures necessitate the temporary repair of hard drives daily and our vast inventory of parts as well as our intimate knowledge of hard disk drive architecture, allow Data Recovery Group to recover data that most data recovery services would call unrecoverable.”

     “We experienced a hard drive failure and I was looking for a provider who could help us,” says Nick Dooley, IT director of Elevation Church in Matthews. “I asked several people for help and contacted national providers and was surprised to find DRG, a national provider with a lab just a few miles away with the capability to do the work.

     “I made a phone call and was in and out, with my data back, in just three to four business days,” says Dooley. “They provided great customer service and because they were local, there was no shipping time involved.”

     Dooley needed a single file out of the failed hard drive and DRG was able to work within his parameters, recovering the data and providing him with the file he needed burned on DVD.

     “That single file was very important to us and the church,” says Dooley. “The data was irreplaceable.”


Hard Drive Experts

     DRG uses the latest technologies, including proprietary methods, to recover data, and is often able to recover data that other companies have said is “unrecoverable,” says Davis.

     “In our experience, 95 percent of all inaccessible data can be recovered…although it’s not an inexpensive process,” he warns.

     DRG lab technicians wear lab coats and face masks, but the recovery process is far from glamorous, explains Davis. Most data recovery techniques involve repair or replacement of heads and/or spindle motor, electronics, the firmware and parameter tables and the file system.

     “We wear lab coats to help keep the static electricity at bay and keep our clothes clean,” says Davis. “We work in a laboratory setting, or ‘clean room,’ to make sure there’s no dust around when we open the hard drive and to control the release of any contaminants that might cause damage to the heads.”

     Keeping data confidential is also essential.

     “We routinely analyze sensitive data including financial, medical and government records,” says Davis, “and have confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements in place with many corporations and government agencies.”

     If more specialized data recovery is needed, DRG offers the Center for Computer Forensics lab, a Michigan lab that protects the integrity of the data evidence.

     The value of data recovery might be calculated differently by different people, but one thing is certain—it is significant and meaningful to the user, says Davis.

     “It’s hard to predict which data is valuable to different customers,” says Davis. “From corporate financial reports to cherished wedding photos, from sales data to downloads for a music library, our technicians provide professional, confidential and secure data recovery services.”

Carol Gifford is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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