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January 2004

To the Rescue

When a mobile device bites the dust, data recovery companies jump in, offering to resurrect “lost” information.
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By Teresa von Fuchs




Road warriors live and die by the business information in their PowerBooks and ThinkPads, but they are particularly vulnerable to data disaster by virtue of the portability of their notebooks. Laptops have been known to be dropped, run over in driveways, mangled by commuter trains and more—not to mention simply giving up the ghost without warning and throwing backup-delinquent owners into fits of panic over the potential loss of critical spreadsheets, business proposals and customer databases.

But most files can be saved by data recovery companies that perform emergency rescue operations on crashed and damaged hard drives. Using a variety of hardware and software tools—the leading companies employ proprietary systems developed over long nights in the lab—these companies can save the day for victims of computer disaster by resurrecting data that once would have been consigned to the grave.

Consider the story of Jicqueline Reis and Tony Duncan, professional jugglers who were performing aboard a cruise ship in Brazil when it hit an underwater barge and sank to the bottom of the Amazon River. The 270 passengers got off safely, but Reis’ Apple PowerBook sank with the ship, taking with it irreplaceable files ranging from client lists, invoices and tax records to the performer’s Antarctic travel journal and partially written memoirs.

Two days later, defying a salvage company that had discouraged anyone from going on board, Reis decided to try to rescue her computer, along with an heirloom diamond ring that had gone down with the ship. She rented scuba gear, swam down to the wreck, smashed a window with a flashlight, navigated through the dark hallways and found her way to her stateroom. There she recovered both her PowerBook and her jewelry, but was faced with the prospect of permanently losing her data on her waterlogged hard drive.

A bit of sleuthing led Reis to DriveSavers, a Novato, Calif.-based data recovery firm, which began its delicate undertaking by completely disassembling her hard drive in its clean room. “Sea water had already begun to corrode the platters,” says John Christopher, a data recovery engineer with DriveSavers, “so we mixed a special cleaning solution. Then, using a DriveSavers’ process, we salvaged the data bit by bit, installed it on a new hard drive and delivered the info 24 hours later.”

DriveSavers has performed similar surgery on laptops that have been fried by fire, washed away in floods, trapped in mud, crushed under the wheels of a pickup truck, run over by a shuttle bus at Macworld and suffered various other indignities. The company has a success rate of over 90 percent, according to Christopher, and recovers data from all operating systems and storage media including hard drives, disk arrays, floppies, CD-ROM, DVD, removable cartridges and digital camera media.

DriveSavers is not the only data recovery company boasting similar successes. A Google search for “laptop data recovery” returns 236,000 hits. Other companies that perform similar services are Ontrack and ActionFront. An international service and software solution provider, Ontrack claims to have rescued more than 125,000 systems since 1987 and also sells do-it-yourself software systems for less sophisticated problems. ActionFront’s sole business is recovering data files and lost information. It offers a free evaluation of the damaged media and a data guarantee that customers only pay for data actually recovered. Rates for all three companies are comparable based on drive capacity, operating system and the complexity of the recovery, with rates ranging from $500 to $5,000. •



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