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Computer Crisis! What to do when your hard drive is destroyed or your laptop is stolen

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Link-Up Digital

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that a flood, fire, tornado, or hurricane destroys your computer. Do you have a way of recovering everything saved onto your hard disk?

How about this scenario: You go through airport security and your laptop isn’t waiting at the other end of the X-ray machine. Or maybe you’ve gotten through the airport OK, but then you inadvertently leave the laptop in a taxi and by the time you realize it, it’s gone.

No matter how careful you usually are, there’s a chance that some day one of these scenarios—or a similar one – will occur.

When disaster does strike in the form of a hard drive crash, damage to your computer, or loss of your laptop, you’ll need to recover it quickly. Whether your urgent need is to recover your entire hard drive, a few files, or only an important presentation, there is a software or hardware solution.

If you’re dependent on your laptop when traveling or use it more than a couple of days a week, it’s a good idea to consider both solutions—just in case. Using two may be redundant, but as the old saying goes, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Online Options

Placing your critical data files on a Web site is one of the easiest ways to keep your data secure. Your files are always available as long as you have an Internet connection, even if you are half way around the world.

Mike Bittel, a financial and business development consultant in Florida, moves between client sites frequently. “A few months ago, my computer crashed.

Windows would no longer load. I called support at the manufacturer and they told me that I was going to have to re-install everything and if I had any data files on the laptop, they would be lost. Even after spending two hours on the phone with Microsoft, they told me the same thing.”

Luckily, Bittel was prepared for this type of disaster. He had stored all of his data at the Filing Room and had no problem re-installing everything. “I was up and running in hours. If I had not stored my files on the Filing Room site, I could have been out of business.”

While storage Web sites are a good resource, experts have differing views on these services. Dan Tanner, the director of storage and management at the Aberdeen Group, isn’t sold on Web sites that offer disk storage space. “It requires high-speed access and persistence,” he notes. “If you’re stuck using a dial-up modem and your files are large, it becomes a problem.”

Dick Harper from Harper Company-Engineering Solutions for Small Business agrees and adds, “Online storage fails if the Internet connection is down or you are in a meeting without one and can’t excuse yourself to find a connection and download the files. What if the online storage server is down when you need it? Then there’s the concern about data security.”

However, Remi Deveau, national manager of business operations continuity for Telus Enterprise Solutions, thinks otherwise. “This is actually a good economic alternative for small companies (with fewer than 10 people) or individuals. The only precaution you need to take is to make sure the company is reputable and secure, since they will be hosting your information.”

Software Solutions

Using a software package to keep your info together is an excellent alternative to online storage. You can back up, make copies of critical files, or create an exact image of your hard drive for easy re-installation, and you don’t need an Internet connection or have to lug around hardware.

Andreas Lenné found software to be the perfect method of recovery. He needed a product that was “bug-free, easy, and quick. Don’t ask me how, but I extracted NovaStor’s Instant Recovery out of the jungle of backup solutions available,” he says.

He installed the software easily without studying cumbersome manuals and was overjoyed at the ease and simplicity of the program. He quickly had his hard drive backed up on a CD-R. Then disaster struck: “A week later, there was a big presentation at 4 p.m. At 3:30, the hard drive on my laptop did its last spins, and a second later, the computer seemed to die. I could have died right then and there myself. For a moment I was shocked, but I got a little screwdriver out and unmounted the hard drive from the laptop, and then replaced it with a new blank one.”

Within minutes Andreas booted the laptop with Instant Recovery, popped the CD-R in the laptop’s CD drive, and made his presentation on time and with kudos. “To put it mildly, Instant Recovery has helped me several times and prevented me from losing time, money, and nerves,” he acknowledges.

Another fan of the software approach to disaster recovery is Cullin J. Wible of Algorim Technologies. “We began deploying Windows 2000 to a number of our clients and had evaluated several imaging solutions including Microsoft’s RIZ and Powerquest’s Deploycenter,” Wible explains. “We found that RIZ required network cards and the setup was more complex then we wanted; Deploycenter was too expensive and extremely top-heavy.”

Cullin did some research and chose TrueImage from Acronis. He hasn’t regretted his decision. “We were upgrading many laptops and desktops and found that by imaging the machines first, we could perform upgrades without any risk of data loss,” he says. “If an upgrade went totally wrong, we could easily restore the original image in about an hour. Now we have images of each user’s PC so if anything ever happens, we can easily restore it to the way it was on the day we installed Windows 2000.”

Instant Recovery and TrueImage are just a couple of software choices. Whether you’re looking for protection for one laptop or several, one is sure to fit your needs.

Hardware that Helps

Sometimes hardware is the preferred method because of the variety of available product sizes—some units are as small as a credit card and others are an external unit that fits in a briefcase. Plus, the knowledge that you have your backup with you may help you sleep better at night if you’re on the road.

Mike Vander of Indianapolis realized that his laptop hard drive was failing, so he backed it up to Apricorn’s 20 GB EZ Backit Pro before sending it off to be repaired. “When my laptop came back from the shop, I did a restore from my EZ Backit Pro. Everything was back just the way I left it. It saved me a week of rebuilding my laptop!”

Hardware storage is a popular option at Exhibitree in Irvine, California, which designs conference exhibit booths for its customers. Exhibitree uses portable USB backup solutions for the 25 Apple iBook, iMac, G3, and G4 systems for conceptual design, renderings, cost estimating, production drawings, graphic layouts, and communications within the company and with suppliers. Exhibitree decided that Seagate’s Travan TapeStor external USB drives were their best bet to back up critical data files on a regular basis. These have saved the day for the company on more than one occasion.

“We had to restore Word files that got deleted by our sales group a few times and the Retrospect Backup software that comes with the Travan drives makes that easy to do,” says Kevin O’Connor, a production designer at Exhibitree.

Top 5 Tips from the Experts

1. Make sure your hard drive is backed up. “Find out whether or not your desktop or laptop is included in the regular backups that are done in companies,” says Dexada Jorgensen, manager of emergency planning at TELUS. “Often, these backups are done at night when the staff is off—and usually laptop owners have their device at home, not docked. I would advise manually backing up the data either to the file server or to their own CDs, JAZ, ZIP or other drive.”

2. Make backing up simple. “Keep all data files in a separate, easily backed-up location,” advises Dick Harper from Harper Company-Engineering Solutions for Small Business. “I always set drives up with separate partitions for that, but even My Documents works in a pinch if all the data files are there.”

3. Make sure your backup works. Test the CD, Zip disk, or whichever media you use right after doing the copy, then re-verify that it works. “The cost of an unrecoverable system crash or loss far outweighs the cost of a good backup solution,” says Mike Lakowicz, Seagate RSS vice president of Product Strategy and Business Development.

4. Know what you’re using. “If you use backup software, note the name of the program, its version, license numbers, and vendors—and keep this with the data backups,” offers Remi Deveau, national manager of business operations continuity for Telus Enterprise Solutions.

5. Travel tips. “Laptops are susceptible to theft, more so than desktop computers,” notes Thom Bailey, Group Product Manager for Symantec Corporation. “While traveling, carry a form of removable storage or data transfer device that allows you to create backups each day. Make sure you have security options to prevent unauthorized users from accessing or altering the image of your laptop.”

Online Storage

Frequent travelers want to keep their luggage as light as possible. If you find yourself on a plane or train on a regular basis, an online storage solution may be what you need. Make sure you’ll have access to the Internet and that the storage Web site is secure from hackers.

DataVault sends copies of your critical files to its secure offsite data storage facility every night. Full or incremental backups can be done, and the files are compressed and encrypted so you can cram as many files as possible into your storage space.
$19.95/month for 3 GB to 159.95/month for 30 GB offers several choices here for online backup. IBDrive maps your online storage account as a local drive on your computer so you can drag-and-drop, open, edit, and save files directly from office applications. IBackup for Windows allows you to schedule online backup for any date or time and encrypt and compress files. Smart IB provides folder level backups and restore operations. QManager lets you share files and folders securely using shareable links. Other features let you access your account from any FTP or WEBDAV client and view or share files from a Palm VII or a WAP-enabled phone.
$3/month for 50 MB to $800/month for 100 GB

The Filing Room
Store, retrieve, and share your files online at The Filing Room. File integrity is assured by power features like allowing only the account administrator and the file author to delete data. E-mail notifications, searching capabilities, and group users are other features on this site.
$4.99/month for 10 users to $39.99/month for 100 users

Remote Backup
This Web site works like data backup software, except it sends backups over the Internet, telephone lines, or other network connections to your offsite backup server. It requires a maintenance subscription of around $100 per year for the online storage of your files. A 20-day free trial is available.
$499 for five users; up to $2,999 for 100 users


Portability is key when it comes to hardware, and the latest crop of portable storage devices are lighter and smaller than ever. If you tend to misplace things, this solution is not for you. Many of these devices come with a USB 2.0 interface for faster backups.

Amacom Technologies Flip2Disk
Store or archive data, digital video, graphics, presentations, MP3s, and data-intensive applications on the credit card-sized Flip2Disk. It comes in 20 GB-60 GB sizes and includes padded carrying case.

Apricorn EZ-Backit Pro
EZ-Backit Pro uses the PC Card slot on your laptop to create a mirror image of all of your applications, files, and operating systems. It comes with software that lets you schedule automatic backups, perform incremental backups, and password-protect your data. Storage sizes range from 10 GB–60 GB.

CMS Peripherals ABSPlus
port or PC Card slot, and the device takes it from there. One Button Restore lets you restore data to a crashed computer in one simple step, and the Redirect Restore function sends data to another device or drive for storage. Storage capacities range from 20–60 GB.

Easy Disk
This portable USB hard drive lets you store and transport data safely and easily. Easy Disk is a keychain fob and comes with a keychain holder, pen clip, and leather carrying case. This password-protectable device comes in 16 MB–1 GB sizes.

Pocketec Pockey DataStor
The tiny Pockey DataStor comes in large sizes—20–60 GB to be exact. This stackable drive can be password-protected and works with both USB 2.0 and USB 1.1.

Seagate Travan Portable USB Drive
This is the largest device in this roundup. Seagate’s Travan Portable USB Drive easily fits in a briefcase or carry-on luggage. It provides complete external data protection in sizes ranging from 20–40 GB.

WiebeTech Micro GB+
Compact and compatible with any FireWire-equipped laptop, the Micro GB+ comes with its own carrying case and weighs just 6.9 ounces. While the Micro GB+ is available in storage capacities that range from 20–60 GB, the unit can also be purchased empty so you can install your own hard drive in it.


Inexpensive and easy to install, software is often used by individuals and small businesses. While you need to keep your backup on a CD or other removable media (and remember to bring the disc with you), it’s more portable than most storage hardware. Free trial periods are available for most software packages.

Acronis TrueImage
Capture and restore disk images in Windows without rebooting to DOS, even when backing up your system partition. TrueImage runs in the background, so you can work while the backup is in progress.
$44/$29 as an upgrade

NovaStor Instant Recovery
You can quickly perform a physical disk image backup of any hard drive or partition directly to CD-R/CD-RW, hard disk, removable drives, or tape drive with NovaStor Instant Recovery.
$44/$24 as an upgrade

PowerQuest DriveImage 2002
Create an exact copy of your entire hard drive or partition it in minutes with DriveImage. You can save your backups directly to a partition, save to and restore a network drive, and schedule automatic backups.

Storactive LiveBackup
Automatically backup data in real-time with LiveBackup for reliable file recovery and easy disaster recovery. The data is protected from loss even while roaming. Files are protected for their entire lifecycle, and backups are saved with multiple recovery checkpoints, so restores can be made with data from the last save or from earlier backups.

Symantec Norton Ghost 2003
Ghost backs up your info with a streamlined Windows interface for quick and easy setup. The program backs up, saves, and restores images to network drives and almost any other type of storage device.
$69/$49 as an upgrade

J. A. Hitchcock is a freelance writer and the author of Net Crimes & Misdemeanors (CyberAge Books, 2002), which is presently being updated.

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