Rx for Ailing Data Devices

January 2001
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

Bits and bytes recovery capability critical in resource-challenged regions.

A sinking feeling emerges when saved information cannot be retrieved or a hard drive is totally destroyed. The anxiety of data loss rivals the panic that sets in upon misplacing a treasured keepsake or losing a large sum of money. And, it is a deplorable reality in an age that is more dependent than ever on vulnerable devices that are relied upon from the dawn of an idea through storage for posterity.

Handling the data deluge now requires a full spectrum of steps—gather it, protect it, move it, share it, store it, mine it—and when the worst case scenario happens, recover it. It is this last capability that generates a huge sigh of relief for many when they realize what has been lost can often be found.

A group of Eastern European computer experts is applying past military expertise to the urgent mission of rescuing missing data before it is irretrievably lost. Data damage or loss can occur for a number of reasons. Mechanical or electrical damage, software malfunctions, reformatting, dust, extreme temperatures and viruses can cause bits and bytes to be eaten up like the dots on a Pac Man video game screen.

Prevention is generally considered the best defense. Anti-virus software and firewalls, for example, detect malicious activity that could damage files. If preventive measures fail, several companies offer data recovery software that in some cases can be effective; however, if the hard disk drive (HDD) is damaged, these utilities cannot recover the data and can cause additional damage. A third option offers organizations an alternative when their equipment has suffered severe damage or when they lack personnel or staff expertise. Data recovery firms have the experts, facilities and equipment to address a range of repairs, and they can retrieve information from a variety of storage devices.

These services are particularly valuable in countries where inadequate resources limit the purchase of high-end computers and extensive backup systems or where replacing damaged equipment is difficult. One Eastern European company, EPOS Limited, Kiev, Ukraine, was formed in 1993 by retired military officers who took the experience they gained from their former careers and applied it to the growing information technology business in their country.

“Organizations only understand the true value of their information after it has been lost,” Lt. Col. Sergey Chekhovsky, Ukraine Marines (Ret.), managing director, EPOS, says. Like many companies today, EPOS offers several services. The company assembles PC, server and external storage devices; designs local area networks; upgrades and repairs hardware and peripherals; and offers technical support. However, the urgent nature of data recovery in an area of the world where individuals, firms and state agencies cannot afford to continuously buy new PCs, peripherals, motherboards, CD-ROMs, CD-rewritables or ample backup equipment makes the company’s work in data recovery especially important, Col. Chekhovsky notes. The country’s power system, which often jumps from 160 volts to 280 volts, also aggravates the problem of data loss, he adds.

The company’s diagnostics center features six sections. One area concentrates on storage device diagnostics, and two departments specialize in storage device repair. Two other divisions conduct data recovery work, and the final group is dedicated to research and development.

EPOS has designed several tools that its engineers use in the recovery process. Physical damage to the HDD is a serious obstacle for software designed to retrieve data directly. If users employ these utilities on an HDD that has physical damage, all or part of the data can be lost. To address this problem, the industry’s standard operating procedure is to copy the damaged information to a new HDD.

The firm’s engineers designed a hardware-software system of copying and creating carrier images. Specialists studied the features of various HDDs and the technology of data records, then gathered details about the different types of damage to storage devices. Next, they developed a procedure for data recovery based on this information, the colonel explains. The company can recover data from a variety of storage devices, including those using hard disk, floppy disk, Zip, Jaz and magneto-optical drives.

Engineers employ a set of utilities to diagnose HDDs at the manufacturer level. This process reveals problems at the engineering layer, and the information can be used to restore HDDs.

The controller EPOS Master Copy is the basis of the company’s system. It includes a hardware device to replace HDD heads and diagnostic software to enable the company’s personnel to replace the broken heads and to copy data from the damaged HDD to a new HDD in an adaptive mode. Controller software is then engaged for a statistical method of reading the data.

The clean room is a key element of the company’s facility. Currently, EPOS is the only private company in the Ukraine with a clean room that meets the U.S. standard for such facilities, Col. Chekhovsky contends. One cubic foot of air in the room contains less than 100 dust particles of less than 0.5 microns each. “The clean room is very important,” he stresses. “The HDD has a head disk assembly [HDA], which is a hermetic unit. If the damage is inside of the HDA, it must be opened to be repaired. Dust inside the room would penetrate into the HDA. Because modern HDDs operate at up to 10,000 revolutions per minute, very small dust particles can damage the plate very quickly.”

Once the HDD is repaired, the firm’s software products are used to continue the data recovery process.

EPOS Diagnostic, a software tool set, includes more than 40 utilities and is used to perform deep diagnostics for Seagate, Western Digital, Quantum, Maxtor, Samsung and Fujitsu hard disks. The firm’s data recovery tools facilitate the search and analysis of data and allow the structure of file systems to be restored. These tools automate the data recovery process, reducing the time required to restore information, Col. Chekhovsky offers. Although other companies offer similar software, the EPOS tools are more effective if data loss has been caused by damage to the HDD, he adds.

The company recovers data for approximately 50 customers each month. However, after the Chernobyl virus attack, it helped retrieve information for 300 clients. Unlike other virus attacks, the company could not restore lost data for its clients using standard recovery software and relied solely on their own systems.

According to the British magazine Virus Bulletin, Chernobyl is currently one of the top 10 viruses in the world. When the virus penetrated computers on April 26, the anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear plant event, it infected almost all of the executable files, according to Col. Chekhovsky. Once initiated, the virus damaged the first 2,048 sectors of an HDD and the information in the basic input/output system of the motherboard. Because these first sectors save special information, users were unable to read the remainder of the information on the HDD. In addition, since the basic input/output system was damaged, some users were unable to turn on their computers.

EPOS services a variety of clients from military and government agencies to foreign embassies and commercial firms.

Vyacheslav Salakhow, information technology center chief of the Ukraine’s Finance Directorate at the Ministry of Defense in Kiev, says his office was experiencing trouble reading information from an HDD. Initially, he believed the problem was caused by the fluctuation of the power supply. However, after taking the equipment to EPOS, the company’s engineers determined that faulty disks were causing the malfunction. Within two days, the firm restored the information, including the use of the operating system. To prevent future problems, the directorate instructed EPOS to save the recovered information on a CD-ROM, Salakhow explains.

In the publishing industry, the company has restored between 200 and 300 files containing up to 7,000 megabytes of information for various publications. Col. Chekhovsky explains that publishers often prepare an entire book or magazine for production and then discover that the HDD is damaged. “They committed a typical mistake. They did not save the data to another storage device,” he offers.

The company also has helped preserve the reputation of financial institutions. In one case, one of the top 20 banks in the Ukraine saved one day’s data on a single HDD. As a result of physical damage to the HDD’s plate surface, all of the information was lost. EPOS recovered the data for the bank in two hours; however, the colonel adds that it usually takes the company’s specialists one to three days to recover files of up to 1,000 megabytes.

Universities and research institutions also have used EPOS data recovery services. In general, the company restores between 1,000 and 5,000 files for these organizations that consist of between 500 and 8,000 megabytes. In a case involving the Chemical Institute, the firm was able to restore 8,000 megabytes of information in seven days after finding that the institute’s HDD had suffered physical damage, Col. Chekhovsky offers.

To avoid the panic attack that lost data can cause, the colonel recommends that agencies and firms purchase high-quality hardware for their critical operations. A policy should be established that prohibits the storage of crucial information on the hard drive, and all data should be backed up regularly on independent storage devices. Redundant arrays of inexpensive disks can be used, he suggests. In addition, all users should have access to utilities as well as anti-virus software that scans for potential problems.

“When a company loses important information or has a problem with an HDD, going to a special service center is the best choice. Although data recovery software from a reputable company can be effective, if the loss is due to a damaged HDD these utilities will not restore the data and could do further damage,” Col. Chekhovsky says.