How to lose your digital life in 20 minutes

Posted by Wolfgang Gruener

Opinion – Ever since my first days as a tech journalist, I have been preaching about the importance of backups. But even if you diligently backup your precious data, disaster can strike any moment and it doesn’t hurt to have a recovery strategy in place, even if you are not the CIO of a billion dollar corporation.

The origin of this story is one of those extremely annoying inconveniences that happen frequently in many places in the U.S., inconveniences we strangely have adapted to and apparently also accepted to live with: Power outages seem to be still a part of everyday life, even if you live in metropolitan areas. Living here in 2007, with all the technological advances we are experiencing, some may have a hard time understanding why no one has found a way yet to keep the lights on reliably, without requiring consumers to run their own generators and back-ups (of course, I can only speak for the suburbs of Chicago, where I live).  

We have learned to deal with those power outages and the fact that, when the weather changes for the worse, you have to shut down your computer and remember where your flashlights are. But there are those unexpected outages as well: In my case, I was finishing up some work late at night last week as the power went out. It was out for ten seconds or so, but long  (or short, depending on  your view) enough to make you angry. I restarted the PC and the power went out a second time as soon as the machine was up. We played this game four times within 20 minutes. I learned later that these four outages were caused by some malfunction in the power grid a few miles away.

These abrupt outages were enough to take out my main hard drive and prevent Windows from booting. Suddenly, there were errors in the boot sector of the drive and I wasn’t able to access the data on the drive anymore, not via a recovery disk, not via DOS, not via the Windows repair disk. DOS simply showed an empty hard drive with zero directories and zero files.

In such a moment you realize how much you depend on your PC. In my case, there were about 160 GB of data on this drive – 160 GB that held most of my digital life over the past 11 years. 160 GB that held more than 20,000 pictures, an invaluable music collection, video games, contracts, tax records. You know what I am talking about. I was not that concerned at first, as I had a backup drive and diligently did my backup once a month or so. But, believe it or not, one or more of the power outages hit the hard drive in the midst of a backup and took out that drive as well. Interestingly, I found out later that both drives were the same models – same manufacturer, same capacity, same model name. But I don’t blame the manufacturer here.

So, long story short, both hard drives were gone.

I did not do much research on what really caused the data loss the following day, but focused on getting the data back as quickly and as much as possible. Luckily, we have a data recovery service in town and those guys were able to recover 95% of the data and they were nice enough to complete that job within one day for what I hear was a very reasonable cost of $100.

So, what is the lesson learned from that experience? Should I purchase a generator? Probably. Should I have power backup for critical equipment? Absolutely. But most importantly, I realized how much we depend on devices that hold the treasures of our life. Hard drives become the vault that stores all your digital memories and important documents. We often write about the fact that 500 GB drives can hold so many pictures and so many music files but there are other implications if you store all those files in one place. Too easily we forget that these devices can fail. If you think about it, hard drive failure and data loss is a scary scenario in a time where pretty much all pictures are taken with digital cameras, where movies are stored on a home NAS and where music is often downloaded from the Internet.

In a sense, the data you store at home may be just as important to your family as is critical business data to a corporation. So, shouldn’t you protect your private data with a similar effort as businesses do? Without going overboard, I believe that there is some reasoning behind that thought and simple disaster recovery strategies for your data at home may be worth some consideration. Strangely, if you look around, there isn’t much information on data recovery strategies for home users. Most information that is available either refers to backups alone or is targeted at business environments. But even tips published for example on free-backup.info can be helpful in setting up your own home disaster recovery strategy.

Doing some research for this article, I came across some data published by the University of Minnesota, which claims that hardware and system failures are the origin of data loss (in corporate environments) in about 50% of all cases, while one third of all data loss incidents can be tied to human error. In 5% of all temporary data loss cases, the financial impact is severe enough to force a company to shut down.

As a result of the potentially dramatic effect of data loss there has been much written on strategies to prepare and manage disaster recovery in corporations. But if you break it down, there are always three core components in disaster recovery planning, which very well apply for an at-home strategy as well: (1) Have a reliable backup strategy, (2) prepare for potential data loss, (3) create a disaster recovery manual.

I’ll keep this short, and assumed that you have an appropriate backup in place, the preparation for data loss typically requires you to identify the hardware and the software that represents the spinal cord of your whole system. The more details and resources you collect about these devices, the better. The manual will document all these details. It will also be detailed enough to take you through the disaster recovery process step-by-step from damage assessment, replacement of hardware and software, implementation of backup media, contacts to third-party data-recovery services and powering your system back up. I have no doubt that such manuals could become increasingly important for many of us, even if you have an in-depth understanding of your home network.

This power outage and its impact here was nerve-wrecking, but I got away with a black eye this time. You are always smarter after such an event: It took me less than a week to put a more comprehensive backup and a simple disaster recovery in place for our home network of five PCs.

That doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t appreciate a more reliable power supply, of course.  

Share your experiences below. What have you found to be efficient strategies to protect your data?