The National Weather Service has begun testing the way it labels natural disasters. It's hoping that the new warnings, which include words like "catastrophic," "complete devastation likely," and "unsurvivable," will make people more likely to take action to save their lives. But what about their digital lives? The increasing frequency and magnitude of natural disasters made me wonder about saving individuals' and businesses' data from disasters. Data can't be reminded to save itself, but we can take steps before a disaster to preserve it, and we can recover it afterward.
Here's what Mike Cobb, the director of engineering at DriveSavers, recommends doing in case of an impending natural disaster:
-- Keep all electronics out of basements and off the floor in general. Basements are naturally cool places, but are the first to flood.
-- If possible, unplug your hardware--laptops, printers, and other electronic devices--from all power sources.
--Invest in a surge protector. Surge protectors and battery backups should be checked or replaced every few years to ensure the highest level of effectiveness.
--To help protect against water damage enclose any valuable devices in plastic or place in a water-tight plastic bin.
Sometimes hardware damage is inevitable, so perform backups often. This will prevent data loss even if the device itself is destroyed. Although there are reasons to be wary of online data storage, the cloud might make sense for people in disaster-prone locales who can't afford off-site storage. You'll be storing your files on remote servers that will be safe from whatever disaster takes down your computer.
DriveSavers, like Kroll Ontrack and Iomega, specializes in recovering data from hard drives, portables, and flash media due to mechanical failure and natural disasters. Hard drive recovery once looked like a sunset technology. Even today, with cloud storage and RAID 10, how much do we really need it? That question has been around for a while, but for a different reason. Back when Cobb joined DriveSavers in 1993, his boss said they might have a few more years of work left but flash media would put an end to their business. What they didn't anticipate was how the nature of the business would change. Flash media would have been a perfect backup system had the files remained small. Back then even the largest files were just a few kilobytes, and most personal data could be stored on a floppy. Today a $200 2TB hard drive can be filled quickly with HD movies, photos, and music. With so much data, backing it all up to the cloud is impractical.
For example, my wife is a photographer and she'll come back after a shoot with 2GB of data. She already has approximately 2TB of photos that she stores on an external drive. If she backed that up to a cloud storage service such as Carbonite, it would take nearly a year and a half to complete at a rate of 4GB a day. Restoring would take just as long. We're considering a Drobo, but for now I do an xcopy from one drive to another.
Cobb estimates that half his business comes from small customers like my wife's photography business, but the other half comes from corporate or government customers. "[They are] truly enterprise-level systems with RAID 5," he said.
Wait. RAID? Don't RAIDs let you hot swap a failed drive with another without having to recover the data?
"The problem," said Cobb, "is that a lot of companies buy a device, they see it as a RAID 5, and think, 'Why do I need to have someone attend to it?'" These companies don't configure the RAID to give a proper alert when a drive fails, and it's not until a second drive dies that the company discovers its system is down, he said. "That's a third of our business, with those scenarios, right there."
If the National Weather Service issued a "complete devastation" warning today, would your data be ready? You might get only a few hours' warning, and that's if you're lucky. Last year's tsunami gave Japanese network admins less time than that, and when the water receded, hundreds of RAID drives had to be repaired.
Here's what you should not do if a hard drive or array is damaged by a natural disaster:
-- Do not turn it on if it has obvious physical damage or is making unusual sounds.
-- Do not use the recovery software if the drive makes scraping, tapping, clicking, or humming sounds.
-- If a drive exhibits any of the above symptoms, do not try other tricks to revive it, such as turning the computer off and on or using over-the-counter diagnostic tools. This might cause further damage or permanent data loss.