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As Seen In the Eagle Tribune          Sunday, September 18, 2005



Data-recovery companies make good money when hard drives go bad

Harold M. Belbin, principal security engineer of Visiting Geeks, works on hard drives from a laptop computer in the foreground and in the background is one from a desktop computer.

By Brian Johnson
Staff Writer

Harold Belbin compares not backing up computer files to writing the cure for cancer on a cocktail napkin and putting it in your pocket. All it takes is one trip through the wash to ruin a lifetime of work.

Most computer-related disasters, however, are not so catastrophic or, increasingly, irreversible. A growing number of specialists are now able to retrieve critical records from damaged computer hard drives, salvaging data that once appeared to be gone forever.

But the process is costly, both financially and emotionally and according to Belbin, it's completely avoidable.

"Data recovery comes down to closing the door after the horse has left the barn," said Belbin, principal security engineer of Visiting Geeks, a computer network and security service company. "It's too little, too late."

According to the 2000 census, slightly more than half of all American households owned a personal computer a number that continues to rise as computer prices decline. With that proliferation, people have come to depend on their computers to store all kinds of vital items, ranging from financial and medical records to family photos or the next great American novel.

Few people, however, take the time to back up those records by copying them to another device besides their primary computer. That leaves them at a loss when the computer crashes or is otherwise damaged, creating a market opportunity for data-recovery specialists such as Belbin, who works from his Merrimac home.

Hard drives operate much like a turntable and a record album, with small platters containing data and a small device working just above the disk surface to extract that information.

All data entered into the computer is eventually stored in the hard drive, which from the outside looks like a small rectangular box ranging from about the size of a compact disc for a laptop to a small videocassette recorder tape for a home personal computer.

Occasionally, Belbin works on computers that have stopped functioning but the hard drive is still intact. In those situations, he removes the hard drive from the computer, and using specialized software, connects it to his computer and copies the client's files onto a CD or digital video disc.

More often, however, there is physical damage to the hard drive, caused when its motor breaks or the reading device touches the data platter.

In that case, Belbin said the hard drive has to be repaired in a dust-free, controlled environment called a "clean room." There, technicians take the hard drive apart to access the platter and extract its files.

"Never assume data is gone," said Jim Reinert, the senior director of software and services at Ontrack Data Recovery, a suburban Minneapolis-based subsidiary of Marsh & McLennan Cos., a professional services firm whose holdings also include Putnam Investments.

He ought to know. Ontrack has recovered data for more clients than he can possibly count, including salvaging computer records from the remains of the 2003 space shuttle crash some of which were found at the bottom of a lake.

Most of Ontrack's recovery work is done in clean rooms, with prices starting at about $1,000 per job. Reinert estimated his firm received more than 100,000 requests last year from people and companies of all sizes.

And business keeps growing although that would not be the case if people exercised more care in backing up their data, he said.

"We had a young couple call us last month they were newlyweds," recalled Sung Ahn, a customer service representative at Techfusion, a Cambridge-based company that performs several types of data recovery. "They took all these pictures and they lost them in a (hard drive) crash."

Recovering those photos or similar documents doesn't come cheap, Ahn said, often costing $750 to $2,650 and requiring up to seven days of work. The honeymooners were skeptical at first, but were eventually convinced it was worth the cost.

"We were kind of laughing, saying they could have gone on another honeymoon and retook all of the pictures for the money they spent,'" Ahn said.