Thursday, December 21, 2006

out of the frying pan...

"But know this, that if the owner of the computer had known at what hour the hard drive would die, he would not have left his computer to be without a backup. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect."
-- from the apocryphal Lucan narrative (IT edition), chapter 12 and verses 39-40.
about two months ago, i spent about a week's worth of spare time during my nights and weekends trying to sort out an annoying problem my PC had developed with outlook, IE, and by association other apps that use IE to render webpages. despite plumbing the depths of google and trawling through the annals of microsoft support, no potential solution i came across (and there were many that looked promising) resolved the problem. i had ruled out the virus/spyware factor, having scanned my entire machine multiple times with multiple scanners. circumstantial evidence hinted at a possible bad patch - i had just completed a round of windows and security updates before this problem appeared on the scene - and i was close to the point of laying blame for the whole saga at the cashed up feet of the microsoft monster. but then i came across a detailed troubleshooting procedure on the MS site, and even though many of the steps involved had already been tried in various combinations, i decided to give this one more try. and by the books.

in the midst of this last effort, i was sprung by the dreaded BSOD. my PC rebooted past the bios and turned percussionist with mechanical ticking/clunking noises now emanating from my primary hard drive. this cannot be good, i said to myself. sure enough, after speaking to a few data recovery places and computer technicians, and doing some preliminary tests (which may have rendered the drive even more useless), i decided it was time for the professionals to take over.

nevermind the software problems, i now had some serious hardware issues to contend with. compounding the joy was the fact that my backup/recovery strategy for such disasters was... well, let's just say fairly minimalistic. hugely ironic for someone who has worked in the IT industry, and specifically dealing with aspects of backup/restore for machines whose power and value tower over the likes of my humble PC, the only backups i had were
  1. "my documents" folder, done over 2 years ago, and
  2. an outlook pst file, done over 6 months ago
everything else has gone the way of all matter when encountering a black hole. thankfully i did have much of my other data sitting on a separate drive, which is still running strong :) *knock on wood*

anyways, i was now faced with a recovery bill ranging from $5-600 through to several $thousand (assuming successful recovery). is my data worth that much? if it was, would it not have made sense to have some protection/insurance against this sort of thing happening? hindsight always oozes wisdom...

so i spent i think about a week sweating on the thought of wiping a few zeros off my savings, and vacillating between wanting to do (almost) whatever necessary thing it takes to retrieve as much of my data as possible, and wanting to live out a bit of the que sera sera philosophy (mixed with twinges of guilt about spending so much money on bits of ones and zeros, the benefits of having which don't spread too much farther than me myself and i). in the end, the damage to the drive proved to be unrecoverable. it was about 2 or 3 months out of warranty. having heard stories of successful recovery following much more severe damage, i was a bit surprised by the status of my drive. in any case it solves the dilemma of whether i should spend the money on getting the data back...

and so i've now invested in a couple of new (and bigger) hard drives, and embarked on a slow process of rebuilding my computer, coming across some useful and note-worthy tools along the way. i'm keeping a changelog of sorts, so that it'll be easier to repeat the build if i need to. but hopefully with my backup strategy in place (part of which involves a sleek looking Cooler Master X-Craft external HDD enclosure), i won't need to do any rebuilds unless i choose to, or until the next you-beaut version of windows is finally released.

recommended tools (all freeware):
  • nLite - Deployment Tool for the bootable Unattended Windows installation (a tool for permanent Windows components removal and pre-installation Windows setup, with the option to make a bootable image ready for burning on cd or testing in virtual machines). I used this to create a custom installer CD for my OS - it wasn't quite as unattended as I would have liked, but it still made the installation a lot easier to manager.
  • DriveImage XML - program for imaging and backing up partitions and logical drives, with images stored in XML files (can be accessed and processed by third party tools), and support for "hot backups" via microsoft's volume shadow service. I use this to clone my whole OS drive to another physical disk, effectively giving me a reasonably up to date (depending on the frequency of backups) spare OS drive that's ready to swap in should the main one die. I'm also using this to create images of my two internal drives, on my external drive.
  • SyncBack (free version) - backs up and synchronises your files and directories to a choice of destination media. With support for filtering, compression, and scheduling with Windows scheduler. Runs very quickly and efficiently (if not using hashing to check file changes). I use this to keep a backed up and synchronised copy of my data drive.
here's hoping i've learnt some lessons from this experience!

oh, i should add that despite the trouble this whole episode has caused me, not to mention the hours spent on the computer (hmm... actually i do a lot of that anyway), i am thankful for things like:
  • the seemingly anal but nevertheless prudent decision i made in the days when gmail invites were scarce and a much sought after commodity, to forward a copy of all my emails to the welcoming and deep spaces of the gmail inbox. basically this meant i had copies of my emails which i could import into outlook, to replace those lost due to the crash.
  • the goodness that is dell axim - i had synchronised copies of all my outlook notes, tasks, contacts and calendar items on my pda. again, a relatively easy way to replace the data lost on my pc.
  • the competitive computer hardware market in this town, meaning i get to upgrade to bigger hard drives for cheap.
  • learning to deal with the loss of something i wouldn't choose to give up, but when it's forced upon me to more or less get on with it. well, what else can you do really... if you don't have a choice, you don't have a choice.

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