Dead Disks. Frozen Files. Who Ya Gonna Call?

Cover Story: Information Technology Annual Report

Michael G. O'Brien is trying to save a life--the life of a 500-megabyte file-server disk drive. It failed yesterday at an ad agency in Midtown Manhattan. Working until 10 last night, O'Brien, his boss, and a colleague tried to master the disaster. They were back at 6 a.m. O'Brien is operating on four hours' sleep and his workshop's air-conditioning is broken. It's 8:45 a.m., and he's trying to download files he needs to test the drive. But for 20 minutes there has been no answer at two bulletin boards that have them. The phone rings: his boss. The client is asking whether the data can be saved....

Welcome to a day in the life of a computer technician. When a PC displays a strange error message or a network crashes, it's people like O'Brien who get the call. They're the ambulance crews, triage doctors, and heart surgeons of data. Without them, networks would blink out like dead bulbs on a Christmas tree. Understandably, it's a job with a future: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the ranks of data-processing equipment repairers will rise to 120,000 in 2005, from 83,000 in 1992.

O'Brien, 30 and married with a child on the way, ended up in the career by chance. The Queens native studied programming at Bernard M. Baruch College (part of the City University of New York), but couldn't find a programming job after graduation. So he went into repairs. He has spent the seven years since working with Richard C. Nathan, majority partner of Tailored Technologies Co., a computer sales, installation, and maintenance company with six employees and 10 subcontractors. O'Brien, now a partner himself, describes the job as "20% maddening" but it's clear he loves it. "I'm like a detective every day."

Today's case began at 12:30 yesterday afternoon, when clients at Milton Samuels Advertising Agency Inc. started having trouble opening files stored on their L: drive. O'Brien went over immediately, got the users to log off, and repeatedly ran a Novell Inc. utility program called VRepair that corrects disk errors by moving data from bad spots to good ones. No luck: By the time he restarted the network, the drive had dropped out completely.

DATA PANIC. Well, no great loss, he figured. All the data was automatically copied onto tape every night at 11 p.m., right? Surprise. The procedure had not worked properly, so the last good backup tape was nearly three months old. Even so, if the L: drive had contained only programs, it wouldn't have been too serious: You can always get a new program. But it turned out that several people had been storing data on it.

By this point, then, O'Brien is hoping that somehow the drive is actually O.K. and the flaw is somewhere else. To find out, he has carefully transported it to Tailored Technologies and attached it to "Frankenstein"--his name for the dismembered PC sprawling across his desk. But to complete the simulation of the ad agency's network, he needs two pieces of software for the drive controller card. Those programs can be downloaded from two bulletin boards, O'Brien knows, but neither answers.

Out of desperation, O'Brien searches one of Tailored Technologies' own disk drives for the programs, named Aspitran and AHA1520. At 9:07 a.m., he finds them. "We might be in business here," he mutters. Fingers flying over the keyboard and circuit cards, he stitches together a facsimile of the Milton Samuels file server--Ethernet, router definition table, and all.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away at the Park Avenue ad agency, Richard Nathan and Travis Johnson are going from desk to desk, getting people running despite the missing server. This turns out to be no easy task: Many of the employees used versions of Windows and other programs that ran on the L: drive. There was already a project under way to move those programs onto individual PCs. Now, the Tailored Technologies SWAT team must finish the long-term transition in a few hours. Further complicating matters, many of the PCs have undersized hard drives, so Nathan has to order and install six new ones. The priority list is on the back of an envelope. One woman--blissfully unaware of the crisis--complains that she's missing her favorite screen saver.

With all the new hardware, this is getting to be a costly job, but Nathan doesn't discuss billing with the agency's chief financial officer, Michael Spano. Spano is having a bad day of his own. Last night, a truck rammed his brand-new sports car. And this system crash has happened at a bad time: The agency is working on end-of-the-month bills. Says Nathan: "I'd never bring up money at a time like this. Bad form."

Back at Tailored Technologies, O'Brien's Bugs Bunny watch reads 9:50 a.m. Calls have been coming in from a midtown law firm where all the computers on the network are frozen and from a U.N. agency with a screwup that sounds like it might be a cabling problem. He has farmed the jobs out to other colleagues.

POSTMORTEM. Now, the moment of truth: Time to try out the malfunctioning L: drive in the full network setup. Oops. Frankenstein "sees" the drive but can't read anything from it. Anything at all. What's more, the drive is making unpleasant grinding and clicking noises. It appears to be a major, irreversible failure. Says the unflappable O'Brien: "When you hear a hard click when you turn it on, that's not good."

The only thing left to do is ship the dead drive to a computer pathology lab that will dismantle it and try to retrieve the data for hundreds or thousands of dollars. (In the end, the agency cancels the job when most of the files turn out to be unrecoverable.) O'Brien unwraps a new drive and starts loading it with files from the March backup tape. Around 11 a.m., he heads to the ad agency to help Nathan and Johnson with the clients. Though this work is less intriguing than sleuthing for faults, it has its own rewards. After he gets media director Jill Elias on line about noon, she responds: "I'm printing? What a guy!"

By the time they knock off for lunch, Tailored Technologies' crew has done a full day's worth of work. A rescue like this would usually cost $10,000 or more, parts included. Because Milton Samuels has a service contract, Nathan predicts the ad agency will have to lay out only about $4,000. There are still loose ends to tie up there this afternoon. First, though, O'Brien rides the subway to Duke & Co., a fast-growing East Side brokerage and investment banking firm, where there are some computers to move around. After the 90-minute commute home, he should sleep well tonight. Unless his beeper goes off.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.