Don't Be A Crash Dummy

It's not whether your computer will go down, it's when. Here is how to prepare

One morning a couple of weeks back, my hard drive started making funny clicking noises. I worked for a few more minutes with the computer acting flakier and flakier, then it crashed. An attempt to reboot revealed the unsurprising but awful truth: The disk was trashed. Nothing I could do, not even reformatting, would bring it back to life.

This could have been a disaster. My entire working life--columns that I've written, correspondence, E-mail archives, expense report records, everything--was on that 2 gigabyte disk. To my eventual relief, it turned out to be nothing worse than a moderate nuisance. Perhaps you can learn something from my experience.

HARD LESSONS. If you use a computer, the question is not whether you will suffer a major data loss due to hardware or software failure, but when. I have endured several hard-drive crashes, which have taught me--the hard way in some cases--that careful preparation is all that stands between a computer and catastrophe.

So this time, as soon as my disk drive went south, I made two phone calls. The first was to Connected, an online service to whose servers my data are backed up each night for a modest fee. The second was to Compaq Computer (since my Deskpro was still in warranty). Each promised relief by overnight delivery.

The next morning, I had two vital disks in hand. One was a replacement hard drive with Windows NT Workstation 4.0 already loaded. The other was a CD-ROM containing my file backups and the software needed to transfer them to the new hard drive. I still had several hours' work ahead of me, but by the end of the day, I was back in business.

Unless you have been singed a time or two, like I have, disaster recovery is probably the most overlooked piece of managing your computer. At best, most people will make floppy disk copies of some critical data files--when they think of it.

This is better than nothing, but it's nowhere near good enough. First of all, backup is something you want to have happen at regular intervals, whether you remember to do it or not. Furthermore, you're likely to overlook some critical data files. You might make copies of all your word-processing documents and spreadsheets but forget about your contact-manager database or last year's tax return. Furthermore, if you have spent any amount of time tweaking your applications to customize them, you're going to lose all of those preferences.

The first piece of successful backup planning is software smart enough to understand what files need to be copied. You generally don't want to make copies of the programs themselves, partly because copying takes up a lot of time and storage space, and partly because the design of Windows requires that programs be reinstalled on, not just copied to, a new or reformatted disk. Good software also can be useful for reference by saving successive versions of files with the same name and different dates.

On-line backup, like that provided by Connected (, offers both intelligent automatic backups and the additional security of off-site storage--safe from fire, theft, and computer failure--for about $20 a month. As a bonus, I found their tech support extremely helpful when I ran into some minor problems in restoring data. My only regret is that I should have been more careful in double-checking the list of files backed up: I lost some fonts and customized Microsoft Word templates.

BACKING UP. If you prefer to do your backups on your own machine, you'll have to spend $100 to $600 on a tape drive, a removable hard drive, such as Iomega Jaz or SyQuest SparQ, or a writeable CD. (Zip and LS-120 SuperDisks don't have enough capacity for convenient backup.) Some units, especially the tape drives, come with backup software. If you want software that gives sophisticated control over the contents and scheduling of backups, I recommend Backup Exec from Seagate Software (800 327-2232 or 407 531-7501), which comes in a variety of versions for different systems, starting at about $60.

In addition to up-to-date backups, you will also need the application CD-ROMS or floppies on hand. You need to have them all neatly gathered in one place. But if you're like me, you aren't quite that well organized. (If anyone knows where I put my WinFax Pro CD, let me know.) Do yourself a favor and hunt down those disks before you need to find them in a panic.

In the end, I found a silver lining in this experience. The clean reinstallation of Windows cured my computer of some annoying glitches that it had developed and also improved performance markedly. But I wouldn't be so pleased if I hadn't been well-prepared for a failure.

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