Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Catastrophic Data Loss: Or is it? And how do you recover?

Recently, my relatively new Dell laptop experienced what is sometimes called a recovery loop error that seems to plague my particular make and model of computer. It is apparently being floated around that there is a link with the particular arrangement of hardware I bought and Windows 8. Not surprisingly, Dell (and another company) blames Microsoft for the error, and Microsoft blames the hardware manufacturers. This habit of passing the buck is apparently more tiring when you are the person with the problem than the attorney of the person with the problem.

But here begins my ghastly tale, sure to send shivers up any attorney's spine. My client files are digital, backed up weekly or bi-weekly, depending on how busy (or not busy) I happen to be. Being a soloist, I operate on a shoestring, and cannot afford being backed up minute by minute like some of you big law types can out there. (I'm sticking my tongue out now).

So this past Sunday evening, my computer, running ever so smoothly blacked out leaving but a blinking cursor. I assumed I lost the last 15-20 minutes of work and waited for a bit before resetting the system. When I reset the system, this appeared:

... and didn't go away. I reset again, still nothing. I left the system on and went to eat, hoping when I returned that for some unfathomable reason my system would repair itself or load up after some inexplicably long time. No luck, although dinner was tasty so there's that. (I'll be damned if I can't get the transparent feature to work, I thought I figured that out once).

Finally, I had to come to grips with reality. My world was ending, in fact, it was very likely I would soon be disbarred. There was no other reason why fate would allow me to lose 15 minutes of work and then spend hours hoping it wasn't. Still, I had no properly set up computer and (egads!) no worthy internet connection. Surely I would soon be disbarred.

When I stopped drooling irrationally over my situation I dropped back into tech mode and started troubleshooting. Windows 8 (I had never really taken the time to look into this OS but I used to be a tech support representative at a Gateway call center) had an interesting recovery feature, and (without getting into details) any attempt to boot into safe mode, safe mode with networking, safe mode command prompt, blah blah blah... just looped me back to the recovery menu. In other words this new feature was worthless. There are nine options by the way, and I tried them all. Nothing.

Finally, I rebooted for the 10th time when I heard a distressed BEEP! like I had just offended R2-D2. The magic words "NO OPERATING SYSTEM DETECTED" appeared. Something was seriously wrong. Either 1. the operating system had been corrupted somehow, or 2. the hard drive had spun its last. The former was acceptable to me, the later... not so much.

Calling India

So I needed my system recovery disk with Windows 8 on it. I opened up the box (yes I kept it) and of course, no disks. Great. So I dial up India and ask for a Dell customer support representative and get a nice girl named "Susan" on the phone and she proceeds to treat me like I just figured out my fingers exist. After the niceties we finally got to the part of the conversation that I enjoy: 

Her: "Can you send us your laptop?"

Me: "No."

Her: "Sir, we can't repair it if you don't send it back."

Me: "I don't need you to repair it, I need the software sent to me on a recovery disk because the recovery partition doesn't seem to work or even exist."

Her: "It would be easier if..."

Me: "I don't think you understand how serious the Florida Bar takes client confidentiality. They will stab me in the neck if I send my client files to you. I would rather set my laptop on fire and hope that magically downloads the pertinent files into the chip I didn't know the aliens implanted in my brain."

Her: "Oh."

Me: "I just need the disk, please. Besides, I need to see if the files on the hard drive can be recovered."

Her: "For a small fee we..."

Me: "No thanks. Just the disk, please."

The rest of the conversation went smoothly. But I couldn't help but look up data recovery services for lawyers. See, the problem with data recovery is that if an attorney lets a third-party view the files, then technically it's not possible for said attorney to be 100% sure that a bored IT guru didn't peruse the Killemdeadski file and discover that the sympathetic father of three really is guilty of murder. 

The bigger problem is that emergency data recovery services can cost between $1000 and upwards of $5000 / day. That's not good either. Especially for me, since I do not have a spare five grand just lying about begging to be used.

So did the hardware crap out, or was it the OS?

The OS. See, and you thought I was going to draw that answer out didn't you. It's 2am, I need to sleep.

What should be done in the event of such a failure?

After your initial half-day of being uselessly in shock over the loss, you should remember that you have a backup and only really lost at best a few days work. Thanks to eFiling, if you filed anything that you lost you should be able to hunt it down in the folder containing all the notifications and reconstruct your file. You do save all of those right?

Next you can drop your back up on an old computer while you are waiting for tech support to give you the classic fdisk-format-reinstall routine. Next, you should start going through the process of elimination to find out what the problem is:

- Run a hardware diagnosis. There is usually one available with the newer systems in a BIOS like environment that I really know nothing about because like I said above, I've been too busy practicing law to learn the ins-and-outs of Windows 8 or my hardware (which is a shame). In any event, it wasn't difficult to use, and it tests all of the hardware and gives you a report. My report came back with all hardware functioning at 100%. (I assume that if it was running at 90% it would probably tell me that too.) Anywho, thank goodness I don't need to buy new hardware. I am assuming that the diagnosis software is itself functioning, or else this diagnosis is shot.

- Boot up in safe mode and/or try to restore Windows to an earlier state when things actually worked. I couldn't tell you how to do that because my Windows 8 repair and recovery utilities looped until the lethal moment when my OS exploded in my face. But, I know the screens are there... so, good luck?

- Call tech support and waste another hour until they agree to send you the software you should already have on DVD but that they were too cheap to ship with your system. Ah, to have the time to build your own again.

- Finally, when all else fails it's time to recover the data or kiss it goodbye forever. Luckily, if the hard drive is working fine and the only thing that melted was the OS itself (Windows 8 in my case) then you can still recover the files you were working on. All it takes is a little knowledge of linux and another computer with a DVD burner available (go visit that friend you've been meaning to catch up with never.) I used Ubuntu and performed the following:

1.) Download Ubuntu 48.19 or whatever the current version is. It's FREE, so don't complain. What you download is an .iso file.

2.) Check your .iso file's hash value with the documented hash values on Ubuntu's website to ensure the image did not get corrupted during your download. If they match, goto number 3. If they don't match, restart the download because the image was corrupted during your last download.

3.) Properly burn the .iso file to a CD or DVD. Ubuntu's advantage is that the install image file also acts like a live distribution disk as well. That means you can run the OS right off the DVD. In the event you think that's better than having the OS on your harddrive... well, it isn't unless you enjoy the nostalgic speeds of your old Apple IIc.

4.) With burn in hand (or in the player as the case should be), restart the computer. If it fails to restart or (not in my case) tries to boot up windows again, your boot order is not... well, in proper order. Go into your BIOS and switch your boot order so that your CD/DVD player attempts to boot before your hard drive. Reboot to begin again. If you did this right...

5.) You should get a prompt asking if you would like to "try" Ubuntu. Do say yes, without installing it. If you install it, you run the risk of being responsible for a kitten dying for lack of you serving her milk... well, at least that's what your high pitched whimpering will sound like if you make this mistake.

6.) You should now be in the Ubuntu OS, and able to bring up a list of the disks. Mount whichever ones you need and go hunting for your files. Transfer them to a thumb drive and viola, instant recovery. $17k / day in cash save... you owe me a drink. 

Don't know how to pull this off? Well, this isn't really a tutorial. It's just part of my blog, written solely for the wishful thinking that you, the reader, will one day hire me, the attorney, to do some legal work for you.

But before you spend $2 mil / day (which is what I would charge to say... SAVE THE WORLD!) on data recovery services (who mostly do what I just told you to do) call me. I'll be glad to help, and my fees are much more reasonable. If I have to take your system to work on it, I'll even shoot you an affidavit promising I didn't browse through your case files like a naughty little IT professional.

Seriously though, call me... I might be able to help. Oh, and you might be disappointed to hear this, but I'm going to have to keep my hectic blog schedule to a minimum until next year. That's life I guess.