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How to recover your 'unrecoverable' laptop

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Q: When does a backup not fulfil its function? A: When you cannot actually recover from it. Is this a rare problem? No, not if you are talking laptops on the move - and if you are mobile worker that probably means you. It is also a major headache for IT departments who have a responsibility for their employees' laptops (as well as their PDAs and mobile phones).

Consider the following scenario: You have a carefully prepared PowerPoint presentation plus a spreadsheet of key ROI numbers to impress a prospective customer on your laptop and, as a security, you have backed up these key files (say on a memory stick). Then, just as you arrive, you accidentally bump into some furniture and knock the laptop. Guess what? You find you can't boot it up let alone access the hard disk (Laptops are susceptible to getting knocked a lot, and the disk drive is often affected). Then you are stymied because your backed-up files cannot be restored, let alone run.

So it is worth asking how useful or otherwise are your client (laptop or desktop/Windows or Mac) backups if you lose the ability even to re-boot the system, as here. Now extend that to the whole enterprise and try doing a financial risk assessment based on this happening to any one or more of the laptops or (less frequently) desktops on any given day and to any member of staff. Include in this calculation the cost of the time involved in recovering from the problem.

In a moment I will describe a hardware and software solution I recently came across which recognises this problem and addresses it. It is not, despite superficial appearances, "just another" backup and restore package. After you have read my overview of how it works, you could try another risk and ROI calculation based on this being installed for enterprise staff. The results might surprise you...

A unique set of solutions

CMS Products, a company with a low profile (or at least it had passed me by up to now), has a neat package of hardware and software built around a small, 7oz free-standing SATA disk with a USB 2.0 connection cable. The simple-to-understand bit about CMS' Automatic Backup System (ABS) is that the software backs up the whole laptop or desktop - including the operating system - to this free-standing disk.

However, it does not do this with a sector-by-sector mirror copy. Rather, it copies individual files, the operating system, personal settings and so on (and so, for instance, it can apply compression)- and this is important. In practice it means that the very first time it takes a backup it may run for an hour or more (depending on laptop capacity and usage); but all subsequent backups only copy the changes since the previous backup, so may complete in seconds (this also means a backup can sensibly be taken on the move without a huge drain on laptop battery power).

More important is what you can do if the system becomes kaput in the way described above. The first answer is that the backup unit uses the native file format of Windows to store the files. So, if you can find an available working laptop or desktop at the prospect's office and connect the backup unit to one of its USB ports, you can do your demo from the free-standing unit. The second answer is for braver souls and engineers. The bootable ABSplus backup hard disk can be removed and inserted in place of the faulty system disk in only a few minutes while out on the road - or get a local computer shop to help. This will give you a complete working laptop again, configured exactly as previously.

The news is better still if the problem is not actually disk hardware malfunction but rather a file or operating system corruption that causes a crash such as the dreaded blue screen of death. A bootable rescue CD is included as part of the ABSplus solution. Boot up using this CD then type in the command "Image" and the aptly named BounceBack software does what amounts to a bare metal restore, wiping out all file corruptions in the process. Then you are ready to roll again with your backup unit still to hand.

Since this restore process is totally automatic, I cannot argue with the CMS's claim that this is the fastest way to restore a bootable drive.

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