Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/07/16/backup_solutions/

How to recover your 'unrecoverable' laptop

Backup solutions you can rely on

By Peter Williams

Posted in Hardware, 16th July 2007 09:53 GMT

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.

Compliance raises its ugly head - solution two needed

Failure to comply with regulations is the spectre that seems to lurk everywhere these days. Laptops frequently get stolen (or just left somewhere). Even more serious than no hardware recovery being possible is that, in this case, all the laptop's sensitive information could quickly move into the public domain.

Apart from this perhaps revealing sensitive competitive information, there could be major legal penalties for information going AWOL. For instance, the US Sarbanes-Oxley Act says that backing-up data is not enough protection (as this demonstrates), while the Data Protection Act's penalties on an organisation can be steep if, for example, client records "escape" into the public domain - leading to potentially huge fines.

CMS has another solution, ABS-Secure, to address this issue. In this case the SATA drives come factory-preloaded with CMS CE-Secure 256-bit AES encryption. Importantly, the information on the laptop is pre-encrypted before data is copied to it or any backup is done, and the contents of ABS-Secure always remain encrypted from then on. So someone subsequently trying to access the laptop is confronted with a GUI requiring an entry of a pass-phrase of up to 64 characters; likewise, if accessing the encrypted backup unit. So whether the laptop or the portable drive is stolen, a thief will not be able to make sense of the information itself.

Central control concerns and the backup push

One other small feature is worth mentioning since it tackles a problem common to most of us; namely, that we tend to neglect taking regular system backups. The BounceBack software includes a user-defined parameter of elapsed time since last backup after which it will keep reminding the user that a backup is overdue. Say this is set to three days. The message automatically appears if the user has not carried out a backup for three days; then, all the user has to do to make the message go away - until the next time - is to connect the backup unit and let it do a backup. This simplicity means that companies who have a large number of ABS users have discovered almost all of them happily keeping to good backup schedules. (This parameter can, by option, be set and controlled centrally for the whole enterprise).

Finally, I will mention here an unpublished bonus. A restore with this approach is effectively a reinstall for the operating system and files. Users often experience Windows desktops getting steadily slower over time with things like the registry getting clogged up so, for instance, a Bloor colleague has told me he re-installs Windows on his own desktop every six months so as to bring the speed back up; others recommend even shorter periods. The idea of avoiding this fiddly process and instead triggering an automatic restore from the ABS device appeals to me. (I hasten to add that I have not compared the two methods of reinstalling to see how the speed improvement compares.)

Partly because the device is so simple to use, it is easy to think of this as a consumer product rather than built primarily for the enterprise. This is not the case. The biggest benefit comes through its automated approach assisting workforce productivity and reducing the risks from corporate data loss.

CMS's BounceBack Enterprise solution is a recent addition. This adds the ability to monitor and control client device backups centrally and can save critical data to a central storage device in addition to the ABS unit, and so, for instance, can be used as part of a coordinated enterprise backup and DR plan. The success of the product is because it fills a need, making it simple to use. However, do not underestimate the behind-the-scenes complexity of the BounceBack software - and it is that which makes ABS unique at present.

Note: CMS ABS unit capacity is up to 250GB for laptops or 1TB for desktops. BounceBack supports Mac, Windows 2000, XP and VISTA versions.

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