Could remote data recovery be your saviour?

Rather than just relying on back-ups when things go wrong, remote data recovery can be another useful weapon in the IT manager's armoury.

Remote data recovery has come a long way since the first online backup services started appearing in the late 1990s.

Back then, when most businesses used tape and disk mirroring to back up their data, the idea of recovering data remotely was quite new, but the benefits - which include getting systems back up and running in a relatively short timeframe - were, and still are, highly attractive.

Most companies, especially in the small-to-mid-sized enterprise (SME) marketplace, now routinely use online backup services to ensure their critical data is accessible in the event of a systems failure. Unknown too many, however, these options can fail at a critical time.

Online back-ups are fraught with difficulties, as few SMEs do a full online restore to verify their systems and procedures are working. Thankfully, the rise and rise of broadband means that remote data recovery is now a real alternative for many SMEs.

Even if a company has an online backup system already in place, remote data recovery offers a number extra options to management, not the least of which includes direct access to external expertise in recovering data when an IT system is at its most vulnerable.

Let's take the example of a typical sales and support organisation, dealing with customer orders and telephone support via a call centre. If the company's computer system goes down, the revenue losses can quickly spiral out of control.

This is particularly true for call centres working on contract, as many of the agreements forged in today's competitive marketplace have service level agreements and consequential penalty clauses as standard.

The remote data recovery alternative

For many organisations, an overnight system restore from data storage may be an option, but remote data recovery can offer a faster recovery alternative with the additional benefit - if carried out properly - of being non-destructive as far as the original data is concerned.

Restoring data from traditional storage media is viewed as potentially dangerous in some circles, as the storage data resource can also be corrupted, so further damaging an organisation's data.

Remote data recovery is also non-intrusive, since the engineer can look at the drives concerned, but make no changes until the client has checked the reports and approved the recovery procedures required.

This stage in the procedure is thanks to the use of a technology known as a RAM drive, where a virtual disk drive is created in the memory of the computer system concerned, allowing data recovery tools to be downloaded and executed from the RAM drive area.

This is one advantage that remote data recovery has over online backup and restore technology as, unless the SME has the luxury of a second computer server, then the data reading back from the online resource will overwrite the old data on the server's hard drive.

If the restore fails at any stage, the user is then left with a hard disk with not one, but two, sets of unusable data - a nightmare scenario for any IT manager.

Even so-called forensic backup companies like Sophos and Vogon have the same problem - if the backup restore process is interrupted before completion, the IT manager can be left tearing their hair out.

Forensic backup companies will argue, quite correctly, that if the online backup restore process fails at any stage, its staff can move on-site and complete the restore process after any problems have been ironed out.

This ignores the problem of time, and restore costs starting to telescope out and add to an organisation's burden at a time when such matters are rarely welcomed.

Remote data recovery can also fail, but non-destructively as far as the existing data on server's hard disk(s) is concerned.

Remote data recovery failures, thankfully, are few and far between, mainly because the remote data recovery companies like Ontrack have refined their software after many thousands of restore incidents.

Remote data recovery, then, if well-administered and carried out, can offer most organisations a valuable second string to their data security backup options.

The options available

According to Natalie Philips, a Remote Data Recovery Engineer with Ontrack, remote data recovery is a well-tried recovery procedure that can assist most organisations in recovering from a potentially serious systems outage.

Philips is realistic enough to point out that Ontrack can also complete data storage recovery procedures in-house, if the client is willing to courier the data devices to its IT engineer labs.

"In most cases, we have found that remote data recovery can offer client companies a much faster recovery option, especially now that most companies are moving up from ISDN to broadband connections for the IT systems," she explained.

Ontrack isn't the only company in the remote data recovery market segment, but it is one of the longest-standing in the industry, says Philips.

"Whilst other data recovery companies promote online software rental or data delivery services via FTP as remote recovery products, Ontrack's service offers users access to a full remote data recovery service performed by a data recovery engineer.

Ontrack's' latest claim to fame in the remote data recovery marketplace is VeriFile, which was launched this summer. The software is an interesting analysis package that can goes a long way towards helping SMEs make intelligent decisions on their data recovery options.

The package creates a complete listing of recoverable and non-recoverable files on a PC or server's hard disk. Then, using a Web browser-based application, the software gives businesses a chance to analyse their data recovery options.

Ontrack claims that VeriFile can give those companies suffering from a data loss a self-generated report about their data loss and recovery options.

As well as analysing each file on the hard drive, the software can also be used by help desk managers, IT managers and third-party service organisations to create customised service reports.

Although the software is clearly aimed at making life easier for companies worried about their IT data, it's not that difficult to see why Ontrack has developed VeriFile.

As well as allowing on-demand reports to be generated by anyone involved with an organisation's IT systems, the package also semi-automates the preparation of data reports by Ontrack's data recovery experts.

According to the company, this step helps customers make more informed decisions before committing to the cost of the full recovery.

For organisations with non-standard IT configurations, another pre-remote data recovery option may be Active Undelete, a $39.95 package ($99.95 for multi-PC companies) that helps IT managers recover files across multiple Windows and FAT environments.

The software, which can be loaded into a RAM drive to prevent any further corruption of hard drive data, works across basic and dynamic volumes, hardware or software RAID systems and even supports non-standard data storage options such as memory cards and sticks.

To help SMEs, Active Undelete is available on a free evaluation basis from the firm's Web site. The evaluation version is fully functional, but has a limitation on maximum size of the file being restored.

Remote data recovery in action

So, assuming you've read this far, how does remote data recovery work as far as the client company is concerned?

There are two main stages in remote data recovery: diagnostic and remediation.

The diagnostic stage is thankfully quite painless for most organisations and, while not free of charge, costs less than the remediation stage, when most of the `grunt' work is carried out on the IT system resources.

The diagnostic stage is usually completed when the remote data recovery company uploads a suitable program to the IT server or PC whose data has failed, for whatever reason.

"Problems with RAID systems are a common cause," says Philips, adding that, RAID data loss problems can often be prevented by mirroring the data to back-up servers before any problems occur.

The remote data recovery program runs through a series of basic system diagnostics to determine if the cause of the system failure is due to the most popular reasons, namely hard disk corruption, memory parity problems or similar electronic issues, including software corruption.

Once the cause of the problem has been determined, the remote data recovery company is then in a position to advise the client what, exactly, is wrong and, perhaps more importantly, what and how much it will cost to remediate the problem.

The diagnostic stage, according to Ontrack's Philips, can often be completed in a relatively short period of time, typically a few hours.

Acting quickly is vital

"It's important to realise that a company with IT system problems involving possible data corruption needs to call in a recovery company in as quickly as possible, so as to prevent any further data corruption taking place," she said.

"The faster a client calls us in, the less chance there is of the situation going from bad to worse," she added.

Once the client is advised of the diagnostic results, they can then be better informed on their options at this stage.

According to Philips, most clients have a number of options at the diagnostic report stage: they can either continue with their planned data recovery procedures, or opt for remote data recovery on the basis that it is faster and more cost-effective.

Remote data recovery, may not always the best option for every company, but for many, it offers a valuable lifeline at a time when an SME may need it most.

"It is not always the best option in the event of a mechanical failure," she explained, adding that remote data recovery is often down to taking a commonsense approach to IT backup and disaster recovery.

The procedure is usually time and cost-efficient for the company concerned. This makes it the best choice for many SMEs, especially those for whom any downtime represents lost revenues, whether or not those revenues are temporarily or permanently lost.

From his base in Sheffield, England, Steve Gold has been an IT journalist specialising in communications and security for 22 years, 18 of them full-time.