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Peter Vogel

The rush to save data from a failing disk drive

Voices Sept. 10, 2018

Data from a failing hard drive in colleague’s laptop meant Peter Vogel had to find a quick way to transfer 75 gigabytes of data.  (Pexels.com)

Colleague: my laptop is dying; can you help me?

Me:  anything backed up?

Colleague: no.

Me: nothing?

Colleague: nothing.

Me: how much are we talking about, and how old is this machine?

Colleague: everything I depend on. Seven years.

Me: well, we better start work. Now. Let me see how much is involved.

Scenes like these are not that uncommon in my experience. They vary a little in the amount of data involved and in the exact nature of the problem with the machine. Usually it is better to act swiftly as whatever symptoms the machine exhibits at first observation can worsen quickly.

I caution my colleague that I will do my best to pull all the data off the ailing machine but that if a catastrophic failure occurs it may become necessary to send the disk drive to a data recovery service, where the fee starts at $500.

Various scenarios run through my mind. Perhaps there is on the order of a few gigabytes of data, in the form of lots of small files.

Such an amount might fit on a DVD drive, assuming that the machine’s optical disk burner is still functional.

My colleague’s laptop is a typical Windows device with a 15.4" screen. They are ubiquitous. Basements across the land are littered with the carcasses of these relics.

I should have asked my colleague what some of the symptoms were that led her to conclude her laptop was “dying.” However the first is immediately apparent. The machine takes nearly 10 minutes to start up.

A quick glance at the drive usage and I rule out use of the DVD backup plan. There is more than 75 gigabytes of personal content on the drive. A DVD has a capacity of say five to nine gigabytes, depending on the type.

I don't have time for a full assessment of the content on this machine. Besides, my colleague has gone back to teach a class. I don’t see anything obvious to skip if I am going to capture all this data. I see no movies, nor do I see thousands of mp3 music files, the sort of content that isn’t directly important.

What I see is typical teacher material: Lesson Plan this, PowerPoint that, for various subjects and classes. Lots of it. The sort of material teachers build up and refine over years of work.

Just the sort of content that would devastate my colleague should it be rendered inaccessible.

My decision is that it all needs to be backed up.  

I immediately begin a Google Drive session to get folder backups going. However, the volume is daunting and over Wi-Fi the speed is not really usable. Besides, the free version of Google Drive is restricted to 15 gigs of file space.

At more than 75 gigs, were the space available, it might take days to back up all the content to the cloud. I decide to focus that part of the backup plan on a single folder that looks like it contains the most recent file additions. It has a size of around 10 gigs.

Not really knowing how long the disk drive will stay functional, I decide to head for the nearest Staples store. There I find the biggest capacity thumb drive available: 128 gigabytes for around $50. Perfect for this job and better than using multiple 16 GB drives, the only other big capacity I had on hand.

(I momentarily reflect on the price of the thumb drive. I recall writing a column that looked forward to the day when such storage would reach $10 for a gigabyte. This 128 gig drive would then have cost well over $1,200!)

When I arrive back at the school I see that the Google Drive backup session is progressing, but it is slowing down, possibly an indication of repeated attempts to read data from the failing disk drive. I plug in the thumb drive. It isn’t recognized right away. In fact it takes several minutes to appear.

Quickly I select the contents of all the data folders on the laptop and with a right-click order them sent to the thumb drive.

It is approaching 11 a.m. and my spare block is over. There is not much more I can do. I leave the backup processes running.

At 4 p.m. I check up on the backup. It is certainly slow. The Google Drive backup session is not quite complete but I elect to end it nonetheless in favour of a little better performance of the main backup to the thumb drive. I report the situation to my colleague and let her know that around 20 per cent of the data is now safely backed up and that the session will continue running through the night.

My colleague is certainly more relieved than when she first approached me several hours earlier. Even if the machine completely fails overnight, key parts of her work are successfully backed up in two locations.

By morning the backup has passed 70 per cent. However the rate at which data is moving to the thumb drive is continuing to fall, making it difficult to project an end point. Fortunately, late in the afternoon, around 4 p.m. the process comes to an end. Crisis averted.

I hand the thumb drive to my colleague and instruct her to copy the contents to another computer, and to develop some form of regular backup strategy.

By the way, this entire column was written over two days on a Samsung Note 8 mobile. Since I was writing in Google Docs, I didn’t have to worry about saving or a backup.

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