The Cutting Edge: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : When Data’s Destroyed, Who You Gonna Call? Drivesavers, for One


With the final deadline on a six-month-long project looming, video producer Stuart Rickey had been putting in 14-hour days to finish two multimedia projects for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Last Friday he sat for hours at his Macintosh computer, cataloguing the pictures and text and storing them on the computer’s internal disk drive.

“It was a very dark and stormy night, as they say,” Rickey recalled. Northern California had been lashed for almost two weeks by a devastating series of storms, and when Rickey returned to work in the morning, he discovered just how devastating those storms could be. He tried to call up some video from his computer and nothing happened. Nearly two weeks of work were lost.

The culprit was a power surge caused by the storm, one of many brownouts and blackouts that have occurred all over California since the rain began to fall. Electric motors, including those used in PCs, are made to accept 110 volts: If the power suddenly exceeds that level, wires can be burned and destroyed, even if there’s a “surge protector” in place. Like many PC users, Rickey had not backed up his data onto a floppy disk.

A friend referred him to Drivesavers, a Novato, Calif. company that’s one of a handful of firms specializing in recovering lost data from personal computers. Data recovery for mainframes, the giant computers that store critical corporate records such as payroll, has been around for decades, usually in the form of large off-site facilities that hold complete duplicates of all records.


But it’s only in the last couple of years that there has been the same kind of help for personal computer users. Drivesavers charges premium prices--about $300 to $600--but generally serves customers who are only too happy to pay.

Typically, Drivesavers fields about 60 to 80 calls from panicked PC users daily. Since the storms began, the number of calls has doubled. To date, most of the callers--like Rickey--have been victims of power surges, and Drivesavers President Scott Gaidano expects to be hearing soon from PCs owners with water damage as people return to flood-ravaged homes.

In about 90% of the cases, data can be recovered, Gaidano said. Failures caused by power surges are a fairly minor problem.

Drivesavers is used to much worse: The company has coaxed data from a laptop recovered from a sunken cruise ship, a computer run over by a taxi and a PC infested with roaches.


“The roach thing was the worst,” Gaidano said. “They had crawled in there for warmth and were breeding. Beyond the problem itself, it was just disgusting.”

Hard disk drives basically consist of a spinning disk, or platter, and a “head” that hovers over the platter and “reads” information stored in the platter’s magnetic field.

In about 5% of all recovery cases, the drive must be taken apart completely, cleaned and reassembled--a delicate process that requires returning the read-write heads to precisely the same position they were in relation to the platters when the drive failed.

The procedure takes place in a clean room to prevent dust particles from contaminating it. Most of the time, the data can then be recovered by reprogramming the drive’s software.


Nikki Stange staffs one of the help lines at Drivesavers. “I used to answer a suicide-prevention line,” Stange said. “And I’ve found that the skills I picked up doing that, I’ve been able to apply this job.

“When someone calls in and they’re upset talking loud and fast, my voice automatically goes softer and lower. It really calms people down.”


Most of the time, the missing data is something that can be reconstructed--things such as financial records, family medical histories or important phone lists. But sometimes what has been lost is all but irreplaceable. One storm victim lost chapters of a book on American presidents. Recently, Drivesavers recovered 12 “lost” episodes of “The Simpsons.”


“When somebody has worked so hard to get the perfect words, it’s wonderful to get the perfect words back in perfect condition,” Stange said.

And for Rickey, it was something of a career-saver: “I would have to do all the post-production--redigitizing the video clips and the stills, interspersing them and the cutting--over again. There was no way it would have been finished on time.”