Disaster-Proof Your PC

By Team Digit Published Date
01 - May - 2007
| Last Updated
01 - May - 2007
Disaster-Proof Your  PC
Today, it's almost a right. The way I use a computer has changed as well. What was once a tool to work on Excel files and send official e-mails to the four people I knew who had e-mail addresses is now like a life-support system I cannot live without. I have about 10 GB of e-mail in Outlook, everything I've ever written for Digit, over 40 GB of MP3s (no, they're not pirated, I own the CDs), and hundreds of GBs of movies ripped from my DVDs. Apart from this, there's pictures of every vacation I've ever taken, some funny things I found online, and an entire 120 GB hard drive dedicated to software I like-freeware and shareware. The software is, obviously, expendable, and is the first thing I start getting rid of when I need space, but everything else is irreplaceable!

Now this is my home computer. My office computer has a lot less personal data, but a lot of important documents, e-mails, spreadsheets, and such.

Recently, two people in the Digit team had hard drives die, and lost a lot of personal data. Of more urgent concern was the fact that they lost work they had just completed, and had to begin from scratch. Now they're busy trying to recover data from their lifeless disks. Whether or not the data is worth the Rs 10,000 to Rs 20,000 that data recovery experts will charge to "attempt" to recover the disks' contents is something each one of us decides only after facing the dilemma. But why do we?

Just yesterday, I got a call from a damsel in distress. Her laptop just stopped working, and now gives her the weird error message "Operating System not found." It's a branded laptop, and still under warranty, so getting another hard drive and a fresh install of the OS is free. Recovering 10 years of memories, which she had stored on the disk in the form of digital pictures? Rs 15,000, and they'll recover what they can. I can't even help her, because if I open up the laptop to remove the drive, the warranty becomes void. What do you do in a situation like this?

Absolutely Nothing!
You take the news like an adult, remain calm and stoic, and move on. You still have that horrible feeling-the kind that feels like someone just ripped out your intestines-but hey, when technology goes wrong, it does so horribly. Life goes on.

What you can do, however, is learn from the mistakes of others, and try and safeguard yourself from ever having to be in this situation. My mind is a lot more at ease now because I've taken a few steps to prevent such disasters. If you have data that's really important to you, you should seriously consider following in my footsteps.

You've heard it a million times, everyone has heard about RAID, but how many of us have found out enough to actually use it?
RAID, or Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks, can either be used to improve performance or to back up your data. The most common forms are RAID are 0 (Striping) and 1 (Mirroring). Striping improves performance, because it uses two disks as one. Basically, it breaks up data into two and writes one part to one disk and the other to the second disk. This results in faster performance, which is great because the hard drive is the bottleneck in all current-generation PCs. Of course, this also doubles your risk of losing data, because even if one disk dies, you lose all the data on both disks. Only gamers and those who need faster hard drives usually use RAID 0.

RAID 1, or Mirroring, may even result in a performance hit, but creates redundancy. Say you have two 250 GB hard drives, and set them in Mirroring mode. Windows will see them as one 250 GB hard drive. RAID 1 works by writing all data twice-once each to the two drives. What this does is create two copies of everything, so say if one hard drive dies, your system will just continue running like nothing ever happened. Beautiful, isn't it?

Most of us don't use RAID because it requires you to have two hard drives, preferably identical. So you end up spending double the money, and end up with a quite ridiculous cost-per-GB figure. However, after the three recent incidences of hard drives playing foul that I came across, an extra Rs 4,000 to mirror my existing 250 GB drive is worth it for the peace of mind I now have.

If you decide to use RAID 1, I suggest you keep your operating system on a third drive, so that formatting and reinstalling or virus attacks cannot threaten to wipe out your data. For example, I have an 80 GB drive that holds my OS and download folders, while my dual-250 GBs are in RAID 1, and hold everything that's dear to me. The advantage is that I find the performance of my PC to be a little better, since the OS just reads and writes to my 80 GB, and mainly reads from the mirrored drives (when I'm playing audio or video or viewing pictures), and sometimes writes to both (when I back up important stuff). This helps to ensure that both disks last me a long time.

Stuff to remember: Check if your motherboard has RAID controllers-most motherboards made in the last two years will. Next, go out and buy two identical drives-although not necessary, it will save you from the potential headaches of mismatched sizes. Check your motherboard manual for instructions on how to set up RAID, or if you're buying a separate RAID controller, follow the instructions given in the manual that accompanies it. Remember, for motherboards with onboard RAID controllers, you will need to enable it from the BIOS.

Power Problems
Most people think of a UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply) as a backup source of power. Being a resident of Mumbai, I can literally count the number of times I've witnessed power outages on my fingers-I can actually use just one hand to count the times the power's gone out and my PC was on. Like everyone else, I used to think I just don't need a UPS. About two years ago, the local transformer blew up-literally, with sparks, flames and the works; quite exciting that, and really pretty because it happened at night... Anyway, getting back on track, I was working on a write-up, had some downloads running, and had my regular applications running-anti-virus, image editor, MS Word, MS Excel, a media player, a few IM applications, etc. When everything went black, I was actually relieved, because I figured I'd take a long overdue break from writing, and went out to see what all the commotion was about.

A few hours later when the transformer was repaired / bypassed / <whatever they did to fix it>, the power supply resumed. The first thing I noticed was a dark patch around the back of my SMPS. Pressing the power button on my PC confirmed my fears-a blown power supply. A day or two later, I went out and bought a new SMPS, only to come back and find that the motherboard also seemed to be fried. Apparently, just before the transformer blew up, it sent out way over the normal 240 volts for a split second, and that seemed to have fried a lot of my components.

One by one I replaced fried parts, swearing to never buy a cheap power supply again, or connect my PC directly to the mains without a spike board in the middle. Three days later, I got everything working again, only to find that Windows refused to load. Apparently the power surge had scrambled data on my hard drive as well, because although it was being detected in the BIOS, it refused to admit to having Windows XP. A re-install later, I realised I'd lost all my downloads, my work, and all the settings and programs I'd arranged the way I like it.

However, the most irritating bit of this incident is, when my neighbour found out, and just had to boast of his foresight when buying his PC-he'd bought a spike guard and a surge-protected UPS. Very reluctantly, I have to admit he was right.

If your PC is more than just something you use to check e-mail (in my case it's actually the tool I use to earn a living), you need to make sure it's safe in every way possible. If you don't have a surge protector (UPS, spike guard, or both) between your PC and the electricity mains in your house / office, cease, desist, and go and get one right this instant!

UPS' aren't just boring old boxes anymore. See the Bazaar section for more on this product!

Back It Up
Once I decided that I would do everything possible to safeguard my data, I started looking for even more redundancy. Although I now use RAID at work, I decided that at home, since I already have multiple hard drives-80 GB, 120 GB, and 250 GB-there's really no point in buying a fourth drive of one of those capacities and setting up RAID. If you have only one hard drive, and your data is vital, getting another drive and setting up RAID is still the preferred option though.

The next-best solution to RAID is to use backup software. With RAID, you can safeguard everything, including your Windows installation, from drive crashes. Backup software, however, cannot protect Windows, but will help make sure all the data you want protected is backed up. Apart from just making another copy of your valuable data, backup software has become a lot smarter.

For just basic use, you can use Windows' own backup utility. Go to Start > Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Backup. You will see the Backup or Restore Wizard. Just follow the easy steps to back up your data regularly. If you want a few advanced features, when the Wizard starts, uncheck the "Always start in wizard mode" box and click on the Advanced Mode link. Here you will find advanced options that will let you specify the folders to back up, and even set a schedule for backups. It's really easy to do, so I'm not going into the details. There is a lot of third-party backup software also available, most of them paid, that will let you do more. If you choose to buy such software, you should look for the following features.

Any half-decent backup software should offer incremental backups

Incremental Backups: Any half-decent software should offer incremental backups. This means that if you set the software to back up, say, the Documents and Settings folder-instead of just copying the entire folder to your backup drive, it should only look for new or changed files and copy those. This helps reduce the time that the backup takes.

Scheduled Backups: If you have to manually take every backup, why do you need software? Scheduling will help you forget about the task and let the PC do the dirty work by itself.

Multiple Jobs: You may need your Program Files folder backed up only once a month, documents once a week, and e-mail every day. Make sure the software will let you create multiple backup jobs.

Restore: Backing up is fine, but what about when you need to restore files? If you have set various folders from various drives to be backed up, manually restoring them will be a pain. Make sure the software does it for you.

Registry Backup: This is obviously a feature you want.

Compression: It's pointless if you use the same amount of space for your backups, in which case you might as well use RAID 1. Look for good compression of backups, which will use more CPU power, but save on drive space.

Versioning: You deleted an important file, and unfortunately, your scheduled backup has taken place and now the file is deleted from the backup as well. If you had software with versioning, it would have kept the past five revisions of the file, or versions of the last couple of backups (user-configurable; depending on your backup size and frequency, you can set this to 100 versions or even "never delete").

Burning to media: This isn't very important, but backing up to DVD is advisable every so often.

Operating as a service: For those of you who just want to use the backup software to restore (after installation and configuration), and would rather not keep looking at it in the Taskbar, running as a service is a good feature to look for. It will also prevent you from not remembering what it was and accidentally disabling it from the list of Start Up programs.

Real-time: If you have data worth millions, look for software that takes real-time backups of files and folders that you specify. This means that there is a backup of every change made. These are usually business-oriented software, and can cost a bundle.

How many times have you said that? I have. Quite often actually. One of the problems of being a technology enthusiast is that I just cannot leave well enough alone. I just have to tinker and try new things. Most of the time, I'm trying new software, fiddling with hardware, and playing with my OS. The Windows Registry is my favourite toy, and I can't even count the number of times I've had to reinstall Windows because I made a Registry boo-boo. Thankfully, System Restore ended most of those problems when I got to Windows XP.

Software, however, is still the bane of my PC, because if I find something even remotely interesting online, I just have to try it. With an increasing number of applications bundling adware and spyware, this results in my having to do a format-reinstall cycle at least once in two months. If I try and take the geek's way out, and clean up all those extra files and data that are left behind even after you uninstall an application, I usually end up getting over-excited and deleting something I shouldn't have from the Registry-format-reinstall time again!

However, it's thanks to this very desire that I have found the perfect solution. I stumbled across Altiris Software Virtualization Solution (ASVS). Altiris is now part of Symantec, and you can download this gem of an application from www.svsdownloads.com. It's free for single, non-commercial use, and I use it at home religiously.

For simple backup jobs, use the Windows Backup tool and use Scheduled Tasks to automate them

Basically, what ASVS does is form a layer between Windows and any software installer and then track exactly what changes are made to the system when the installer runs. So from Registry entries to files that are written, everything is recorded. You can choose to leave the new layer enabled and run the software, or just disable it and voila! Your PC is restored to exactly the state it was in before you installed that software. If you decide that a software might be malicious, or are just plain get fed up of it, delete the layer and bid farewell to any changes it made while installing.

In order to use it, just download the latest version, register, and get your license key. Once installed, ASVS asks you to restart your PC. Start ASVS, go to File > Create New Layer... (or press [Ctrl] [N]), and a Create New Layer dialog box will pop up. By default, the radio button next to "Install application" is checked; just click Next. Now you will be prompted to provide a layer name-a good practice is to provide a name indicative of the software you're installing. So, if it's, say, IrfanView you're installing, put in "IrfanView" as the name. Of course, you're free to put "Best damn image software on the planet," or "irfi-baby" if you like, just so long as you can easily identify what application that layer refers to.

Software, however, is still the bane of my PC, because if I find something even remotely interesting online, I just have to try it

Now you can either choose to do a "Single program capture" or a "Global capture"-the difference is that when you do a Single program capture, ASVS looks only for changes made by that particular software, while Global settings look at all changes made in the system during the period of capture. When installing software, just choose "Single program capture" and choose the installer EXE. Now go about installing the software as you usually would. Once the installation is done, ASVS stops capturing, returning only to track any more changes that the software makes.When you want to get rid of the application, or even hide it, just start ASVS, select the layer in question, and choose Deactivate Layer to hide the installed software, or Delete Layer if you're done with it and want to completely remove it from your system. Using ASVS, you're sure to keep only the software you need, or even hide applications you don't use very often.

You can use Altiris to see what programs do to your PC when they install themselves

This brings me to the end of the paranoia I've faced in the past few weeks. I hope these simple things will be of as much help to you as they were for me. I know I can now sleep better at night, without fear of PC disasters. 

Team DigitTeam Digit

All of us are better than one of us.