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Wednesday, 30 July 2014 10:04

When your backup strategy fails

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"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley" according to Robert Burns, but even when things go seriously awry there can still be a happy ending.

Pro photographer Michael Leadbetter thought he had data protection under control. "After more than 12 years as a photographer, I know you can't afford to mess around. Clients expect you to look after their images. Especially clients with overseas managers coming in."

So when he got home after handling the photography and videography at a corporate conference, he locked the MacBook Air holding the day's work in his safe.

The next day he got the computer out so the automatic backup to his desktop system could start. Because copying large video files is so slow over Wi-Fi, Mr Leadbetter excludes them from automatic backup and transfers them manually instead.

But on this occasion disaster struck before he could do that. Within minutes of the backup starting, his children accidentally knocked over a drink that was sitting near the MacBook Air, flooding it with liquid.

"The immediate reaction was a lot of yelling. Then I turned the notebook off, drained it and put it away, he said." The next morning (Monday), the took the computer to his local Apple Store. "They opened it up and said yes, it is full of beer and it's stuffed." he said with admirable resignation.

"They told me I'd need to go to a data recovery specialist and they recommended I talk to Kroll Ontrack."

And that's what he did.

Page 2: How Kroll Ontrack responded


Kroll Ontrack cleanroom supervisor David Rose explained that the MacBook Air's SSD has a proprietary interface, but the company has designed and built its own readers for data recovery.

Kroll MacBook Air SSD

Internal view of a MacBook Air with the flash module in the foreground 

If individual SSD components other than the flash memory chips have failed, Kroll's facilities are able to replace them to get the drive working again so the data can be copied to another device.

Kroll Ontrack is also capable of recovering data from damaged devices where the flash memory is soldered onto the main board - as is usually the case with tablets and smartphones - thanks to proprietary hardware and software.

"I'm not sure if anyone else in the industry can do this," he said, although there are some cases where the only way of recovering the data is to unsolder the flash memory chips and fit them to another device.

Fortunately, Mr Leadbetter's client wasn't expecting the finished video for a few weeks, and less than two weeks later (thoroughly cleaning the sticky liquid from the MacBook Air's SSD was a time-consuming job) Kroll Ontrack's technicians had done the job.

"I got everything back and that was fantastic," he said.

"It's not a matter of will your computer accidentally die. It's a matter of when.

"Because of the nature of my work, I'm really particular about my backups. I have two backup systems and I backup to the 'net every day as well, but I still almost lost a day's work."

Page 3: Change of habits


Mr Leadbetter has made some changes to his habits since the incident. The problem occurred after he had shot an abnormally large amount of data while being away from home for four days, and he had erased some of the memory cards during the knowing he had already copied their contents to the MacBook Air.

"To avoid this situation again I stopped using my DSLRs to record video. I've bought two new Blackmagic Production Camera 4Ks which record to 480GB SSDs. I can now get 4 hours of 1080p on the removable 2.5" SSD drive in the camera - bye bye SD cards. Those SSDs can be copied over a Thunderbolt connection around ten times quicker than SD cards."

He's also moved his RAID unit to a location that's unlikely to be affected by spills, and his children and any liquids are kept well away from the IT equipment.

While he already backs up JPEG copies of his photos to an internet server, that's not currently practical for the RAW versions and videos due to the large files involved.

"Clearly the standard 2 copies on site and one on the net simply can't apply when you're producing terabytes of data every few days. My biggest problem still is the lack of serious IT infrastructure here in Australia," he told iTWire.

"Without proper internet infrastructure like the NBN, the footage I produce just simply can't be backed up offsite, well not at a way that's either practical or in the slightest bit affordable."

And the problem is going to get worse before it gets better: "Looming on the horizon is 4K RAW video that is quickly becoming standard. That generates 480GB of data every hour, so two cameras generate 1TB of data an hour.

"I'm still trying to get my head around how to deal with files of that size but the lure of 4K with its 13 stops of exposure and ability to crop is going to be impossible to resist.

"For me there will always be times when data exists only on the device it's created on - if that device fails there's only one place to go and that's recovery. Luckily, SSDs are remarkable robust," he said.

"Thankfully, Kroll were able to help when I nearly lost those files. You just want people to do their job and do it right, and that's what they do."


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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.

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