WHAT WOULD you lose if your data disappeared? For farmers increasingly dependent on computers, the list has grown to include everything from saved e-mail and bookmarked Web sites to crucial financial records and years of painstakingly collected site-specific field input data. If you don't back up your files regularly, your data could be one crash away from disaster.

It's called a “crash” for good reason. In addition to your own emotional trauma in such an event, consider that the hard drive on your computer stores data on a metallic platter that spins at speeds of 10,000 revolutions per minute. Floating just a hair's breadth above the spinning, whirring disc is the read/write head. The head is like a record turntable arm, except that it can swing back and forth over the disc surface at speeds exceeding 60 mph.

If that delicate dance of high-speed disc and swinging head goes awry, the result can be catastrophic. Experts estimate that 65% of data loss is due to this and other types of media failure. The rest is due to more overt assaults such as fire, flood, sudden impact or theft.

Recovery options

If you were smart and diligent, you backed up most of your data before the crash. But even if you didn't, there are options for recovery.

“If people backed up their data like they are supposed to, we'd be out of business,” says Bill Margeson, CEO of CBL Data Recovery Technologies. “But for some reason, the same people who diligently change oil on their cars and tractors just don't take the same care with their data.”

Fortunately, the data recovery industry has gotten a lot better at recovering data in what might have once been considered hopeless situations. “You'd be surprised how much damage a hard disc can endure,” Margeson says. “But many people write off damaged data storage media prematurely. In the majority of cases, we now have the means to recover virtually all the information, even on media damaged by water or fire.”

Regardless of whether your situation involves a catastrophic fire or simple media failure, the mantra of medical doctors — first, do no harm — also holds true for data recovery. Margeson advises that if your device is making a new noise, back up your crucial data and turn off the device immediately. Although utility programs that hunt for viruses and defragment your disc can be useful for keeping a hard drive healthy, Margeson says you should avoid using those utility programs if you think the hard drive is damaged. “If you run a utility program on an already damaged disc, it can make it more difficult for us to recover data,” he says. “The best thing to do if your system starts making strange noises is to shut down immediately and call an expert.”

In the lab

As the malfunction happens, or immediately after you shut down the computer, write down as much as you can remember about the malfunction. This will help you describe the problem to a tech service agent over the phone. If the symptoms you describe warrant further analysis and a possible recovery operation, the person on the phone will give specific instructions on how to send your damaged drive or other media.

In most situations, the drive or device will be analyzed in a clean room that eliminates dust, humidity and static electricity. There, data recovery technicians dressed like surgeons may use tools that give them unusual ways to analyze and control various data storage devices.

“It takes about a day for us to do a lab-level assessment of the media to determine if data are recoverable and how complicated the recovery will be,” Margeson says. “The initial assessment is typically free of charge and allows us to quote a price before we do the data recovery for the customer. Depending on the damage and amount of data, recovery fees might be quoted anywhere from $200 to $2,000 or more.”

Laptops and flash memory

An increasing amount of data recovery business comes from laptop computers and flash memory devices. Laptop PCs are built for office conditions, but unless they are one of the Panasonic Toughbook or military-style machines, laptops don't do well in dusty, humid or abusive conditions. Even with “rough service” machines, farmers need to be especially careful and mindful of backing up their data.

Flash memory cards are increasingly used in precision agriculture equipment. “Flash has no mechanical parts and is much more durable than hard drives,” Margeson says. “But it should be considered temporary storage. In addition to being exposed to harsh field conditions, the average life of a flash memory card is that it can be overwritten perhaps 10,000 times.”

Margeson estimates that 304 million new hard disc drives are manufactured and shipped every 12 months, with flash memory growing at an even faster rate. The amount of data on each device is growing too, doubling every few years as technology improves. In a world where most people neglect to back up their data, it seems business for CBL and other data recovery services will continue to thrive.

6 WAYS TO LOSE YOUR DATA

Hard drive crash

Unusual clicking, grinding or scraping noises might be a warning that your hard drive is being damaged and is about to freeze up. Save any crucial data to a backup medium if you can. Then shut down and call a professional.

Power outage or power surge

Lightning or power grid surges can damage electronic components and result in data corruption. Surge protectors can help prevent this problem. It's a good idea to turn off and unplug your computer during power outages and electrical storms. Surges often occur when the power goes off and then comes back on.

Water damage

Maybe you left your laptop in a rainstorm or dropped it in a stock tank. However your hard drive got wet, mineral deposits from the water can corrupt the hard drive surface and cause a crash, even if things look dry when you turn the machine back on. Don't attempt to dry the hard drive surface. Call a pro if you think the drive surface got wet.

Fire

Your computer gets charred, melted and destroyed in a house, building or vehicle fire. Then the fire department hoses a thousand gallons of water on it. Believe it or not, it is possible for professionals to recover all the data off the hard drive. Do not attempt to remove melted or crusted material from the hard drive yourself. Send it to a pro and you might get lucky.

Virus attack

Most viruses won't wipe out your hard drive (at least not yet), but they can foul the function of your system, making it tough to access your data. If running an antivirus program doesn't solve the problem, you may have to send your hard drive to a data recovery service. If your data are extremely valuable, don't try to use utility programs to exorcise the virus yourself, because there is a chance that this could cause further damage to the data.

Sudden impact

You dropped the computer or backed over it with the truck. Now what? Sudden shocks are bad for the delicate read/write components in hard drives. Firing up the computer now could damage the drive. If you can't afford to lose the data, don't power up. Call a pro and send in the drive.

For more information or help with data recovery, contact CBL Data Recovery Technologies, Dept. FIN, 200 Business Park Dr., Armonk, NY 10504, 800/551-3917, visit www.cbltech.com or www.freeproductinfo.net/fin, or circle 208.

For a list of several other companies that perform data recovery services, visit www.usbyte.com/common/recoverylist.htm.

DATA BACKUP TIPS

Use better discs

Floppy drives, zip drives and tape backups might still do the job, but many modern computers are equipped with better options, including CD ROM drives and even DVD drives. A CD holds about 700 megabytes of data, which is sufficient for backing up crucial data. If you have a DVD drive, a DVD disc holds far more data, up to 8 gigabytes (GB), and is a reliable, unalterable and waterproof medium. Store the discs in a fireproof box away from your computer.

Check out online services

You can back up your data free on the Internet if the amount is small — megabytes rather than gigabytes. Online data backup services have merit because they are easy to use. You don't need to keep track of any physical discs, and the data have the added measure of being at an off-site location. Monthly fee services, such as www.xdrive.com and www.everythingbackup.com, store significantly more data, up to 10 GB. But you'd better have a high-speed Internet connection and not mind paying monthly fees that range from a few bucks to more than $80.

Verify

No matter what method you use to back up your data, always verify the backup. Did the files successfully get stored where they were supposed to go? In 13 years of business, Bill Margeson, CEO of CBL Data Recovery Technologies, has seen frustrated customers wondering where their backup data went. Too often it turned out that they didn't double check to make sure they were actually saving the data, rather than habitually backing up an empty directory.

Think dynamically about data backup

Run a “fire drill” a few times a year to make sure you really can access your backed up data if the hard drive crashes or the computer gets stolen or destroyed in a fire or flood.

Consider an external hard drive

External hard drives are easy to use, are getting smaller in size, and grow in capacity with each passing year. Some units are more portable than others, making it easier to save the data, then move the backup drive to a secure, separate location. Prices range from as little as $90 for a model such as the Fantom Titanium 120-GB 7200 that plugs into your computer's USB port, to more than $500 for a 200-GB 7,200-rpm model with 8 megabytes of buffer memory. That's enough to back up your entire system and then some.

For faster data transfer, consider models that transfer data via FireWire. Many PCs don't come with a FireWire port as standard equipment, but most have a place to install a FireWire card and port without much trouble. One of the best deals we found was the IOGear three-port FireWire PCI card for $13 plus tax and shipping at www.Newegg.com.