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Computer Counselor - May 1998

Be Prepared for the Inevitable—Disaster Striking Your Computer

When Murphy’s Law applies, the readiness of a computer’s backups is all

By Daryl Teshima 
Daryl Teshima is the editor-in-chief of Legal Assistant Today and Law Office Computing, bimonthly magazines published by James Publishing.

Computer crashes and power outages are inevitable, but they need not always be disasters. With some forethought and prevention, it is easy to minimize the effect of your next crash or outage and prevent either from turning into a complete catastrophe. 

The first step in disaster protection is to face facts. Can your law firm operate if all your computers stop working? Can the firm still function if the power goes out and fax machines, photocopiers, and electric typewriters join the casualty list? The firm’s plan should not consist solely of calling the malpractice carrier. Law office managers need to develop procedures with lawyers and staff that will allow the firm to continue functioning. For example, maintaining a supply of such low-tech items as blank pleading paper, Wite-Out, letterhead, and manual typewriters can mean the difference between making and not making a deadline. Another option is to arrange for the emergency use of computers with another law firm or local vendor. 

Predicting Computer Disasters 

Although computer breakdowns often seem to happen at the worst possible time, most crashes are fairly predictable. The most important indicator is the age of the computer and certain critical components. Pay particular attention to the hard drive, since it contains irreplaceable data. The life expectancy of a law firm computer hard drive averages three to four years. The first strange noises from your hard drive should put you on immediate alert that trouble is around the corner. 

The installation of a new piece of hardware is another situation that often leads to crashes. One reason for this is the number of peripherals that you can attach to your computer is limited and may require juggling of finite resources such as interrupts, slots, and ports. Installing that new timesaving gizmo can create problems in components and applications that were working perfectly before. New hardware also requires you to install a driver, which is the software code that allows the hardware to communicate with the operating system. Buggy and unstable drivers are the number one cause of crashes in Windows and are the reason that Windows requires constant upgrades. Installing new software and applications can also cause problems in Windows, whose applications often share system files. The installation of a new program can overwrite system files used by other applications, causing problems in applications that previously were stable. 

For these reasons, carefully plan any installation of new hardware and software. Make sure you have a full backup of your system before proceeding, especially if you are using Windows 95/NT, whose operating systems have enormously complex setup files that are easy to corrupt and damage. For example, one improper entry in a Windows 95 registry can cripple a system so entirely that a complete reinstall of the operating system (and all applications) is required. This process can easily consume a full day. Install software on a working system only when time is not of the essence. 

Emergency Diskettes  

How does your computer crash? Let us count the ways. For many Windows users, the blue screen of death is the first hint that a serious crash has occurred. The blue screen features a cryptic notice that only Bill Gates can decipher. The blue screen, however, is better than the deep freeze, in which the computer simply does nothing, and even the three-fingered salute—control-alt-delete—does not work. The ejection seat crash is also unpleasant; you are working in an application, and in the next moment the computer spontaneously decides to reboot itself. Perhaps the worst of all crashes is a startup crash, which prevents users from accessing the operating system (much less critical data files) in order to fix any problems. For all crashes but the startup crash, the familiar maxim—save often—prevails. 

You can mitigate the dreaded startup crash by creating an emergency diskette. All that is needed is a floppy diskette and a few minutes. For DOS and Windows 3.1x users, first format a floppy diskette so that it is bootable. To do this, insert the appropriate disk (either 51/4 or 31/2) into your A drive. At the DOS prompt, type the command: "format a: /s". Test the emergency diskette by rebooting your computer with the emergency diskette in the A drive. The computer should ask for the date and time and then place you at a command prompt. A diskette made in this manner does not load critical startup files that may be necessary to access peripherals such as your CD-ROM and network. To create a more advanced DOS emergency diskette, consult your network administrator or a DOS help book. 

In Windows 95/98, this process is even easier and more effective. To create a basic emergency diskette, open the Control Panel (Start-Settings-Control Panel). Double click on the Add/Remove Programs icon. On the Startup tab, click on Create Disk. You will be prompted for a blank diskette. Unlike Windows 3.1x, Windows 95/98 will copy diagnostic and repair tools that can help you repair damage caused by the crash. 

You can create an even more powerful emergency recovery diskette by using a little-known utility buried on the Windows 95 installation CD-ROM. Microsoft’s Emergency Recovery Utility not only creates a bootable emergency diskette and repair tools but also backs up critical system and configuration files. To create this diskette, insert your Windows 95 installation CD-ROM and run the program eru.exe, which can be found in the Other-Misc-Eru folder. 

Besides this emergency diskette, always keep your operating system’s installation diskettes or CD-ROM nearby. When repairing damaged files, you will often be prompted for files contained in the installation diskette. 

Backup Options 

While an emergency diskette will get your computer to show signs of life, it may not be able to resuscitate that brief you were working on or that three-year archive of e-mail messages. The best way to protect irreplaceable data is to back it up. 

There are two questions to ask when selecting a backup option. First, what media (e.g., diskette, tape, portable storage, CD-ROM recordable, hard drive) should your firm use to back up data? Second, what backup software is most appropriate? 

Magnetic tape and diskettes have traditionally been the backup media of choice. Diskettes are cheap and easy to use, but they can hold only a small amount of data. At the other extreme are tape drives, which can hold gigabytes of data but do not allow immediate access and use. 

In recent years there has been an explosion of new backup choices. Removable storage drives such as Iomega’s Jaz/Zip and Syquest’s SparQ/Flyer are among the most popular. These drives have storage capacities hundreds of times greater than diskettes and are affordable and portable. Iomega’s Zip Plus drive can read disks that hold up to 100 MB of data. To hook the Zip drive to a computer, you can use the parallel port, the printer port, or a SCSI device chain. Iomega’s Jaz is a higher-end drive that performs like a hard drive and can hold up to 1 GB of data. Backing up to a removable storage drive can be as easy as copying folders to the drive. Retrieval and maintenance are also quicker and easier than tape. More important, these drives are much more versatile than a tape drive and can easily be used to archive and transfer files. 

Another new option is the Internet. For a monthly fee ranging anywhere from $9.95 (SafeGuard Interactive, www.sgii.com) to $19.95 (@backup, www.atbackup.com), you can back up data online and have it stored on a server connected to the Internet. Network Associates’ Personal Vault, www.mcafee.com, charges a monthly fee (approximately $1 per MB) based on how much data is stored on their server. The security of your data is preserved with encryption software. The providers keep your data on a server that is accessible 24 hours a day via the Internet. This allows you to access backup files from anywhere in the world, provided you can establish an Internet connection. Most of these services can also send you a CD-ROM loaded with your data within 48 hours. One downside to this backup option is that it takes hours to back up your entire hard drive using a 33.6 Kbps Internet connection. Accordingly, most companies recommend that you back up only data files and not entire applications. 

If it is important to share backups with a large group (e.g., cocounsel or corporate legal departments), one alternative is to purchase a CD-ROM recorder (approximately $300 to $800). The primary advantage of a CD-ROM recorder is that backup is permanently preserved on a CD-ROM that can be read by standard players. Recordable CD-ROMs have also dropped tremendously in price (approximately $2 to $3 for each disk). A disadvantage to this method is the complexity of recording a CD-ROM. One mistake will turn the CD-ROM into a coaster. However, Adaptec’s Easy CD Creator 3.0 (approximately $79, www.adaptec.com) is a terrific new program that makes recording CD-ROMs intuitive and easy. Simply drag and drop files, and the recording process begins. 

Limited backups can be performed with utilities that come with your operating system. DOS users can use xcopy.exe, which can back up directories and maintain the underlying file structure. With hierarchical directory structures, backups can be initiated with a single command. Windows 95 comes with Microsoft Backup, which helps automate this process. Unfortunately, many tape drives are unsupported by Microsoft Backup, and it can only restore files to the same original drive and directory. 

Almost all third-party backup programs are not subject to these limitations and can get the job done with minimal effort. In fact, most users are content with the backup software bundled with their tape drive. If a more powerful solution is needed, there are several alternatives. Seagate Software’s Backup Exec packages (approximately $99 each) are full-featured backups with every conceivable bell and whistle. Besides supporting a wide range of tape drives, you can schedule timed backups to automate the process completely. Seagate’s accompanying utility, Direct Tape Access (approximately $79), goes one step further and assigns your tape drive a drive letter. This lets you treat your tape drive like a hard drive (albeit a slow one). PGSoft’s Tape-it (approximately $60) also has this feature. 

Network Protection 

Although backups are an essential component of any computer disaster planning, recovering files from backups is a slow and arduous process. In most law firms, there often is not enough time to rebuild a system from a backup. Computer crashes therefore are not an option, especially for servers. 

Mirroring can protect networks from hard drive crashes. In a mirrored system an identical copy of the hard drive is maintained at all times. This gives your network much-needed redundancy. If one drive fails, users can access data from the other drive. 

No backup systems work, however, in a blackout. Uninterruptable power systems (UPSs) provide backup battery power that will allow a computer to continue operating for a period of time. These components will not let a law firm run its network indefinitely after the lights go out, but UPSs will allow users to save work, transfer critical files, and shut down properly. Software offered as a package with the UPS sold by American Power Conversion (www.apcc.com) can automatically shut down a computer after a power outage, so that computers left on during nights and weekends have an extra measure of protection.

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