Profile: DriveSavers stays true to data-recovery roots

DriveSavers takes data recovery seriously. So seriously, in fact, that the company recently installed a $2 million cleanroom complex in its Novato, Calif., headquarters. In this 2,000 square foot facility, DriveSavers can unseal and open up hard drives for diagnosis and repair without dust-borne contamination assaulting the now-naked spinning platters and swiftly seeking head assemblies.

Hard drives are delicate machines—even the tiniest speck of dust can render them inoperable. Destructive dust, however, has been effectively banished from the new Class 100 cleanroom, allowing DriveSavers engineers to open, repair, and begin data recovery of ailing hard drives without fear of damaging them further.

As impressive as the new facility is, the value of its specialized equipment and precision tools pales in comparison to the most critical element in DriveSavers’ data-recovery arsenal—its experienced and tenacious engineers.

Engineering as a healing art

Like medicine, the healing of a sick storage system is as much an art as it is a science. And like doctors, the DriveSavers engineers consult with one another, confer on courses of treatment, and take their work very seriously. They even have their own version of the Hippocratic oath’s central tenet, “Do no harm.” As cleanroom manager and 12-year DriveSavers veteran Ed Sit put it, “If it’s not broke, don’t break it more.”

In DriveSavers Class 100 cleanroom, hard drives can be operated with their cases open without fear of being contaminated by drive-destroying dust.

“Do no harm” is more than a slogan at DriveSavers; it’s the basis of the company’s workflow. When a sick storage system is brought into the company’s hardware hospital, it’s given a preliminary examination in what Sit refers to as the “triage area.” After diagnosis, 95 percent of ailing drives are sent into the cleanroom for disassembly, repair, and preliminary data recovery. There, a team of seven veteran engineers transfers the drive’s data onto another drive after repairing the malfunctioning drive using parts from an on-site, 20,000-drive inventory. After the sickly drive has yielded its raw data, it’s no longer part of the workflow—it’s laid aside, and all further recovery work is done on the data now moved to its clone.

The recovered data is then transferred from the clone to DriveSavers’ immense and highly secure storage network, which includes 65TB of 24/7 online storage, with another 100TB of near-line backup. Due to the sensitivity of much of the data that DriveSavers saves—clients include major financial services, Hollywood filmmakers, and the U.S. Government—the company has deployed a Cisco Self-Defending Network architecture to keep even the most resourceful hackers from snooping.

Reassembling files

Electrically grounded coveralls, hood and mask, safety glasses, and latex gloves: the all-day uniform of a cleanroom engineer.

After the physical repair and data-collection has been performed by the cleanroom team, the recovered raw data is reassembled into files by what DriveSavers refers to as its “logical group.” Here the often-tedious detective work of file identification transforms what director of Mac/Unix engineering, Mike Cobb, describes as “just ones and zeros” into its anxious owner’s customer records, financial data, or digital media.

Cobb, who will celebrate his 15th anniversary with DriveSavers next Valentine’s Day (“This was my new girlfriend and we haven’t broken up yet,” he says), is a file-recovery fanatic. “It may take a couple of months. It may take a year. But I’m going to get it,” Cobb says about reconstructing a drive’s contents. When asked what percentage of file recovery was luck, he responds, “Is it luck? No. It’s the knowledge that I’m not going to give up.”

Luckily, most data-recovery operations take only days and not the worst-case year to which Cobb referred. But recovery is getting more difficult.

Take the sheer number of files on a typical hard drive, for example. “Here’s a fun stat,” Cobb says. “Back in 1994-95, the total number of files on a hard drive with the System on it was around 48,000—if that. Leopard starts with 540,000 files before you even enter your name.”

Today’s files aren’t always straightforward data buckets, either: Enterprise IT systems often encrypt sensitive files, so DriveSavers trains and certifies its engineers in common encryption technologies.

Also, hard-drive engineering has progressed over the years. While this has made life better for hard-drive owners—higher capacities, faster performance, longer drive life—steadily increasing complexities and closer tolerances have made drive repair dicier. “Back in 1994 when I started, most things were corruption, or electronic, or slight mechanical problems,” Cobb recalls. “Hardly anything had to go into a clean room in that year.”

Complexities are increasing

Times have changed in other ways, as well. Today the new cleanroom hosts more than simple, straightforward hard drives. Into it now come RAID arrays, NAS (network-attached storage) and SAN (storage-area network) devices, tape drives—even such solid-state devices as USB drives, Memory Sticks, and digital-camera cards. PC and storage system manufacturers are also making life more difficult for the cleanroom engineers by subtly modifying the firmware in the hard drives they install in their products—the exact same Seagate hard drive, for example, may have different firmware in a Dell system than it does in one from HP.

But Sit, DriveSavers’ cleanroom manager, takes the increasing challenges in stride. In fact, he seems to relish them, and credits his team-oriented approach for keeping DriveSavers on top of the changing landscape. “Some of the guys are better at firmware, some of the guys are better at component repair—and then there’s my solid-state guy, who rocks,” Sit says. They’re also productive: “Each guy may touch ten recoveries a day; I’ve got seven guys in here; 70 a day; I can do 1,400 a month.”

Sit also cites the culture of continuing improvement among his team. “In earlier years different symptoms were impossible, but now we’ve resolved them. What was once impossible is now an easy fix.” For example, he says, “I used to think platter swaps were impossible, and now my guys do them routinely.”

Even when Sit thinks a drive is too far gone for repair, “These younger guys just say, ‘Let me have at it.’” Like doctors, they’re curing ills that were incurable just years ago.

A legacy of Macs

DriveSavers engineers repair clients’ ailing drives by cannibalizing parts from the cleanroom complex’s inventory of 20,000 healthy drives.

DriveSavers traces its history back to 1985, when co-founders Scott Gaidano and Jay Hagan were working at the Mac-focused hard-drive vendor Jasmine. When Jasmine went under, Gaidano and Hagen (now DriveSavers’ president and CEO, respectively) took over its tech-support line, and began repairing Jasmine drives. Simple drive repairs such as replacing power supplies grew into data recovery, and soon the team was working on drives from other vendors, from PCs, Unix boxes, and more.

But Macs were central to the data-recovery effort then, and remain so today. Cobb recalls that when he was hired, Hagan told him to spend as much money as needed to get the best computers for data recovery. So he bought six Mac SE/30s—at more than $4,000 each. Today, the hallway outside the logical lab at DriveSavers is full of Mac Pro boxes—the company just added 40 new Mac Pros to the mix—and the lab itself had a broad array of Power Macs, Mac minis, and more. Why use Macs as the main tool, even for PC and Unix jobs? “Because I love Mac,” Cobb says.

Macs promise to be the backbone of DriveSavers’ data-recovery efforts well into the future—and as file sizes grow, as professional content creators continue to migrate to digital media, and as enterprise-level IT departments and data centers offer more and better customer-targeted digital services, that future promises to be increasingly lucrative for DriveSavers.

The key word there is “lucrative.” DriveSavers’ services aren’t cheap—and they aren’t for the everyday user, seeing as how the average price for a typical data recovery is about $1,500. Prices vary based on how quickly a client needs their data to be recovered, the operating system that created and managed the files, and the capacity of the affected system—if it’s a complex RAID 5 or Xsan setup, the fee may run to many thousands of dollars. However, if a company’s data is irreplaceable, if its business would be dealt a devastating blow by the loss of its records, or even if an average—if deep-pockets—user can’t bear the loss of that digital video of their child’s first steps, DriveSavers might be a life saver.

So backup your files—and DriveSavers can help you with that chore, as well. As Lynda Martel, DriveSavers’ director of marketing pointed out, “Every drive that goes back after recovery goes with tips on how to backup your data and protect it from data loss,” despite the fact that if everyone kept current, off-site backups of all their important files, DriveSavers would have little reason to exist.

With most users being dangerously cavalier about backups, however—and with the probability that anything that can go wrong, usually will—it’s safe to assume that DriveSavers’ future is assured.

[Rik Myslewski has been writing about the Mac since 1989. He has been editor in chief of MacAddict (now Mac|Life), executive editor of MacUser and director of MacUser Labs, and executive producer of Macworld Live. His blog can be found on Myslewski.com.]

Updated at 6:12 p.m. PT to correct the name of DriveSavers co-founder Scott Gaidano,

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