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TIME: Fried Your Drive?

Or drowned it? Or shot it?
One data-recovery firm has seen (and saved) it all.

The price is dear, but counseling is included!
By CHRIS TAYLOR/NOVATO

 

Hard drives are the collective memories of our cleverest machines, the indispensable intellects of the information age. Yet Scott Gaidano, 58, president of DriveSavers, detests them. Most any data-storage device is, to his mind, a ridiculous piece of machinery. Ask him why, and he will pound his desk with frustration as he tells you how obscenely sensitive it is: a hunk of metal whirring around at 10,000 r.p.m. that dies if you drop it from 5 ft. The more we store on them – these days, everything from tax records to baby pictures – the more painful their death.
Gaidano’s loathing for storage media stems from a lost batch of electronic love letters. Back in 1984, when he was working for a company called Jasmine Technologies, he and his buddies used to go water-skiing on weekends, taking their first-generation Macintoshes and trading software. Gaidano still remembers that sinking feeling the weekend he booted up his Mac and saw the sad-face icon, indicating all was not well with the single floppy disc inside. Every precious byte, including all Gaidano’s romantic correspondence, was gone. “I was all freaked out,” he says. “Nobody could tell me what to do to recover it” – not even his government contacts.

Gaidano still has that floppy, framed, in his office. The data have not been recovered. But this nightmarish experience, familiar to many, put Gaidano on the road to creating a very profitable company. Data-storage devices, he knew, were getting larger every year. While the maximum size of a disc drive in 1984 was 30 MB, today a 120-GB hard drive – that’s 400 times as much storage – sells for less than $120. But the basic technology has changed little, so the amount of lost data swells each year. That’s why Gaidano and partner Jay Hagan created DriveSavers, which has become one of the most respected small private companies you’ve never heard of – with $10 million annual revenue and 40 well-compensated employees.

Sitting on the edge of a marsh outside the town of Novato, 20 miles north of San Francisco, DriveSavers cultivates a low-key image. There is no sign on the firm’s office building and no obvious front door. DriveSavers does a lot of business with the more secretive branches of government, which, Gaidano says, prefer that his firm keep a low profile.

Inside, however, the walls are plastered with signed photos from grateful clients. There’s Sean Connery, who opened his laptop on a plane one day and found that its hard drive had somehow managed to erase itself; Sting, who briefly lost the records of how much he was worth; and stumble-prone President Gerald Ford, who dropped his laptop. A computer retrieved from a burning house is on display, as is one crushed under the wheels of a shuttle bus and another rescued from a cruise ship that sank to the bottom of the Amazon. As with more than 90% of the drives that come here, the data from each of these machines were recovered.

The panicked hundreds who call every week don’t know that, of course. All they know is that their precious information has disappeared. So if the operator (no voice-mail hell here) detects a note of agitation in your voice, she’ll put you through to Kelly Chessen, 29, the company’s data-crisis counselor. Kelly will not tell customers her title or that her last job was managing a suicide hot line in nearby Napa Valley. But that experience is more useful than you might imagine. “Sometimes people say that when their computer crashed, they wanted to throw it and themselves out of the window,” says Chessen. “That’s when I ask if they’re actually thinking about committing suicide. Most of the time it’s an idle threat.”

Occasionally it’s a little more serious. There was the FORTUNE 500 executive from Kansas City, Kans., who called on a Friday afternoon: the server with all his company’s financial information had died, and the backup tape turned out to be blank. He was on the next plane to San Francisco with the server’s hard drive – and while crossing the Golden Gate Bridge thought to himself, “If this doesn’t work out, it’s a one-way trip.” This required a step beyond data-crisis counseling. While engineers took the executive’s drive apart and got it spinning again, Gaidano took him on a Napa winery tour. Sampling the merchandise seemed to help.

More often, Chessen is dealing with simple embarrassment. Like the business owner who could not face what he had done to his computer and got his secretary to make the call. Trouble was, she could not describe the problem. Finally, Chessen got the boss on the phone and teased out the truth: in a moment of frustration, he had pulled out a gun and shot the central processing unit.
Across the corridor from those star-studded signed portraits are fire safes filled with just about every hard-drive spare part that has ever existed – many of which can’t be found even at the manufacturing company. DriveSavers is the only data-recovery firm licensed by all the major hard-drive makers, like Toshiba and Western Digital, meaning you can use its services without breaking the drive’s warranty. This began when former manufacturer Micropolis had hard-drive failures in its own office and had to sheepishly admit it was unable to fix its own creations. Gaidano was there to help.

Restorations take place down the corridor, in an airtight clean room where engineers wear space-age bunny suits. Once a drive is painstakingly picked apart, cleaned and put back together, its contents are copied onto a bank of 31 servers. Then the engineers match the jumbled data to file types. This gets harder as the number of file types on a drive increases. Two months ago, San Francisco Web designer Kathleen Craig lost a laptopful of media in dozens of formats, including her resume and wedding pictures. DriveSavers was able to return 80% – lower than average, but for Craig, who had reconciled herself to the loss, that was far better than nothing.

The average bill at DriveSavers comes to about $900. More often than not, the data are worth more than that – especially to the 70% of DriveSavers customers that are corporations. The company has long-term contracts with the likes of AT&T, Apple and IBM. (Rival CBL Data Recovery Technologies, based in Toronto, has a similar deal with Microsoft.) The forensics lab at Deloitte & Touche uses DriveSavers for its most sensitive cases, such as the one last winter when a defendant in a court case who had been caught on security-camera footage threw the drive on which it was stored into an ice-covered lake. The drive was fished out by scuba divers and shipped to DriveSavers with lake debris still in it. “They were able to turn it around in two days,” says Kris Haworth, Deloitte & Touche’s senior manager of forensics.

Gaidano has no plans to expand the company beyond 40 employees or take it public. DriveSavers works so well, he says, precisely because it is small and nimble. Beyond acquiring expertise in new drive types – such as the CompactFlash cards used in digital cameras and the tiny drives in Apple’s iPod – there is no need to diversify. Everyone seems happy with their compensation. Why bother to grow? CBL’s CEO, Bill Margeson, currently expanding into Europe and Australia, says Gaidano and his troops are beholden to the Hollywood crowd and “haven’t taken the initiative to go to new markets.” But there are plenty of reasons for the Novato company to be happy in its anonymous home by the marsh – draining ice water out of drives, talking data losers down from their ledges and rescuing other people’s love letters.

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