Law Office Computing
Avoiding Hard Drive Disaster
One of the things that most people don't realize about the way digital information is stored on a computer's hard drive is that the bits and bytes information that make up file are not stored in contiguous places on the disk. When you load up a file into your word processor, for example, the hard drive brings together information from sectors all over the disk to create the final image that you see on your screen. Think of the old trick that you see on TV and in the movies where the film is run backwards and a broken glass magically reconstructs itself in someone's hand. That is what happens when your hard drive pulls up a file. When that file is sent back to the hard drive it doesn't necessarily go to the place where it was before, and as a result, over time, the files on your disk enter an advanced state of what is called "fragmentation." Fragmentation occurs on every computer and the more you use it the worse the problem becomes. Before fragmentation becomes critical you may start to notice that your computer has slowed down dramatically. It will continue to slow down until it finally stops and one day you seek to open a file and the hard disk will simply fail. The short of it is that your computer has then suffered brain seizure and you are in serious trouble. It is possible to recover much of the information on the disk by sending it away to specialists who have developed their skills in data recovery. When they are not working for the FBI or the DEA, those people can, for a substantial fee, recover most if not all of your data. You will make your insurance carrier happy, however, if you avoid problems of this kind because they are so easily avoidable. If you do your own computer maintenance, then read on. If you don't do your own computer maintenance, clip out this column and give it to whoever in your office handles those tasks. What I am about to describe should be done on a regular basis, certainly no less than once a month and once a week in a busy office. A full backup of your critical data should always, I repeat ALWAYS, precede the following procedures.
If you are still using DOS based systems there are a number of utilities that will accomplish the tasks that I am about to describe. Since the advent of Windows, however, Microsoft has provided these utilities for free as a part of the Windows system. There are two procedures that should be run on a regular basis. The first is called Scandisk and the second is called Defrag or in Windows 98ADisk Defragmenter@. The programs can be found in the System Tools submenu on your Start menu [Start/Accessories/System Tools]. In Windows 98 the Degragmenter will actually group your files on the disk so that the ones you use most often will be given the fastest access possible. The increase in the operating speed of your system is really very noticeable. Here is how to get the process going on your computer.
If you are using Windows 95/98 just go to System Tools submenu and run the programs. They require very little input from you if you allow them to make their own choices about what to fix and how. I advise letting them choose. The hard truth is they are smarter than us. If you are using Windows 3.11, you simply exit Windows from the file menu. When you see the C prompt, type "scandisk." If you get aAfile not found@ message, type CD\DOS and when you get the C:\DOS prompt type Ascandisk@. The Microsoft Scandisk program will then begin. It is very easy to use. You simply select the drive that you want to scan from a simple menu. Scandisk will search that drive for errors and prompt you if it finds any problems with your drive. In the older Windows program systems you have to make some choices. Scandisk will find that everything on your drive is okay, but occasionally it will find some lost clusters or other problems that it will identify on the screen. At that point you have a choice. You can save the extraneous material that Scandisk has found to a floppy in case it ends up being something that is important. Your other choice is to simply skip the saving part of it and tell Scandisk to fix the disk. It is not a big deal to save the offending material to a floppy disk just in case there is something in there that you need. The problem is that finding what you need in what you have saved requires a very high-level of computer skill. As a result I usually simply skip the saving portion and move on. I have never had a problem but I can understand if there is sensitive information on your drive that you might want to wear a belt and suspenders and save the offending material to a disk. Of course, if you have done regular backups, as I am sure you do, this really won't be a problem. After Scandisk has corrected the problems with your hard drive it will ask you whether or not you want to check the surface of your existing drive and tell you how long that is going to take. This is something that's worth doing every now and then, but it certainly is not required as a part of your regular weekly maintenance. I suggest that you do this once every couple of months. When you have finished Scandisk will give you a prompt that allows you to choose another drive if you have one in your computer or announces that you have finished fixing the problems on the disk. Once Scandisk has told you that you have fixed your disk, the next step is to defragment it.
Again in Windows 95/98 Defragmentation is automated. The only thing you really have to be aware of is that the process will stop and restart with any disk access. If you are on a network make sure you have gone off the network before you start Defragmentation. Close down any program that might automatically do something during the process. In other words, stun your computer=s brain with care.
In the older Windows systems, you will be back at a C:\ prompt after you have exited Scandisk and that will allow you to run the Microsoft program "Defrag." Simply typeAdefrag@ and follow the menu choices just as you did with Scandisk. Defrag is actually kind of interesting to watch because you can see the files on your hard disk being moved around to create a more efficient pattern of access. Of course you are not actually looking at your hard disk but you are seeing a representation of those files as they are read and moved around. While this is not a procedure that one wants to do for hours, it is in some bizarre way, a very calming, non-chemical sedation. If you have had a very really hard day, watching your disk defrag itself is a bit like meditation. Depending on which of the options you choose, the Defragmentation process may take anywhere from a minute to several hours. If you are defragmenting a drive that you have compressed using one of the compression programs, you will find that the Defragmentation process takes a whole lot longer. Indeed, it may take many hours on a large drive that has been compressed and I suggest you do it late at night and let the computer run until morning.