Geek Squad takes damaged drives to Ontrack clean room

Computer repair specialist Geek Squad has teamed up with Ontrack Data Recovery for tier-one recoveries, such as missing documents or files. As part of Geek Squad’s Data Rescue Service, Ontrack is providing the company with its proprietary software for on-site recoveries and offering its cleanroom services for more severe problems.

Geek Squad is a 24-hour computer support “task force” that provides technical support, repairs and training. It opened its first store in Canada last November, and now has six across the country, including three in Vancouver, two in Toronto and one in Ottawa.

Losing your data on your hard drive can be one of the worst issues you’ve ever had, said Mark Bruehler, deputy of internal affairs with Geek Squad in Burnaby, B.C. “If you’re a business person or small business and it’s got all your tax data or invoice data, it could be worth everything,” he said. “This is one of the reasons why we partnered with Ontrack because we knew they had a good track record with being able to get data back.”

When Geek Squad locations in the U.S. started discussions with Ontrack about providing data recovery services, Canadian headquarters decided to work out a similar contract here. “Our branding is very important so we would like to keep things as similar as possible between the U.S. and Canada,” said Bruehler.

If a user goes into a Geek Squad location or a Geek Squad representative is sent out to an on-site call and data recovery is required, Geek Squad can do some of the data recovery work themselves if the problem is logical, said Todd Johnson, vice-president of operations with Ontrack Data Recovery in Toronto.

If the data cannot be recovered at that point – due to some form of physical damage – the customer then has the option to send it to Ontrack. Where there is physical damage from a natural disaster or dropped laptop, for example, Ontrack will disassemble the drive in its Toronto-based data recovery lab and cleanroom, and reassemble the parts with new heads to attempt to get the data back.

“If (Geek Squad) is not able to solve the problem, we have our cleanroom capabilities to handle mechanical failures,” said Johnson. “Also situations can arise where the structure damage (is) so severe that a software utility is not adequate – you’re going to need an engineer to actually piece it through by hand.”

Since hard drives are susceptible to dust, you can’t just pull them open, said Bruehler. “One tiny grain of dust on the platter of the hard drive will basically ruin the drive because once the head hits it, it’ll pull that dust around the platter and it could ruin everything that’s on there,” he said. “So it has to be in a room that’s entirely dust-free.”

Through its agreement with Ontrack, Geek Squad is also offering customers a flat rate, instead of a rate that ranges according to how much data is recovered or how difficult it is to get back. If Ontrack is unable to recover the data, the customer is charged a minor assessment fee. So far, Geek Squad has sent four drives to Ontrack and all four have been recovered.

“Ontrack themselves never look at what’s in the files – they just look at what files are available to be recovered,” said Bruehler. “They send us an e-mail, which we then send to our customer, the customer then logs onto a Web site that’s secure and allows them to see what files are recoverable and that’s when the customer can decide if they want to go ahead with it or not.” That process usually takes about a day, he added.

Ontrack did more than 50,000 data recoveries last year, including physical crashes, viruses, natural disasters and human error. “Of the hard drives we receive, about 64 per cent of them actually need to go into a cleanroom, which means they have mechanical problems,” said Johnson. “The drives are getting so large and so sensitive that (if) damage were to happen, like a dropped laptop for example, the damage is more severe now than it was a few years ago – that’s why the cleanroom is so important.”


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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