Test Center Rx: Protecting Data, Apps

SAN MATEO (07/17/2000) - I wish to ask you if you know of any low-level disk-editing utilities. I am an IT trainer at a small volunteer organization that runs Microsoft Corp. Windows 95 machines. The students save their work in their folders, but unfortunately their hard work sometimes goes amiss or someone vandalizes the machine. We cannot afford client/server machines, and other methods that have been implemented were not very practical. It would be handy to have such a utility to combat this problem. Any information would be kindly appreciated.

Waheed Akhtar

Lori: You need a way to keep these machines up and running for each student to access daily. People are known for making errors (isn't that what makes us human?), and deleting files is one error everyone commits from time to time.

Sabotage, on the other hand, is a bigger pain in the @#* to clean up.

The classroom environment is notorious for having these types of problems -- whether from a prankster or student error. This type of environment will always be prone to continuous reconfiguration and maintenance.

The first suggestion I have for you is to pass out diskettes and inform your students to copy their work at the end of every session. That's the first part; you still need assistance in keeping your machines running for every class.

Several relatively low-cost options are available to help you with your situation.

Tools I've worked with include PowerQuest Corp.'s Lost & Found, which costs only US$69.95 and can recover data on PCs from accidental loss (www.powerquest.com). You may also want to check Ontrack Data International Inc.'s Easy Recovery, a $195 purchase (www.ontrack.com). These tools will help you recover lost data from students deleting files or from drives getting accidentally reformatted.

You may find a utility such as Norton Ghost from Symantec Corp. useful for making images of hard drives and distributing replicas of systems to one or more machines (www.symantec.com/sabu/ghost/index.html). Symantec offers both personal and corporate editions. The corporate edition allows you to easily distribute disk images to multiple machines at once. This would ensure that all of your classroom machines have identical software and structure; in case of erasure the image can easily be replaced quickly, keeping your reconfiguration troubles manageable.

Brooks: It sounds as if you have two basic problems: finding and recovering files that are accidentally or intentionally deleted and getting machines configured in a known state between students or classes. The way I see it, you can either work around the problems or try to prevent them from occurring.

The biggest problem you have is your environment: Your situation cries out for some level of security, but Windows 95 just isn't going to provide it. If there is any possible way to move to Windows NT, you will drastically reduce the time spent recovering and reinstalling machines and files.

In an NT environment, each student could get a user account with Read access to most of the system and Write access to only his or her own user directory. You could go a step further and give them only Create access in their own home directories, which would make it impossible for them to accidentally delete or overwrite their files. Because the users would not have administrative access, the system itself would be safe from malicious users. (The possible exception is among those technically advanced and savvy enough to keep up on the latest NT security bugs; if you have to worry about that, good luck.)Failing the NT move, I think Lori is exactly right about going with a combination of a file-recovery tool and a system-imaging tool. Both Ghost and ImageCast are first-rate utilities that will drastically reduce the time you spend rebuilding systems. (For ImageCast, see www.storagesoft.com/ic3.) You will really need some kind of image server on the network, though. That could be something as simple as the instructor's PC, because the loads placed on it are not very great in a small environment.

I haven't used Lost & Found, but I can speak highly of Easy Recovery. It stays current with new releases of Windows and is generally easy to use and reliable.

Remember, though, that if you have malicious users, they may know enough to make a file unrecoverable (which isn't terribly hard to do).

If you want to do the work yourself, there are several low-level disk editors.

My favorite is PTS DiskEditor from PhysTechSoft (www.phystechsoft.com). Of course, anytime you're in editing the low-level disk, there's a very good risk of making things worse rather than better. And woe unto you if your disk-editing tool falls into the hands of your malicious students!

Brooks Talley is senior business and technology architect for InfoWorld.com.

Lori Mitchell is a senior analyst in the Test Center. Send your questions for them to testcenter_rx@infoworld.com.

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