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No matter how well you protect your systems, every computer system is vulnerable to data loss. Although most organizations' servers are typically well protected by backup schemes, only the most sophisticated schemes provide up-to-the-second data protection. Many organizations don't have a comprehensive backup mechanism in place even for desktop systems that store information that's crucial to business processes, and the cost of recreating lost data can be very high. The disk recovery tools that this Buyer's Guide lists can help prevent the disaster of workstation and server data loss.

Disk data loss results from power outages or equipment problems (e.g., defective RAID or IDE controllers) or human factors (e.g., unintentional file deletion or hard disk formatting, virus and worm attacks). The first rule of data recovery is to avoid writing data to the drive or partition that contains the data you need to recover. When you modify data on the affected partition, the disk clusters that contain the deleted data can be reallocated, permanently destroying the original data contents. Before using any of the products listed, you should stop all activities that might write to the volume you want to recover. For servers, you might want to stop users from accessing shares.

You can run the products in this Buyer's Guide from a bootable recovery disk or CD-ROM—you don't have to install the product on the affected volume. The products will trigger a graphical operations console in which you can view and restore the damaged data.

Each product provides the ability to recover data lost by file and partition deletions and by hard disk corruption. Although each product has its own unique feature set, you should evaluate certain criteria before you select a tool. Keep in mind the supported OS. Most tools provide support for Windows XP, Windows 2000, Windows NT, Windows Me, and Windows 9x systems. For server recovery, verify that the product supports the server version of your OS. Some of the listed disk recovery tools also support Linux and UNIX file-system recovery.

Look for the ability to either create boot disks or run from a bootable CD-ROM. Most of the products support recovery from IDE, EIDE, ATA, and SCSI hard disks and floppy disks. Some products also support data recovery for RAID volumes. Some offer support for removable media such as Zip and Jaz drives and even SmartMedia cards.

Almost all the products support multiple file systems, such as FAT, FAT32, NTFS, and NTFS 5.0 (NTFS5). However, for a complete Win2K recovery scenario, make sure that the product supports some of the newer Win2K disk features, such as basic and dynamic disks, NTFS compression, alternate data streams, sparse files, and Unicode filenames. Also look for essential recovery features, including the ability to recover deleted files and deleted or damaged partitions, to restore volumes and replace the Master Boot Record (MBR), to recover from formatted drives, to support large disks, and to recover files to different destinations, such as working folders, Zip drives, or remote FTP locations. Almost all the listed vendors provide downloadable demos to let you preview your lost data without actually recovering it, letting you determine before you buy the product whether the software will be able to recover data in your situation.

Data recovery isn't always possible even with the best of tools. For tough cases in which the tool alone can't recover data, many of the featured vendors also provide advanced data recovery services.