An icy hard drive and the pending payroll

After the client's hard drives and backups failed, unusual measures had to be taken to make sure 800 employees would get paid

We are a vendor of time and attendance systems, and our customers use the data to process payroll. Our help desk takes many calls from customers, mainly about training issues, rule changes, or errors that occur.

The worst call we can get is from a client who "cannot process payroll." It means the customer cannot produce a file to feed the payroll data, and unless it is fixed quickly, the employees will not be paid on time. Needless to say, tensions run high while troubleshooting such calls.

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We had a new person join us on the help desk. He had been on board for a couple of weeks when he got the dreaded call from one of our long-term clients that had about 800 employees on the system. The new tech followed protocol and notified the help desk lead, who notified the manager and the VP. They had all come over and were getting up to speed with the situation when they heard, "The customer lost a second drive in their RAID array, the server is down." It turns out the customer had lost the first hard drive a few days earlier and had not noticed. With the loss of the second drive, the database server had lost the database and could not run our application.

The tech continued troubleshooting with the client's IT staff when we overheard, "The backup from the last two nights is no good, they can't get a valid database."

All of us were getting more and more tense at the thought of 800 employees not getting paid on time and accounting staff redoing all the data.

Then we heard the new tech tell the customer, "Remove both drives and put them in the freezer for an hour." We could not believe what he had told them. The new tech continued, "At my last position, we used this method to recover data when a hard drive failed. It doesn't always work, but it's worth a shot." We thought it was a strange idea, but figured there was nothing to lose at this point, so why not?

The incredulous customer removed the two hard drives and placed them in the freezer. After an hour, he put them back into the server. They worked!

The customer was able to recover the data and obtain a good copy of the database and get payroll out. The hard drives worked for a few hours, then completely failed.

We have used this cooling technique a number of times since that incident -- most recently when our CEO lost his hard drive on his laptop computer.

I guess you could say there are two morals to the story: One, don't be afraid to think outside the box -- and listen to those who do so. And two, make sure your data is backed up because the Freezer Fairy does not always grant a second chance to recover lost work.

This story, "An icy hard drive and the pending payroll," was originally published at InfoWorld.com.

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