Real-world laptop recovery lessons

Don't drink the water -- and never, never go to Baja without your Windows XP boot CD

When you're 1,500 miles from home, combing the shelves of a Mexican Costco, and hoping to find Windows XP on the shelves to help get you out of a jam -- you know you're in trouble. And that's exactly where I found myself recently when I accompanied our sales staff to Cabo San Lucas for our annual sales meeting.

My official duties consisted of a presentation about our Test Center and a presentation about an SFA project I'm leading. My unofficial role was (surprise) technical support provider for the meeting attendees. Although the heat, humidity, sun, and water were the main attractions, being the IT guy I naturally thought about how those conditions might affect the laptops. I wasn't too worried because our laptops run the same system image and are backed up nightly. If a laptop falls apart, we simply re-image the machine and restore the backup via the Internet. The hotel in Mexico had Wi-Fi in every room, so I was relatively relaxed about my ability to troubleshoot.

After arriving at the hotel, I headed to the welcome reception and grabbed a margarita. Before the glass even touched my lips, Paul Calento, our vice president of marketing, approached me with his Windows XP laptop and a look on his face that suggested all was not well. I reluctantly turned my attention away from the crystal blue water in the distance to the harsh blue on the laptop's screen. It was a registry corruption problem.

Paul needed a copy of a presentation he had been working on just a couple of hours before, so our nightly backup would be no help. And, because the system wouldn't boot, we couldn't get on the network to restore the backup anyway. Well then, here was an actual, high-stakes test of our remote laptop-recovery strategy. I handed the unsullied margarita to Paul, who needed it more than I did at that point, and got to work.

As you may have guessed, I was thwarted right away: I'd forgotten to bring a Windows XP install disk with me to Mexico, which is how I ended up at Costco de Cabo. With XP in hand, the fix would have been easy -- boot the Windows XP disk and repair the registry -- but Costco didn't have a copy of XP. So I was out of luck with that approach.

Instead, I fired up my own laptop and used Skype to conference with our IT manager, Kevin Railsback, and discuss alternative approaches. Kevin suggested downloading Knoppix Linux and building a boot disk, mounting the NTFS Windows XP drive, and uploading Paul's presentation to a server somewhere. Earlier in the day, it had taken three hours just to download the 3.5MB Skype client, so Kevin and I ran some bandwidth tests. We realized that although my hotel had wireless, it appeared that it was hooked into a 256Kbps line to the outside world -- not enough bandwidth to download the 700MB Knoppix Linux distribution. I was stuck again.

Meanwhile, happily, the tequila loosened Paul's memory a bit. It seems he had burned a copy of the presentation onto a CD after all. So the problem turned out to be more annoying than catastrophic, but the lessons are simple, obvious, and critical: Be sure to give all of your users a boot CD for whatever OS they are using, provide some basic instructions with the CD, and insist that they take both with them wherever they go. Also, make no assumptions about throughput if your hotel offers broadband. It's always best to assume everything will break and the only tools you will have are the ones in your carry-on baggage.