Preparing Now for Disaster

by Bill Barnes, PCCC

Maybe you've been lucky so far, but the day will come when you turn on your system and get a message like "Non DOS Disc" or "HD Failure" or some other heart-stopping message and nothing else happens. If you follow me through over the next few months, I will try to protect you from too much panic when this happens. These procedures assume that you are running DOS and Windows 3.1x on a stand-alone system and do not have easy access to another similarly configured computer. In other words, the typical home or small office installation.

What might cause these disasters and how can you prepare either to avoid them, or at least to keep your hair? Fortunately, the most critical ways for a computer to fail are also the least likely. Most of the problems are of the nature of loose cables, corrupted components of DOS, or the failure of minor electronic components within the computer. Usually, the data on the hard disc are still there, just temporarily unavailable.

The two big fears of many computer users are lightning and viruses. Although I have heard horror stories of people who had not just their computer, but stereo and TV fried, the only damage I've ever been able to even think about blaming on lightning involved the failure of a $35 component. And, I admittedly do not practice safe computing, nonchalantly popping a customer's disc without any virus protection running; and have never been bitten. Which is not to say you should be so casual. Invest $50 in an active surge protection device such as those available from Tripp-Lite or Curtis; or better still, $100 in a uninterruptible power supply. An $8 - $15 surge protector is good for turning several devices off with a single switch. And think about getting and using an active anti-virus program.

By far the greatest danger to your data is human error. I'm always saving my current document to my template file. I have had seconds of panic after moving a critical file I intended to copy from the Windows directory. I have even typed DEL *.* from my root directory. And occasionally a program will take it on itself to trash its own data file.

If you recognize what you did, all of these failures are easily remedied. In this series, we will discuss what resources you can prepare now to achieve at the worst a soft landing, if not total recovery when the computer doesn't work.

When the computer doesn't boot, we're assuming that all the fans whirr and lights light and something displays on the monitor, as well as the discs spinning. Otherwise, you can start looking for power problems from the wall out. Also, check the connection from the computer to monitor.

Failure to boot is much more likely to be from a trivial and non-data-threatening cause than anything to cry over. Usually, it just means you left a floppy in drive A:. If that's not the problem, try holding the reset button for 3 seconds before releasing. When that doesn't solve the problem, it's time to pull out your Emergency Boot Disc and start data recovery procedures.

Put your Emergency Boot Disc in drive A: and restart the computer. You should now be able to read a directory of your hard drive. In the root directory should be the file COMMAND.COM. If you type DIR C: /A:RSH; you should also see the files IO.SYS and MSDOS.SYS, and possibly some files relating to disc compression. The three system files can be resurrected by using the command SYS from your boot disc.

You don't have an Emergency Boot Disc? Next time I'll tell you how to make one and what to put on it.

(c) 1995 by Bill Barnes. email

Preparing Now for Disaster

Creating an Emergency Boot Disc

by Bill Barnes, PCCC

If the easy answers don't get your computer going from the hard drive, you can fall back on your emergency boot disc. That way you can probably still read the files off the hard disc, and maybe even resurrect your complete intact system if only a couple critical files are trashed.

You say you don't have an emergency boot disc. Well, here's how to make one. Put a blank disc in drive A: and type FORMAT A: /S from DOS or choose DISK | FORMAT DISK | MAKE SYSTEM DISK from Windows File Manager. This will erase whatever might have been on the disc and create the programs necessary to boot MSDOS. You must do this, even if you are starting with a new preformatted disc as it will not have the DOS programs on it.

On this disc, create these directories: DOS, DRIVERS, ROOT.

Copy from C:\ to the ROOT directory the files AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS and WIN.INI and SYSTEM.INI from C:\WINDOWS. Also copy CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT to the root directory A:\.

To the DOS directory on your floppy, copy CHKDSK.EXE, FDISK.EXE, FORMAT.COM, SCANDISK.EXE, SYS.COM, UNDELETE.EXE, and UNFORMAT.COM from C:\DOS. This is also a good place to put PKZIP and, if you use one, a compact DOS-based text editor. (Although EDIT.COM is very small, all it does is run the editor in QBASIC - be sure you have all the supporting files you need. This might be a good excuse to find and learn to use an editor like TED.)

What goes in the DRIVERS directory is specific to your setup. Print out CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT and copy files with names like DBLSPACE.SYS, STACKER.COM, MTMCDE.SYS, MSCDEX.EXE, and MOUSE.SYS (or maybe MOUSE.COM or .EXE) that apply to some hardware device or emulation you are running. In this case, the first two files apply to compressed discs, and the next two run my CD-ROM. Technically, files like RAMDRIVE.SYS and EMM386.EXE are not necessary, but if in doubt, go on and copy them until you run out of disc space. Be sure you copy all these files from the directory on C: referenced in CONFIG or AUTOEXEC as sometimes different versions of the same file may be on your disc more than once.

Using DOS EDIT or Windows Notepad, change the copies of CONFIG and AUTOEXEC on A:\ (not A:\ROOT) so that any drivers point to their location on the floppy, not C:.

Now, test this disc. Turn your computer off, insert this disc in drive A: and turn the computer back on. Everything should run just as you expect - confirm that you can access your CD-ROM and all of the hard discs and compressed discs on your system. Label this disc Emergency Boot Disc with the date and computer you made it for as every computer may be different. Update the four files in the ROOT directory on this disc after you have successfully installed any new software or hardware. You may want to come back to the old versions if an install trashes your setup.

If you use anti-virus software, backup software, or a network; create other floppies so you can run those programs without access to your hard disc. Test your work. Sometimes a program will access the hard disc for such a short time as it runs that you may not even notice the disc light. I have gone so far as to temporarily rename or move the program's regular directory to be sure I really was running off the floppy. As always, if you take such drastic measures, be sure you can get back to where you started.

(c) 1995 by Bill Barnes. email

Preparing Now for Disaster

CMOS and all that

by Bill Barnes, PCCC

If, after you've booted your computer off your emergency boot floppy, it still doesn't recognize the hard disc, it's possible your CMOS has become corrupted. CMOS is some battery-protected memory that tells the box all about the hardware you have installed such as disc drives and serial ports before DOS or Windows load. It takes some pretty technical parameters, and the best way to know how to reset your CMOS is to write down the settings before something goes wrong.

CAUTION: It is possible to inadvertently change some settings, even in the act of merely looking at your CMOS. Resurrecting the data may necessitate even an experienced service person dissecting your computer. Carefully read each screen you encounter to ensure you are not making any changes. Because every BIOS performs differently, I cannot give specific instructions but only general techniques. If you are at all uncomfortable with this warning, please do not attempt these procedures.

As the system is booting, before DOS loads, it will give a message like "Hit ESC [or DEL] to enter setup". Because this message comes very early in the boot sequence you may not see it unless you reboot after your monitor is warmed up. As it only lasts a couple seconds, you may not succeed in hitting the correct key on the first try; just hit Ctr-Alt-Del and try again.

You may have to read through a couple screens warning you of the danger of any action you may take before arriving at some level of non-advanced setup. Here you will see the clock and calendar and a description of the disc drives installed in your computer. This is the information you want to write down. (You may have to use a pencil since DOS has not yet loaded and Print Screen may not be functional.)

Floppies are identified as 5-1/4" 360 K or 1.2 M and 3-1/2" 720 K or 1.44 M. I assume you can answer those specifications by looking at the front of your case. Then you will see that Hard Disc C is listed as Type 46 or Type 47 with a string of parameters. This is the information you need to copy: Heads, Cylinders and Sectors. The other numbers are usually calculated from these three data, but write it all down for safety. If you have a second hard disc, write down the information for Disc D, too.

Some systems may refer to Hard Disc 80 and 81 rather than C and D. On some systems when you define Type 47 for C and choose Type 47 for D, it will have the same parameters while others allow different parameters. Incidentally, Types 1 through 46 are pre-defined for a variety of hard discs ranging from 5 to about 150 MB. I doubt you'll ever see one in your computer.

While you're in the CMOS setup, wander around. You'll probably find a switch to allow the computer to boot even if the keyboard is not plugged in and another to change the initial status of the NumLock. On some laptops, power management settings are also stored in CMOS. On some BIOSs, you'll even find a setting to change the boot sequence from A first to C first. This means you don't have to be careful to remove a floppy before shutting down and gives a modicum of protection against some viruses that infect the boot sector of even non-bootable floppies.

Now, when static or a weak battery blows your CMOS, you have the skills and data to get your hard disc back on line. If the problem was a battery, you'll probably have to reset the information every time you power up; but at least you can make the service call at your convenience and not while a project is waiting.

(c) 1995 by Bill Barnes. email

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