The current budget crunch has caused companies to search for ways to reduce IT support costs. Phoenix Technologies, a leading BIOS manufacturer, has answered the call with a suite of products called FirstWare Rescue. In this Daily Drill Down, I’ll introduce you to FirstWare Rescue and explain what individual components are included with the product, as well as how these components work together to help reduce IT support costs.

The PC support technician’s life
When a user calls with a PC support problem, the service technician must be able to determine beyond a reasonable doubt whether the problem is caused by a software or hardware failure. Doing so can be difficult because some software problems appear, for all intents and purposes, to be hardware failures. Even diagnostic software may occasionally diagnose the problem incorrectly, since most diagnostic software is dependant on the underlying operating system. If the operating system is having problems, then the diagnostic software may have problems as well.

Another typical problem facing service technicians is that approximately one out of every six crashes requires a complete reinstallation of the operating system. Coincidentally, it never fails that, when reinstallation is required, the driver disks that came with the PC have disappeared. This means the technician has to reinstall the operating system and configure the operating system to access the Internet so that he or she can download the necessary drivers. Of course, this troubleshooting step is rendered useless if one of the drivers that needs to be downloaded is the driver for the network card or modem that’s being used to access the Internet.

Lastly, there are problems due to viral infections. When I worked for the military, the policy was to leave the driver disks with the user who owned the PC. However, many times when I would need to use one of the driver disks, I found that the user had overwritten the disk with other data or that the disk was infected with a virus. Then, after completely reinstalling the operating system, initially there would be no antivirus software on the machine. Therefore, viruses often went undetected until after they had infected the system. Although such viruses are easy to detect after the antivirus software has been installed, some viruses are harder to get rid of than others. Of course, some viruses may destroy the OS, leaving the technician with only one option: to completely reinstall the OS—again.

FirstWare Rescue to the rescue
FirstWare Rescue provides an answer to all of these hardware- and software- related problems. In a nutshell, FirstWare Rescue allows manufacturers to save a copy of the operating system, applications, and drivers to the hard disk. One of the obvious benefits of doing so is that the manufacturer would no longer have to provide CD copies of operating systems, applications, and drivers with the PC. This would create a cost savings for the manufacturer that would, in theory, reduce the overall PC cost for customers.

While the idea of storing a copy of a CD on the hard disk isn’t unique, the way that FirstWare Rescue accomplishes the task is. FirstWare Rescue stores the various copies of the CDs in a hidden, protected partition on the hard disk. You might recall that computer companies like Compaq and Toshiba tried this technique back in the mid 1990s. Back then, however, you could delete the reserved partition to free up more hard disk space for other applications.

FirstWare Rescue takes a different approach. The hidden partition is protected by the system’s BIOS. A new technology called First BIOS watches over the data, which is encrypted and restricted by an internal firewall. The internal firewall keeps the various CDs protected against being erased, infected by viruses, or being tampered with. Phoenix refers to the new technology as an “ultra secure bomb shelter in the foundation of your PC”.

FirstWare Rescue features
Now that you know how FirstWare Rescue works, let’s take a look at the individual programs that make up the FirstWare Rescue suite:

  • Sight: FirstWare Sight is FirstWare Rescue’s built-in operating system. This operating system offers instant-on capabilities and allows users to access any of the FirstWare applications through a simple point-and-click environment, even if the Windows operating system isn’t working.
  • Recover: FirstWare Recover is a utility that allows the PC to quickly be restored to the factory default settings. What sets this utility apart from other image restoration software is that it’s designed not to overwrite the user’s data.
  • Vault: Vault is the protected area of the hard disk that stores copies of all of the CDs that would normally ship with the PC. In the event of an emergency, you can restore an image file from FirstWare Vault up to four times faster than you could install the same image from a CD. Vault is also designed to be tamper resistant in order to prevent accidental erasure, modification, or viral infection.
  • Check: FirstWare Check is a utility that diagnoses hardware problems. By running FirstWare Check, you can reduce troubleshooting time and prevent the costly practice of unnecessarily replacing parts that, at first, appear to be malfunctioning.

When a crash occurs
Now let’s take a look at what might happen in a crash situation. Suppose that a user in a remote office calls and says he or she can’t print. After getting nowhere with the user over the phone, you drive to the office only to discover that the hard disk has had a major crash and Windows won’t boot. Since you thought that you were coming to fix a printing problem, you don’t have the necessary CDs for the job.

With FirstWare Rescue, having the correct CDs with you is no longer an issue. You begin by running a diagnostic check on the PC to determine if the hard disk corruption was random or if it was caused by a problem with the disk controller. Normally, you would have to reinstall an operating system before you could run any sort of diagnostics. However, FirstWare Rescue’s diagnostic capabilities are at the BIOS level. Therefore, you boot the system to FirstWare’s own operating system. This operating system supports instant-on, so there’s no waiting for a long boot process to complete. Once the FirstWare Rescue operating system is running, you’ll find yourself in a familiar point-and-click environment.

Suppose that after running the diagnostics, you determine that the hardware is fine, but that the Windows operating system must be reinstalled. Now, you’ve got some choices to make. With FirstWare Rescue, you’ve got the Windows CD, the driver CDs, and any application CDs (for software that came with the PC) at your disposal. With FirstWare Rescue, PC manufacturers have the option of installing an image file of the hard disk from the way that it left the factory. You can quickly restore this image file and have the PC back to the way that it was originally in a matter of minutes. Since FirstWare Rescue works outside of the Windows operating system, it is able to work very quickly.

In the situation above, the support person saved time by not having to travel back to the main office for a set of CDs, by making an accurate diagnosis of the problem, and by quickly restoring an image file. In a support environment, saving time means saving money. The quicker that the support technician can fix the problem, the quicker the user can become productive again, and the technician can move on to helping someone else.

If all else fails, try FirstWare Connect
Finally, although there’s little mention of FirstWare Connect on the FirstWare Rescue Web site, there is detailed information on it elsewhere in a PDF download. According to the download, FirstWare Connect is designed to be a simple Web browser that works even when Windows doesn’t. So, if you need any files that aren’t stored in FirstWare Vault, you can download them even if Windows is out of commission.