Viruses, corrupted software, or Windows meltdowns are no longer valid excuses for late homework by pupils at University Lake School in Hartford, WI.

Instead, the 250 students at this private school only have to press F11 on their laptops to restore images, personal settings, and previous data. And, according to technology director Alex Inman, in a matter of less than 12 minutes, the machine is back to a useable state, having saved the students’ data and purged any items on the machine’s C-drive that may have caused the offense.

The application that is responsible for this feat is IBM’s Rapid Restore PC, a data recovery program that the school acquired for free when it purchased nearly 300 Thinkpads this past summer.

“The whole idea is to guarantee our students a working laptop all the time, whether they are at school or at home,” said Inman. “And Rapid Restore helps us do that.”

Autonomic effort
Part of IBM’s overall autonomic computing initiative, where machines are self-managing, self-diagnosing, and self-healing, Rapid Restore PC is intended to dramatically reduce the amount of help desk time companies spend on internal, errant machines.

According to Xpoint, the company that manufacturers the software and works in partnership with IBM, industry figures show that on an annual basis, 10 percent of all computers in an organization will require reimaging, and that each instance costs IT in the neighborhood of $400.

“We’ve heard from our customers that 80 percent of the problems they find are traced to software corruptions or user-induced failures. It’s rarely the hard drive,” explained Xpoint vice president of business development Chris Wayman.

Doing the trick
The application works by creating a hidden service partition within the hard drive that is inaccessible to the user, the operating system, applications, and viruses, according to Goran Wibran, PC universal manageability segment manager at IBM.

From there, the application backs up the entire system image, including all data files, software applications, registry settings, and fix packs, along with user data and network settings, and saves it onto the partition.

“We copy to an initial backup and then we schedule a delta backup to happen daily, weekly, or monthly,” said Wibran. “It runs in the background. You don’t know it is there.”

Rapid Restore operates independently of Windows, as its initial image of the PC is taken in DOS during setup and then incrementally updated. “It’s like a deployment image. It’s the purest, best recovery thing you’ve got,” said Wayman.

It supports up to five restore points— three of which can be IT-created images and two of which are personal data backups— that are stored separately in the partition. IBM notes that Rapid Restore can also be redirected to use existing partitions.

The recovery is available from several access points, including its Windows and pre-OS interfaces, which are activated by F11 at boot time, and operates at the BIOS level to redirect the system to Rapid Restore PC’s boot manager.

User advantages
IBM and Xpoint tout the application’s primary benefit as its ease-of-use for end users, who do not require training or on-site assistance by an IT agent to facilitate the reimaging or recovery. Users can, for example, locate and restore single files that have been corrupted or accidentally deleted, without IT assistance.

“We did research with our partners, including IBM, and discovered a lot of backup solutions don’t get used because they’re not automatic and because the user has to select what happens,” said Wayman. And the result, Rapid Restore PC, now in its fifth generation, is a simple user interface and action to bring a PC back from the virtual dead.

Ease-of-use was a factor for Kodak, which announced earlier this year it would begin a three-year replacement cycle of 40,000 desktop PCs with IBM spanning 50 countries. The company included Rapid Restore PC on its machines as part of an effort to reduce the burden on IT. The result, the company said, was a 40 percent reduction in calls to its help desk.

IT customization
For University Lake School’s Inman, the ability to customize the application to actually not make its incremental backups was a benefit. Because the school did not want students to potentially re-image the machines with the same problem that caused a breakdown, Inman instead configured the application to restore its original image without touching the data partition on the hard drive.

Students are able to save their work and get a reimaged machine, while the PC dumps any additional software or viruses they may have added or picked up. The application has been used successfully a half a dozen times without any problems, said Inman.

“You can constrain what is going to happen based on IT policy. You can change the backup schedule,” noted IBM’s Wibran.

Rapid Restore supporters note that the application stands in stark contrast to what is typically used, including deployment tools Ghost or PowerQuest, which, according to Dave Cunningham, president of Cunningham Technology Group, Inc., in Orange, CA, restore only original PC images without a user’s personalization. A visit by an IT agent to the desk is also typically required.

“When they reimage a system using these deployment tools, they’re still back at some time in the past. They still have to install additional applications, and the user loses all their favorites,” said Cunningham.

Ideal settings
While the application may show significant time and resource savings, there is a cost of up to 25 percent of a computer’s hard drive capacity and significant time spent preparing original images to deploy on machines.

To create each Rapid Restore image for the school’s settings, which differed among grades, Inman said it took between 25 to 30 minutes per notebook.

But the memory was less of an issue with a 40-GB hard drive. “Two years ago, with the kinds of hard drives that were out back then, I wouldn’t have given up that much hard drive space,” said Inman.

Because of the memory issues for older machines, Cunningham says that installing Rapid Restore on legacy machines may not always be an option.

At the same time, the repartitioning process for the hard drive on legacy computers is also time-consuming. “It’s ideally installed during the initial deployment of the system,” noted Cunningham, particularly for those that use Windows 2000 or XP.

IBM’s Rapid Restore PC version is available as a free install on ThinkPad notebooks and NetVista desktops, while Xpoint offers the same software for all platforms.