NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, Seprember 2007
The Inside Security Recovery Toolkit (INSERT)
By Dick Maybach, a Member of the Brookdale Computer User Group, New Jersey
N2nd(at)att.net (click to email author)

Obtained from APCUG with the author's permission for publication by APCUG member groups.

Most of us use an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) version of Windows supplied by the vendor who built our PC. Although we often receive a Windows CD-ROM, it is not the same as the disk included with the retail version of Windows. In particular, we must go to our PC hardware vendor for Windows support, rather than to Microsoft, and we can’t use the OEM CD-ROM to install Windows on a new computer or to repair an existing installation. Instead, we can only restore the software to the state it was in the first time we turned on the PC. This will delete all our data, as well as any applications we’ve installed. While XP is usually quite stable, problems such as virus infections, operator errors, and hardware and software failures can cripple a PC to the extent that it won’t even run. This means that without a good recent backup or good recovery software, all of our data will be lost.

A particularly powerful recovery tool is INSERT, a version of Linux designed to correct problems in Windows, Linux, and the latest Macintosh PCs. INSERT is a “live CD”, which means it does not use the hard disk at all, but runs directly from the CD-ROM drive; as a result, it can run even on a PC with an inoperable hard disk. It has a graphical user interface and many useful maintenance applications, including those for file-system repair, data recovery, virus scanning, network analysis, and Internet browsing. In this short article I’ll just introduce INSERT; you can download a tutorial on it from What’s New section of the BCUG Web site, http://www.bcug.com, and this includes instructions on how to obtain the software for free.

After any serious problem, your first action should be to copy all your data to an external (usually a USB) drive. Especially if the problem is a failing hard disk, you have no time for experimenting; just copy everything in My Documents. INSERT has file managers that let you do this graphically, much as you would with Windows Explorer. However, Linux is not Windows, and you should get some experience with INSERT before the next PC disaster. In particular, Linux uses different designations for hard disks than does Windows. The first ATA hard disk is hda and its first partition is hda1. (On most PCs, hda1 is c: in Windows.) If this disk has a second partition, it is hda2 (usually d: in Windows). If you have a second ATA drive, it is hdb in Linux. SATA, SCSI, and USB drives are designated sda, sdb, sdc, etc. Before you can access the information on a storage device, you must mount it. Fortunately, INSERT has a graphical mounting tool that lets you mount a device with a mouse click; see the tutorial for more information.

When INSERT is running, neither Windows nor any of its programs are running. This means that any viruses are dead and hence are easier to deal with, since they cannot hide themselves. INSERT has the clam virus scanner – a Linux program that looks for Windows viruses. With this you can clean up any infections before you restart Windows.

INSERT has tools to manipulate entire partitions. These allow you to change partition sizes and create new ones. You can also move your entire file system to a new disk – handy if you are replacing your c: drive with a new and larger one. If you are selling an old PC, there are tools to wipe your hard disk completely clean, which avoids giving the new owner your passwords, checkbook files, tax returns, etc. It also has tools to recover damaged files. Finally, it is possible to damage a hard disk’s master boot record (mbr) or a partition boot record, which prevents Windows from booting, even though none of its files are damaged. The retail version of Windows has the tools fixmbr and fixboot to repair such problems, but these aren’t present in the OEM version. INSERT allows you to repair damaged mbrs and boot sectors.

With INSERT you can also reset Windows passwords and edit its registry (if you are sufficiently courageous or desperate). You can edit boot.ini; this is a text file, which if corrupted, will prevent Windows from booting. There are also programs to explore the hardware, view files, and look at any connected networks. All in all, INSERT is an especially valuable maintenance tool, especially if you are responsible for maintaining several PCs. Other maintenance programs are available, in particular the Ultimate Boot CD and the System Rescue CD, but I’ve found that INSERT is the easiest to use and has the most complete set of tools.

This article has been provided to APCUG by the author solely for publication by APCUG member groups. All other uses require the permission of the author (see e-mail address above).

Note from Dick: The article refers to a tutorial on INSERT, which I've also attached, in case you want to archive it. It's far too large for a newsletter article. Editors, please let me know if you would like the tutorial and I’ll send it to you. Judy

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