Backup your data. Do it now and do it right.

When was the last time you did a backup of your files? When was the last time you tested it? I mean really tested it? How would you explain to your family/business colleagues/tax department that you lost all the files?

A friend of mine recently purchased a new external hard drive to backup her digital media. Her kids are largely grown up now and like most parents of the last decade she had a substantial digital photo library going back to when they were babies – all sitting on one very old Windows PC. I asked her what she was doing to keep these files safe and she just looked at me as if I was from another planet. Like most, she trusted the computer implicitly and had not even contemplated the possibility of losing these precious photos.

So she did the right thing and purchased a new external hard drive and copied all her precious photos onto it. So far so good.

Having copied the files and thinking they were now safe, she deleted them from the old PC.  So instead of having two copies of her data she was back to having one. That was a perfect invitation to Murphy and one he duly accepted.

A fire damaged internal hard drive

You guessed it. The brand new external USB drive – with all the photos – failed too. She asked me to check it out and see if I could revive it. It would connect but its firmware (its brain) was scrambled so badly that it had completely “forgotten” how to be a hard drive. For a cheap portable drive, that’s pretty much terminal. So ten years of digital photo memories of her kids growing up are gone forever.

Its a sad story and one that I expect will occur increasingly often as more and more precious digital media is created and stored on unreliable,  cheap internal hardrives by people who have never seen computers fail.

I have. Often. And it is ALWAYS at the worst possible time.

My first job was as a night-shift computer operator. Very early on my boss drummed into me the importance of the nightly backups. It was my primary responsibility to make sure they finished and the printed log proved all the files were copied. If it failed, or if I simply could not print the log, I had to do it all again – a three hour process. If it failed again, I had to keep trying until we had a good backup. Literally, the business would not continue the next day until the backups were completed – he was that anal about it. Sometimes on a bad night it would take me until well into next the business day. The whole office of 50 people would wait for me to finish. Hundreds of workhours wasted – or so I thought.

Old 6250 bpi tape

It took some months for me to truly appreciate the relative importance my boss placed on the backups. I thought the chance of a fire or flood was so remote that it was almost not worth worrying about – if the backups failed, so what! We will try again tomorrow. That was until disaster really did strike; not in the form of fire or flood but an old blue BIC pen!

Somehow the BIC pen had managed to lodge itself inside the main hard drive (they were a lot bigger back then) of our main processing system. It duly crashed the heads and took the system down for a couple of days while we sourced and installed another drive. And then of course we needed to do a restore….

The success or otherwise of the restore of the backups I had made would ultimately determine my continued employment and with it my fledgling career in IT. With the system down for so many days, work was banking up and the last thing anyone needed was for another days work to be lost if the most recent nightly backup had failed. Fortunately, it worked I managed to get the data back and I kept my job and my career. From then on, I have been just as anal about backups as my old boss.

Since then I have heard from many families and small business owners about their own “IT disaster”. They usually blame “bloody computers” but in truth the problem is usually due to human error and invariably comes down to bad backups. Someone just didn’t do their job right. Either the backups weren’t done, weren’t checked or weren’t stored properly.

Today I keep multiple copies of my critical data at all times and at least one of those off-site. All my data is stored on my Windows Home Server which uses drive extender to automatically duplicate the folders I tell it to. Not trusting Windows Home Server,  I synchronise these folders nightly to a software RAID mirror (thats two physical drives storing exactly the same data)  on another PC over the LAN. Just to be sure, I synchronise this RAID mirror to an external USB drive I keep on my desk (this is my grab-in-a-hurry-copy). And just case Australia sinks into the sea in the next flood, I use Cloudberry Backup for Windows Home Server to copy the same files to my Amazon S3 storage account in Singapore. And just to prove I am more anal than my old boss, every time I visit my mother who lives 1,400 kms away, I swap over a USB drive I keep stored at her place.

So if you count it  up I keep SEVEN copies of my most precious data:

  1. Windows Home Server
  2. Windows Home Server (duplicate)
  3. Software RAID
  4. Software RAID mirror
  5. External HDD at home
  6. Offsite external HDD at mum’s
  7. Amazon S3

OK so I admit my backup strategy is more than just a bit anal but like I said I have seen Murphy at work and he’s really persistent.

Your backup strategy doesn’t have to be anywhere as complicated as mine but you must have one. With the price of 1TB USB drives now below $100 there’s really no excuse.

Here are some rules to consider when coming up with your backup strategy:

  1. Always keep at least two good complete copies of your data at all times. If at all possible do not overwrite your backup media with a new backup.  This implies keeping three copies.
  2. Always keep at least one of those copies offsite
  3. Update your backups regularly
  4. Check your backup logs
  5. Test your backup data regularly. Test open a few files in random folders. Check the number of files and folders looks right.
  6. Automate the process as much as possible. Backups that rely on humans never get done.

A simple strategy would involve having three USB drives rotating through the backup and offsite on a regular basis (e.g. weekly or monthly).

Offsite backup storage is your backup of last resort. Its the backup you are going to rely on if the house is burgled, burns to the ground or floods. So think like Murphy and choose an offsite storage location wisely. In the attic/basement/home safe does not count. Next door at your neighbours doesn’t count either. Another suburb is good (at work?); another city is even better. On a remote web server – like Amazon or Dreamhost is perfect.

As far as a tool for performing the actual backup, forget about anything called “backup” from Microsoft or those stupidly expensive and complicated backup programs from the other big vendos. By definition when you need to restore, you are going to be under stress and the last thing you will want to worry about is finding/downloading/installing the right restore program and version. These days with storage so cheap there’s no need to compress or zip backups. Just a straight copy will do.

So all you need is something to keep specific folders in sync and can be scheduled to run overnight. I use SuperFlexible file synchronizer which is an excellent product. Its fast, reliable, infinitely configurable and cheap. You can even configure it to send you an email each morning to with your backup log – something to check on your smartphone on the way to work. You can download a free 30 day trial from the website.

Now stop reading and go and buy 3 USB drives and do your backups. Don’t tempt Murphy.

2 comments to Backup your data. Do it now and do it right.

  • Debra

    Great information.I use Safecopy backup for all my backups.And i sleep with my mind at rest knowing that all my files are so secure.

  • It was 1998, I was looking for a little job to fill a couple of hours before going off on vacation for a couple of weeks. We were still using a PDP-11 with big old hard disks, which was shortly due for retirement, but at this time was still a machine of critical importance. So, let’s just do one last backup on that to fill those couple of hours, using a few of those very tapes shown in your article.

    When I got back from my two week break, my boss told me that one of the (physically) huge 20MB hard disks had crashed in my time off, but my backup had saved the day!

    We may not have been very good at scheduling our backups, but my word lady luck shined on us that day.

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