Where are your Backups?

“Can you help get my data back?” It’s the kind of question everyone who’s made the mistake of becoming knowledgeable about computers hates to hear, because the proper response: “Sure. Where are your backups?” often results in uncomprehending stares. Computers have given us amazing gains in productivity and “situation awareness”. Modern accounting software can tell a business manager exactly where the company is standing as of today. Contact management software helps a sales team optimize its time while never letting a lead slip through. The Web is fun, and fairly useful, but E-mail is still the “killer app” of the Internet, allowing organizations to communicate 24 hours a day.

Modern IT is so empowering, it is easy to forget that it could all disappear in an instant: Data Loss! Irreplaceable information, stored as microscopic bits on platters of polished rust spinning 90 times a second, overwritten by mistake or malice, or the medium itself stolen or destroyed.

Imagine, all your accounting records lost because of a fire in the office below yours. The organization’s sales leads, generated at great expense, overwritten by a macro virus which came attached to a MS Word document. Your theses, in the works for months, reduced to scrambled garbage because the diskette (and the backup) holding the only copies were together in a hand bag placed on a retail store’s security-tag demagnitizer.

Fortunately, such disasters can be turned into inconveniences with simple backup procedures, and there are many hardware and software tools available to assist. Various tape formats are on the market, ranging in capacity and price, to be able to back up anything from a single-user workstation all the way up to a multi-user LAN and servers. Depending on the situation, simply copying work files to floppy disks may be an acceptable way of backing up. On the other hand, many like using their CDR burner to create a (semi) permanent copy of 650MBytes of data.

The particular backup medium matters less than the need to establish and follow regular backup procedures religiously. The most important rule is to run backups frequently, preferably daily. These daily backups can be “incremental”, in that only files changed since the last backup are copied. A “complete” backup should be done at the beginning of the week, and the complete and each daily incremental backup be stored together as a set.

Several sets of backup medium are needed for a robust backup system, and assuming re-writable medium is being used, these sets can be rotate every so often such that you might have, say, four weeks worth of backups. Now, to be extra safe, it is also advisable to have another one or two additional sets, which are swapped with the oldest of the weekly backups every month or so, thereby providing several months of backup coverage. The occasional permanent backup, a backup which is never reused, should never be discouraged either.

Probably the second most important rule is to store at least some of the backup sets in different physical locations. Have the regular weekly backups in the corporate safe, with the monthly sets at the IT Managers’ house and in a safety deposit box. And don’t forget to think about the security of the information — better encrypt and password protect the backups, or all your network security could be all for not when someone reads the plaintext off the backups.

Speaking of reading the data, it’s a really good idea to regularly test your backups, and make sure you can actually restore from them. Many an IT horror story involves backups which can’t be read. Tapes, floppy disks, CDRWs, even CDRs and CDs all have limited life spans, as do the drives which read them. Don’t reuse old medium too many times, or you’re just asking for dataloss.

Now, as a thought experiment, close your eyes, and imagine all your computers were stolen last night. Are you comfortable with your data recovery plans? Next, imagine that the office burnt down instead, destroying all on-site backups. Still feeling OK? If so, sleep well tonight. If not, well, you’ve got a little bit of work to do.

Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.

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