Backups for personal and business data

Originally Published in the June Issue of the Wilmington Business Journal (http://www.wilmingtonbiz.net/)

As this is my first article (for the business journal), I wanted to make a good impression on my editor and get it in early. Unfortunately, my computer crashed, or I accidentally deleted it, or my dog ate my hard drive. Actually, none of this really happened to me, but it did happen to the magazine Business 2.0, which is published by Time. They recently had a catastrophic hardware failure that caused the complete loss of the June issue. Lucky for them they had a paper copy, but page layouts had to be redone from scratch.

If you have ever lost a computer file, then you know how important it is to back up your work. If you have never been there, done that, consider yourself lucky—in today’s digital world, data loss is as inevitable as death and taxes. Therefore, you must have a backup strategy in place to guard against these would-be catastrophes.

For a backup strategy to be effective, it must be regular, complete and verifiable. If your backup strategy ignores any of these three components, you are asking for trouble.

Capt. Edward A. Murphy, author of the infamous Murphy’s law, said it best—whatever can go wrong with a backup system, will go wrong and at the worst time.

Backups that are not done regularly risk the loss of important files, especially the one you were just working on before that important meeting. If you do not have a complete backup, you may miss your work when it is gone. Finally, an inaccurate backup that renders files unrecoverable is almost worse than no backup at all.

Your backup strategy must address all three of these issues to be effective. The key is to verify your backup strategy regularly to ensure that you can recover your files. Factors such as the size of your organization, the amount of data you generate, the value of your data and legal requirements for retention of data will shape the type of backup plan you need. For a personal computer full of photos, videos and documents, simply copying important files to an external HD or burning a DVD may be enough. Many external HD manufactures like Maxtor, LaCie and Seagate include applications that will backup your files to a drive connected via USB. This type of system is great for personal use, if you remember to do it and check every once in a while to ensure you can open the backup files. There are also online services that will let you upload files off you machine over the Internet to a remote location. This type of remote backup works great for small amount of data, but recovering an entire 100GB HD of photos over the Internet can take some time, depending on your internet connection.

Online provider Mozy.com, is inexpensive and will even deliver your files via FedEx if your download is too slow. Other options include ibackup.com, Carbonite.com and Xdrive.com. All of these providers have a software client that handles scheduling backups and filtering the types of files to save.

The three principles of backups are the same for business data, the stakes are just much higher. It is easy to look at the cost of a backup strategy and determine that it is too expensive or that you will never see a return on that investment; however, failing to back up your critical files will cost you many times over what an effective system will. If your company has a full time IT person or a contractor, make sure you regularly ask about them about your backups. Ask when was the last time the tried a full recovery, how can they be sure that all your files are being stored, and where are the offsite backups being kept? Making sure that a backup strategy is being implemented correctly is most important step in the process.

Online storage can be a component of a business backup strategy, but traditional backups to tape or disk are necessary to ensure the protection of your data. Regular rotation of backup media to an offsite location, such as a safe deposit box, will ensure that a fire or other catastrophic event does not take out the onsite backups. Depending on how your organization is structured, you could have valuable data spread out over various servers, laptops and desktops, so the first thing you may want to do is create a centralized file server and have staff save all important files there. It is much easier to backup one central disk than to backup from a variety of sources. A centralized file server using redundant disks (RAID) will go a long way toward saving your data in the long run. If you do not have a file server in your office, you can always add a network attached storage appliance (NAS), which is basically a standalone HD with a network connection. These devices are available in a range of sizes and often include mirrored drives for reliability.

If you have a Windows file server, you may want to enable volume shadow copy to create regular snapshots of your data and allow you to go back in time a couple of weeks to recover a file you may have deleted. The included Windows NT backup will also backup files to tape or an external drive

For a truly robust and scaleable solution, use sophisticated backup software such as Symantec Backup Exec and EMC Retrospect. Both companies offer a variety of options from protecting a single machine to setting up a centralized tape or disk based backup server. Both software packages include client software for Windows, Macintosh and Linux/Unix. Advanced tools in both packages include backups of laptop computers, Exchange email servers and MSSQL database servers, and offsite tape rotation, archiving and verification can be automated. Both packages can also create Bare Metal Restoration installers, which are a complete reinstall of all software and data on a new machine. This type of recovery is essential for mission critical servers to minimize downtime because it restores the machine to operational status much faster than reinstalling and configuring all of the software from scratch. Limited versions of both software packages often come bundled with high-end tape drives and network attached storage appliances.

Ensuring that you save all of your important files and that you can restore them if need be are the key to success for a backup strategy. If there is a topic or question you would like addressed in a future column, or if you have a comment on anything mentioned, please do so below in the comment box.