Back Up Your Data Before It's Too Late

by Leo A. Notenboom

Doing backups is kind of like eating healthier... everyone agrees we should, and yet very few of us actually do. Much like the heart attack victim who no longer visits McDonald's, the most religious users of backup procedures are those who've been bitten hard by a failure in their past.

Doing backups is kind of like eating healthier ... everyone agrees we should, and yet very few of us actually do. Much like the heart attack victim who no longer visits McDonald's, the most religious users of backup procedures are those who've been bitten hard by a failure in their past.

Asking what backup program to use is very much like asking "what's the best exercise program?" The best program, for exercise or backup, is whatever one you'll actually do.

Do you know how you'd recover your data should your computer crash?

In order to choose what's right for you, there are several questions you should be asking yourself...

Do I want to put a lot of thought into this? If not, then prepare to spend a little more money for some additional disk space, and get one of the stock backup programs. I'm currently quite pleased with my external USB/Firewire Maxtor drive, and while I run my own custom backup (more on that below), it comes with Retrospect, a respected backup package.

Am I comfortable re-installing my system if something goes wrong, or do I want the backup to take care of that? This is one of those comfort versus space tradeoffs. If you're ok with re-installing your system, and that means operating system as well as applications and customizations as well, and you can clearly identify what does and doesn't need to be saved, then you can save a lot of disk space by backing up only your data. This requires some amount of diligence on your part, because anything you don't specify to whatever backup program you use, will be lost in the case of a catastrophic failure.

Is there another machine nearby? Quite often you don't even have to go out of your way to get additional hardware for backup purposes. Hard disks are so large these days, that quite often simply having another machine on your network with sufficient free space can be a quick and easy solution. Many backup packages will allow you to backup across a network. Having two machines each back up to the other is a quick way to ensure that if either has a problem, your data is safe on the other.



How valuable is what you're doing? As much as we hate to think of it, we should: what if your building, including your machines and all their backups, were lost in a fire? If the potential data loss just sent a shiver down your spine, then you should be considering off-site data storage for your backups. That could mean burning a CD or DVD periodically and leaving it at some other location, or, if the sizes are small enough, backing up across the network to some server not in your home.

How important is incremental access? By incremental access I mean, how important is it that you be able to recover a file from a specific day, and not a day before or after? If you simply back up all your files on top of previous versions, you'll only have the most recent version. In many many cases that's enough. In some cases, though, it's not, such as needing to recover an older version of a file that became corrupt at some point.

What resources should I backup? Have you thought of all your computers? All the drives therein? How about external hard drives you're not using for backup? Do you have a web site? Do you have a backup of it? What would happen if your ISP 'lost' it? (It's happened.) If you're a small business, do you have databases that need backing up? Office machines that belong to everyone, but no one?

Let's use myself as an example for those questions:

  • I've put a lot of thought into this. And I should; it's my profession to do so, and my business relies on it. In my case, I use my own scripts, written in Perl, and leveraging a tool I wrote many years ago called SyncFile.
  • I'm very comfortable re-installing everything, so I backup only my data. Even so, just last week I discovered an overlooked directory that cost me a couple of hours time when I had to reconstruct a missing file. That directory is now part of my backup. Am I missing more? I hope not.
  • I have several machines on my LAN, and yes, in the middle of the night there is a flurry of activity as data gets copied from one machine to another and another, each using at least one other as a backup.
  • What I do for my business, and my wife's, is definitely valuable and worthy of off-site backup. My solution is actually fairly simple - with computers at two different physical locations, I have two external Maxtor drives - each location backs up to the external drive, and roughly once a week we swap the drives.
  • I do have external servers as well, for example the web site you're probably reading this on resides on a server hundreds of miles from my office. So I've been careful to ensure that it, to, is backed up in some appropriate way.

I also recommend picking up a copy of 10 Quick Steps to Perfect Backups. This is a good, quick overview of simple, "back-it-all-up" strategies, and can get you up and backing-up quickly.

The bottom line for backup is simple: just do it. Understand what you have, what you're willing to invest in, but do something.

Before it's too late.

Copyright 2004 Puget Sound Software, LLC

Leo A. Notenboom is a software engineer and entrepreneur who worked for Microsoft for many years, either developing some of the company's best known software or managing other engineers who did. When he left he started his own software engineering company and consulting firm, Pudget Sound Software. In addition to the services offered through http://pugetsoundsoftware.com, Leo runs the the popular Ask Leo! technical support site (http://www.ask-leo.com). Leo can be reached at leo@pugetsoundsoftware.com.

 
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