Keys to making successful Backups

A surprising amount of my data recovery work is for clients who have had a drive failure and then discovered that their backups haven’t functioned correctly.  Sometimes they haven’t backed up the correct folders, or they have backed up the desktop shortcut rather than the data files, or the backup itself has never actually worked.

Large organisations will normally have the financial resources to bring in outside experts to implement a reliable backup system.  Small businesses and individuals usually can’t afford do so and consequently I get asked for advice on the safest and most reliable form of backup.

Back in 2000 when I started HDDR, hard drives were typically a few GB in size and CDs were the main form of backup.  Even though 700MB is tiny by today’s standards, a few CDs would hold the entire contents of your internal drive. It’s interesting to compare how things have changed in 16 years.  A common drive then was 2GB and cost $200.  They are still $200 but at 2TB hold 1,000 times as much data.  Optical media has scaled up from 700MB CDs to 8GB dual layer DVDs and 50GB Blu-Ray, so capacities have increased by a factor of 10 to 100.  But my first CD burner back then cost me $500, whereas now a DVD writer is $25!  External hard drives simply didn’t exist while USB flash drives were just science fiction.

In 2000 most backups were for text data like accounting files, documents and emails and consequently the volume of data was manageable.  Fifteen years later we have to contend with the explosion in the quantity of digital audio and visual media – digital camera files and video, movies copied from DVD, mp3 music and mp4 video and so on.  One camera jpg photo is the equivalent of 100 text emails or a 20,000 word document.  One high def movie takes up the same space as the text of the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Whereas back in 2000 one CD would hold all your emails and accounting data with room to spare, nowadays it would take an inconvenient number of DVDs to backup all your photos, music and videos.

A good backup system must balance cost, simplicity and ease of access.  There is no perfect implementation, and no fool-proof form of backup but there are things we can do to minimise the problems.  Lets have a look at some of these.

  1. Firstly, any backup media must be reliable and immune to physical damage.
  2. Second, it must be sufficiently straightforward so that the backup will be performed reliably and sufficiently regularly for your needs.
  3. Thirdly, at the risk of sounding flippant, you must be sufficiently motivated that you will do it.  (I didn’t list this at the beginning of this blog, but I also have many clients who come to me because they have no backups!  “I meant to do a backup, I just didn’t get around to it”.  I once had a PhD student who required data recovery because she had lost her thesis and had no backups.  At the risk of putting myself out of business, don’t let this be you!)

What’s a reliable backup?  Lets have a look at some forms of backup and reasons they may fail.  Once you understand the limitations of different forms of backup you will be in a position to make the right choice for your needs.

  1. Backups to other internal hard drives: These have the advantage of convenience and the capacity to hold as much data as we need.  However because they are part of the same physical system they can fall prey to the same event that damages your main drive, typically a power supply glitch.  Other pitfalls include theft of the computer, and fire damage, which although unusual should not be discounted.  And now there is additional vulnerability to Ransom-ware high-jacking where malware will encrypt all your hard drive data and request payment for the password.
  2. Backups to external hard drives: These have the same weaknesses as the internal system, but these are somewhat offset by the ability to store the unit in a different physical location.  And there is the benefit of being able to travel with your backup.  The obverse is that like all drives they are sensitive to physical shock and consequently must be handled with some care.  Dropping them is often fatal and external drives have a “habit” of being dropped.
  3. Optical Media: DVD can certainly provide sufficient backup for your text based backup needs, such as accounting files, documents and emails.  Additionally, high quality optical disks tend to be robust – unlike hard drives they are immune to damage from physical shock and long-term storage.  This makes them excellent as a business backup solution.  Typically they can be used in the form of monthly (or weekly) system backups with weekly (or nightly) incremental backups.  In this form you are immune to issues like Ransom-ware that are a serious problem for hard drives.  However, if you need to backup your digital files then it is likely you will need a higher capacity solution.  Dual layer Blu-Ray with a capacity of 50GB, or about 10,000 photos, should be sufficient for your photographic needs, but if you have an extensive music or video collection you may need to consider a large capacity option like an external drive.  Still, most people can live with the loss of 1TB of their movies, but most of my clients can’t live with the loss of their wedding photos!
  4. USB flash drives: These can be used in a similar way to optical media and capacities are increasing every year – 128GB is now a common size.  They are extremely expensive in comparison to optical media but have the advantage of being extremely convenient to use/reuse.

Another consideration is how often you need to backup.  Just ask yourself how much data you can afford to lose.  If you are a small business you may say to yourself that one week’s worth of data isn’t catastrophic but a month would be.  For a home user you might say that a month or even 6 months would not be a serious loss.

Or course, in practical terms, the best backup is the one you actually do.  There is no point in having a process and not following it!  So whatever method you choose, make sure you do it!

Finally, when you have a backup process in place, test it out to make sure it has what you expect.  If you are saving your MYOB files, take the backup to a different computer and try and restore them.  Don’t be like my client who discovered too late that she was backing up the wrong folders!

If you have any questions about backup processes, please drop me an email.