Sunday, October 28, 2007

On the Importance of Backups

27 gigs and 2 days later, my first automated backup to S3 has completed. Hopefully I'll need no further major changes to my backup system. It's not the Holy Grail of automated backups, but it'll serve my purposes.

Originally I was going to use this space to discuss the design and evolution of my backup system. It's kinda interesting to read about, but I'll save that talk for another time. Right now I just want to get on my soap box.

If you do not have more than one copy of the important data stored on your computer, you are an idiot. Seriously people; I've been bit by hard drive crashes many times before. I've lost important data which then had to be recreated in a fraction of the time it took to create it the first time. It happens, and you have to prepare for it. If you're reading this and my previous post about off-site backups and are thinking to yourself, this guy's paranoid, then I have successfully expressed myself. You're damn right I'm paranoid; would that everyone was at least as paranoid as I am about keeping their important data backed up.

The simple truth of the matter is that your hard drives will fail. They're mechanical, and mechanical things wear out. Hell, when you consider that the read head's about a millionth of an inch above a metal plate rotating at about 7500 revolutions per minute, it's a wonder the damn things last as long as they do. Point is, you should not assume your hard drives will last forever. Back your shit up.

A couple months ago, a coworker was telling some of us about how the hard drive in her personal computer failed, taking with it about 5 years of emails, photos, and various other irreplaceable things. She was dismayed to hear that it would cost her several thousand dollars for a data recovery company to attempt to recover the data on that drive, with no guarantee that any of it would be recovered. A $100 external hard drive and a regular backup regimen would have made this a non-issue.

Not too long ago, a friend called me because his computer stopped booting. He was worried that his wife was going to lose some important work documents if the hard drive died. Fortunately the computer eventually did boot again and he was able to transfer these documents to another computer. Is this computer backed up? Probably not. Will I be getting another frantic phone call from him when this computer decides to give up the ghost? Probably (unless he takes these words to heart). People (myself included) rarely understand the importance of backing up data until they suffer data loss.

And just yesterday a friend told me he'd accidentally erased the data in the wrong partition on one of his hard drives, taking with it a bunch of music and photos. No backups, of course. Last I heard he was able to recover some of it, but most of it will be gone unless he invests large amounts of time and effort in the recovery process.

My personal theory of backups is that they have to be automated or they won't be done. One of the reasons people don't back things up is because it's a plan for the future activity, and a decent number of people don't plan for the future. After all, they can get to their data now; isn't that what matters? So it needs to be automated so it isn't forgotten. Fortunately, smart people have done that legwork so you don't have to (unless you want to or have some specialized need that requires that you roll your own solution). If you're running Windows, you have a backup utility on your computer already. Set it up to run while you sleep and point it to a USB hard drive (which will fail, but it's unlikely that it'll fail at the same time as the drive in your computer). For Mac users, the new Time Machine feature looks sweet, or you can set up a lower-tech solution.

Two copies is nice, but more are better. And it's always nice to have one copy in a physically different location than the others. After all, what happens if someone breaks into your home and steals both your computer and your backup drive? Or your home burns down? Fortunately, there are all number of solutions for online backup. These are nice because they take care of making multiple copies of your data for you. All you have to do is copy your data to their system once, and they'll potentially make hundreds of copies of it for you automatically. You could use one of these services in addition to or instead of an external hard drive. If you decide to look into one of these services, here's a few things to think about.

Can the backup be automated?
It does you no good to sign up for the service if you never use it. Easiest way to ensure you're actually backing things up is to have the computer worry about it. Computers are good at that sort of thing.
How much storage is included?
Some inexpensive (or free) services don't give you a lot of storage. If you don't need a lot of storage (and don't plan on needing it in the future), this may be fine for you. If you need a lot of storage, it behooves you to look carefully at storage limits and costs for exceeding that limit.
What operating systems are supported?
Many services expect you to use a Windows client to upload your files. For you Windows users out there, this probably isn't much of an issue unless their application is a buggy piece of shit. This is where a free trial might come in handy.
How safe is the data?
Many services encrypt your data before copying it onto their system. If it's important to you that others not be able to read your data, this should be a consideration.
How much does it cost?
Some services with smaller backup limitations are free. If you don't need to back up a lot of data and the service otherwise meets your needs, go for it. Otherwise, expect to pay some money.
How many copies of the data will be made?
It'll probably be hard to get a direct answer to this question. Most services offer a service reliability guarantee, so they'll promise that the service as a whole will suffer at most n minutes of downtime during a month where you'll be unable to access to your data. n is usually a fairly small number. Beyond that, the answer you'll probably get is a lot.
How easy is it to get the data off the system
If you find yourself working on a bunch of computers, it might be nice to have access to your files at all times. Some services will make this easy. Others require a custom application to pull down the data. Remember, your backup is useless if you can't get it when you need it (or if it doesn't work.
Do they offer a free trial
Might be nice to see if the solution will work for you before plunking down cash. Test the automation, make sure you're comfortable using the user interface, perhaps even try a test recovery of your files.

I'm not one to call people idiots without offering to help rectify the situation. I know not everyone's a technical wizard, so if you aren't I'll offer to help you get an automated backup system running provided you are capable of contacting me. I won't do all the work for you, but I'll answer questions and do what I can within reason. It helps me in the long run because then I don't get phone calls in the middle of the day (well, maybe I would anyway; some of my friends who don't have jobs clearly assume I don't either and call me to talk about weird shit). And if you successfully perform automated backups, feel free to mention how your system works and whether or not you've ever needed to use it. I always like hearing how others have solved problems similar to ones I've solved.

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