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Backup Basics — Or, How to Avoid Using Data Recovery Services!

What would you do if all your practice data suddenly disappeared? Data recovery services exist to help extract files from mangled hard drives, but there’s a better way to keep your practice going in the event of a major problem with your computer hardware: make sure to include a sound backup strategy as part of your overall security planning.

Catastrophic Data Loss: The Scenario

Imagine that right now, today, just at the moment you are reading this article, your primary computer completely stops functioning. No email, no client records, no billing or other financial data, no telephone numbers or address book, not even any reminders of passwords for accounts of various kinds spread across the internet — it’s all gone.

How long would it take your practice to recover?

What would be the impact on your clients?

How much money would you lose while recovering from the catastrophic data loss?

No one plans to experience major data loss; by their nature, catastrophic computer failures are usually complete surprises, and they can catch you at the worst possible time. What you can plan for, however, is a speedy and inexpensive recovery from data loss — a recovery that will minimize the impact on your clients, your practice, and your pocketbook.

Professional data recovery services offer one option: for a hefty fee, data recovery services will attempt to recover anything that can be recovered from a damaged hard drive or otherwise inoperative computer. What will be recovered is uncertain: it may be everything, or it may be only some of your data. What is certain is that it will take time, and it will take money. Data recovery can be a technically very tricky business, and the requisite technical skill does not come cheaply. Moreover, data recovery services know that if you are turning to them, it’s because you have no other options; your desperation equates to a premium price.

But there is clearly a better way.

Maintaining the integrity of your data — including plans to restore it in the event of loss — should plan a prominent role in your overall security strategy. Protecting your data from unauthorised viewing or tampering via encryption is just part of the story; protecting it from complete disappearance is another.

This article covers some of the basics of backups and explains how you can automate a simple system that will keep your data safe.

Basics of Backup Strategy: Storing and Restoring

Backup obviously has two parts: storing a backup of your data (from your normal data storage to a separate backup) and restoring your data (from your backup to your normal data storage). There are two basic means of doing these two jobs, each with its own characteristics advantages and drawbacks.

‘Real’ Incremental Backups

‘Real’ backups are typically understood to preserve an initial full image of all your data, together with records of incremental changes made to that data over time, enabling you to ‘roll back’ the state of a file or even your entire system to a given point in time. The major advantage of using this type of backup strategy is that you can both recover from complete data loss and recover previous versions of individual files back to a certain point in time, perhaps months or even years in the past.

The job of backing up in this way is usually performed by dedicated backup software such as Dantz Retrospect, which incorporates a special low-level backup structure to support roll-back functions. In other words, software such as Retrospect does not make simple copies of your data, it makes specially-structured backups in a proprietary format, from which only Retrospect itself can usefully restore your data. Thus, the sophisticated capability of a backup solution such as Retrospect comes at a significant price: the backups themselves will not be useful to you without Retrospect, and if anything goes wrong with Retrospect or its backup archives, it is unlikely that anybody else will be able to recover your data.

Simple Cloning or Replicating

Simple cloning or replicating is closer to what many people imagine when they think of making a backup: it is simply a second copy of some data. Straightforward copies of data avoid the problems described above that are suffered by software such as Retrospect: restoring is a simple matter of copying a file, with no proprietary archive formats involved. On the other hand, the absence of a special backup format also means that rolling back individual files or your whole system to a certain point in time is supported only to the extent to which you maintain multiple copies of your data.

As we’ll see later in this article, however, it is possible to approximate the benefits of ‘real’ backups with an intelligently designed cloning strategy.

Basics of Backup Strategy: What to Back Up

Modern operating systems attempt to separate user-created data, core operating system files, applications, and individual user settings. While creating a backup can, at its most basic level, simply mean duplicating one’s entire hard drive, it can also mean selectively applying different strategies to each of these different types of data.

For example, it may not be necessary to back up your core operating system files on a daily basis, whereas daily backups may be a very good idea for email messages or other material that changes more frequently. Indeed, when it comes to recovering from massive data loss, in many ways it may actually be preferable to re-install an operating system and even individual applications rather than restoring from backup — provided that you have previously backed up your individual user settings in such a way that they can easily be restored. (Otherwise, you may need to spend hours restoring preferences, application registration information, and other user-specific settings after a complete system software re-installation.)

Basics of Backup Strategy: Media Choices

The best choice of backup media depends on many factors, and I certainly won’t cover them all here, but we can touch on a few of the more standard choices.

Tape drives, long the favourite of system administrators of large multi-user computer systems, are also widely available for personal computers. They are relatively cheap on a per-gigabyte basis, and they are also removable, so it’s easy to take them away and store them off-site (see the next section). On the other hand, they’re also very slow, and someone needs to be physically present to change media in accordance with some type of rotation schedule.

Rewritable or permanent optical discs such as DVDs provide compact and physically resilient storage at a price which is usually higher than tape, and with a lower overall capacity per storage unit. Like tapes, DVDs are removable; they are relatively fast to read from but slower to write to.

Additional hard disks provide by far the speediest backup medium, but also the most expensive. External drives, while larger and heavier than DVDs or individual tapes, can also be moved fairly easily, and some external drives feature specially designed removable cartridges, allowing the entire hard drive platter and read/write mechanism to be removed from the drive housing. Internet-based storage differs only in location, rather than in actual storage medium per se; it’s considered in the following section.

Basics of Backup Strategy: Local vs. Remote

Depending on what kind of catastrophe befalls your data, you may benefit most from conveniently local backups or from safely remote ones. If you just accidentally delete something and need to restore it from backup, you probably don’t want to have to wait for an optical disk or a tape to be sent to you through the post. But on the other hand, if your office burns to the ground, most locally stored backups will be worthless. The best backup strategies will incorporate both local and remotely stored backups.

Remote backup storage can be achieved simply by physically picking up and moving or sending a storage device to a new location on a periodic schedule (say, every day at the end of work) or by electronically placing it somewhere else via a private network or the internet. At the time of this writing, internet-based dedicated backup storage tends to be comparatively pricey, but see the case study in backup strategy at the end of this article for a less expensive suggestion.

Basics of Backup Strategy: Underlying Data Privacy and Security

You’re not storing sensitive business data, client data, or personal information unencrypted on your hard drive, right?

Right?

Well, you shouldn’t store it in unencrypted form on backup media, either. In fact, because backup media are often more portable than your computer itself, and because you may be storing backups elsewhere or otherwise having them handled by someone either than you, there’s an even greater need to make sure backups are properly encrypted. If you’re already encrypting your data locally on your main hard drive, it will be that much easier to make sure that backups are also encrypted.

A Case Study in Backup Strategy: Overall Recommendations

A separate case study in backup strategy offers some overall suggestions for one way of approaching the challenges of backups.