One Example of a (Hopefully!) Sound Backup Strategy

This brief case study in backup strategy describes how I maintain backups of my own personal and practice data; while my own approach certainly won’t fit everybody’s needs, I believe it fits mine, and I hope some aspects of it might be useful to other practitioners. Our companion article on backup basics explains some of the underlying factors to consider when formulating your backup strategy — an essential part of your overall security planning.

Backup Strategy, Business Continuity, and Personal Continuity

When formulating a backup strategy, I considered facts like this one: virtually all of my income depends in some way upon electronic communication mediated by my computers. My online counselling business obviously depends upon internet communication, as does the consulting work I do for individual mental health practitioners. My work with individual people, my work on websites, and most of my personal correspondence with friends and family sits in digital form on a computer. At any given time, I am working with anywhere from a handful to more than a dozen individual counselling clients, and these people expect me to be available to them at the ‘other end’ of the internet; my sudden disappearance due to data loss could have a major impact not just on me and my business, but also on them and their lives.

Were all those digital records to disappear, it would be devastating both to my business and to my connections with other people. Except for largely out-of-date contact data stored on my Palm handheld, I would not even be able to telephone most people or write letters to them if my records were destroyed.

For me, implementing a safe and secure backup strategy is a matter not just of business continuity, but also of personal relationship continuity!

Backup Strategy Decision Points

Given the personal and business importance of maintaining my digital data, I identified several key preferences:

  • I want backups that are immediately accessible and which are themselves robust to problems.
  • I want backups that can enable me to get back up and running quickly.
  • I want backups that are secure against tampering or snooping.
  • I want backups that are available to me in a hurry, but are also safe if my physical premises are destroyed.
  • I want backups that happen automatically, quickly and easily, without my intervention.

These preferences drove my implementation of the specific backup strategy I’ll describe here.

Full, Incremental, Local, Remote, Secure and Automatic

My core backup strategy relies on the automatic creation of a series of full or partial clones which are rotated on a regular schedule.

Backup Media and Local vs. Remote

My primary backup set is maintained on an external hard drive which is plugged into my main work machine, a dual processor Power Mac G5. I chose an external hard drive as the primary backup medium because it is fast and can be unplugged from one machine and plugged into another for instant access to the data. Restoring can be performed in seconds or minutes from this fast local backup. The external hard drive is partitioned in such a way that a full bootable copy of my entire system software is stored separately from rotating copies of other data. (See our for example our recent review of backup hardware.)

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A smaller duplicate set of irreplaceable data is maintained on another machine on another continent. While remote backup companies tend to charge a premium for their storage space, there’s a simple and cheap alternative: just find a reliable web hosting company which offers both a large storage area and a high monthly bandwidth allocation. Because most web hosts ‘oversell’ both bandwidth and storage — meaning they promise a large amount of both, on the assumption that only a few customers will ever use more than a fraction of what is promised — this should be fairly easy to do. Once you have a new hosting account, simply upload your backups via FTP to your hosting account home directory (not your actual web space, but the home directory, which is inaccessible via the web). There is no need actually to run a web site in the account: all you need is the space and the bandwidth necessary to make the uploads. Since most reputable hosts also maintain backups of their clients’ files, this means you will have backups of your backups.

Finally, I use DVDs to create backups of particular chunks of irreplaceable data, but this is not part of the regular and automatic system which I’m describing.

Backup Software and Format

I chose full and partial clones as my backup format specifically because I want backups which are immediately useful as they are and which do not require specialized software to extract. This ruled out software such as Retrospect.

On the Mac, two of the best choices for straightforward data cloning are the shareware Carbon Copy Cloner and the commercial product SuperDuper!; I have experienced some problems with more complex tasks using the shipping version of SuperDuper!, but the latest beta of version 2.0 of the software appears to work flawlessly. Similar products are available for other platforms.

Backup Security

My backups are made to encrypted disk images, meaning that the backups themselves consist of a small number of very large disk image files, as distinct from a large number of much smaller, individually encrypted files. It also means that should my external hard drive be stolen, my optical discs develop legs, or my remote storage account be tampered with, the contents will be useless to snoopers. Barring the type of hypothetical computing technology necessary to break the encryption — which would also break the encryption of the world’s financial institutions, military forces, and government agencies — the data should be safe.

Encrypted disk images can be made with built-in features of Mac OS X or using third-party software such as PGP, which is also available for other platforms.

Backup Rotation and Automation

My backups on the external hard drive include:

  • A full boot partition clone, stored on its own partition,
  • A second full boot partition clone, rotated each two weeks and kept for 1 month,
  • A clone of my individual user settings, rotated every day and kept for 3 days,
  • A clone of my individual user settings, rotated once per week and kept for 1 week, and
  • A clone of my main data disk, rotated every day and kept for 3 days.

In addition, I also have full clones of older archived data which are not rotated.

My remote storage account also includes clones of the older archived data, plus a periodically rotated clone of my main data disk.

Do I do all this stuff myself? Of course not!

Each night, after I’ve stopped work for the evening, my system automatically performs backup tasks scheduled via simple scripts and the system’s built-in scheduling facility. Here’s what happens:

  1. The relevant partition on the external drive, which is normally unmounted from the desktop, is mounted and made available to the system.
  2. The relevant encrypted disk image is mounted, and fast incremental backups (of changed files only) are made to the image, with the net result being the same as a more time-consuming full backup.
  3. This process is repeated with other relevant encrypted disk images if it happens to be the right day for a bi-weekly or weekly task.
  4. The main data disk image is duplicated into a rotating set also stored on the external drive.
  5. All encrypted disk images are closed and unmounted.
  6. The external drive partition itself is unmounted.
  7. The system puts itself to sleep to conserve power.

Each morning, when I wake the machine up, I see a couple of windows which let me know the tasks have been performed, and every so often I just double-check the backup set to make sure that they really have been updated on the right schedule. Every so often, I also rotate a copy of my main data disk onto the remote storage account — the only part of the process which I haven’t yet automated!

The End Result of the Backup Strategy

The net result of all this automatic cloning and rotating is that for regularly changing data, I always have backups for the last 3 days and for the last week, plus a less frequently rotated copy stored remotely. I also have a fully functioning system backup which I can run my system from at any time, should its main hard drive fail, and I have an additional regularly rotated system clone and clone of user settings. For older data which does not change, I simply have individual cones, stored both locally and remotely.

For me, this system offers a solid foundation for business continuity and for continuity of my personal contacts with other people. It does that for minimal cost in terms of my time, in terms of remote storage fees, and in terms of additional hardware in the form of the external hard drive.

Your own personal and business needs may be very different from my own, but I hope the ideas I’ve offered here may be of some help in crafting your own backup strategy — if you don’t have one already!

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