Lee: How are disk drives and warm waffles similar?
Bob: They’re both round, easily spun, and more enjoyable if you don’t fling them across the room.
Lee: How are disk drives and warm waffles different?
Bob: If you fling a disk drive across the room, it’s useless. The information on it is permanently lost. If you fling a warm waffle across the room, it can still be enjoyed with extra syrup to mask the taste of dust bunnies.
Lee: The solution to both troubles is the same. Make sure you have two. Two warm waffles are better than one. Two copies of important computer information are better than one.
Bob: Today’s topic is Backups.
Lee: Here’s a familiar lament: “I know, I know, I need to set up a backup for my computer. I’m gonna do it soon.”?
Bob: Here’s another: “I’ve been putting it off ‘cause I don’t know .”
Lee: But the worst one is: “I think I set up a backup a while ago.”
Bob: There is one way that always makes people take backups seriously.
Lee: Yup, experience information loss and deal with the regret that follows. Although, I’ve been glad to see indicators of that trend reversing as more backup options continue to become available and as awareness of the wisdom spreads.
Bob: Let’s hope so. More and more people are relying on laptops and other mobile devices to store and manage important information. The miniaturization of these devices makes them much more prone to failure than their full-size, stationary counterparts.
Lee: Yeah, not to mention loss or theft.
Bob: Or a butter-fingers incident.
Lee: Well, there’s not a whole lot of debate about whether to have a backup. However, many folks aren’t clear on how to best implement it. When choosing a backup strategy you should consider the value of the information and how urgently it needs to be restored when a failure occurs.
Bob: Let’s take The Lyons Recorder as an example. If the computer gear Joseph and Lora use to publish the paper fails one hour before it goes to press, there is great urgency. They have redundancy which guarantees the paper comes out on time if there are failures to one or more systems. The focus is on fast recovery of a small subset of their information.
Lee: Now let’s consider the situation of most families. They have family photos, letters, journals, music, financial and medical records, etc. Large amounts of stuff. All this information is valuable but, if a failure of a system occurs, there’s probably little urgency for fast recovery. Instead, the focus should be on safe, long-term archival.
Bob: There are many companies promising automatic archival and fast recovery for a monthly fee.
Lee: The family or small business will ask themselves if these costs are really necessary.
Bob: We think the answer is “no” provided you’re willing to understand the difference between fast recovery and archival.
Lee: Now let’s imagine a small real estate office.
Bob: Our realtor is helping a buyer with an inspection. She uses her MacBook Air to check off every detail of the home. A gust of wind blows the feather-weight laptop into the septic tank.
Lee: Very sad. It’s dead. Poor MacBook Air, a victim of its own portability.
Bob: Does our realtor panic?
Lee: I think she cusses a little.
Bob: What information does she need right now? Day planner and contacts are critical. What’s her fast recovery plan?
Lee: Step 1: She goes to the nearest Best Buy or Apple Store with credit card in hand. She buys a new MacBook Air.
Bob: Step 2: She gets the jump drive out of her home or office and restores her fast recovery data. Notice the two locations. If one location burns to the ground or is robbed, she has the other.
Lee: Step 3: She never misses an appointment or loses a contract. She never mentions the old MacBook Air in the septic tank. She shows off her new MacBook Air. This is sales after all.
Bob: Two jump drives big enough for her fast recovery data cost less than $20. The real question is, will she be disciplined enough to keep them up to date?
Lee: I usually recommend an external hard drive (at least twice the size of the hard drive you’re backing up) and reliable software to make it automatic.
Bob: Yes! Automatic is the key word there. Don’t rely on the human brain to periodically run your backup.
Lee: And it’s not automatic just because it’s supposed to be. It’s all too common that you go through the motions, do all the setup/configuration/etc, and go to bed thinking that you’re protected. Not until you go to restore something that you re-e-eally need, do you find that your only backup is 8 months old.
Bob: The only way to know for sure that you are indeed protected is to look directly at the actual backup data and confirm it is being updated according to schedule. Also, you should periodically, retrieve some information from the backup to prove its working. Lastly, it’s imperative that your backup software is smart enough to let you know if it isn’t getting the job done.
Lee: There are way too many backup programs that fail in that respect.
Bob: There are way too many backup programs that fail in many respects.
Lee: Thus it’s a crapshoot when you use the software that comes with your external drive. Buy it from a local store that will readily exchange it should it disappoint.
Bob: Can you recommend anything in particular?
Lee: Uh, yeah, one. It ain’t free, but it’s a downright bargain for what it buys you in the way of functionality and reliability. Norton Ghost is $70, whether you download it or buy in a store. Setup is pretty easy, but I recommend “Backing up your entire computer” daily. And don’t “Back up files and folders” in addition. It’s unnecessarily redundant. The software complains audibly and visibly if it fails. The backup files are “generational”, which means you can go back and retrieve a good file from last week – even though you fubar’ed it yesterday and that version got backed up last night. Plus, you can recover an entire hard drive in minutes – operating system, software, configuration, data, everything.
Bob: And if you’re a laptop user, you will experience a hard drive replacement sooner or later. If you’ve ever had to do a “System Recovery” and all the subsequent updates, software installation, and data restoration, you know well that $70 is a very small price to pay to avoid it all.
Lee: A short time ago, off site backups were only for large companies. Now storage prices are low enough that everyone should have them.
Bob: If your backup disk drive sits on the same desk as your computer, it won’t do any good if the house burns down.
Lee: I have some friends who lost everything in the Lefthand fire. Two generations of photographs is what stung the most.
Bob: There’s a lot of buzz about online or off-site backup services. What’s your take on those?
Lee: As with anything, there are upsides and downsides. They’re pretty affordable. Carbonite, for example, is down to $60 a year. Setup is easy and you can try it free for a couple weeks. And I’m sure they’re as reliable and secure as anything.
Bob: There’s also the poor man’s strategy. Buy another external disk drive. It avoids the monthly charge in favor of a single cost of less than $100.
Lee: Give the disk drive to a family member or trusted friend on the other side of town.
Bob: Or even better, put it in your safety deposit box at the bank. Today’s smaller disk drives will fit easily.
Lee: The disadvantage is that it will be less up to date. But the goal of this strategy is safe long term archival so its a reasonable trade off.
Bob: Now you need a reminder to update it a couple times per year.
Lee: There is something. Next time you hear someone complain of computer trouble do not think “sucks to be you”. Instead think “that could happen to me”.
Bob: Finally the frailties of MS Windows are put to a productive use!
Lee: I was afraid you were going to rig a flying keyboard to a sundial.
Bob Gilson is CodeSail.com. He has been building innovative software for more than 20 years. His favorite areas of creativity involve large databases, e-commerce, real time networking and large scale web hosting.
Lee Hall is PeakWestPC.com (Lyons Chamber of Commerce Member). He has been an enthusiastic Lyons resident for over two years. He has been working with PC’s for over 20 years – since earning degrees in both hardware and software.