Remembering Fallen Files and Absent Data

Electric power is getting less reliable in parts of the United States. Global warming means worse tornado and hurricane seasons and more frequent flooding. Email viruses seek out and destroy particular files or erase entire drives.

What I'm saying here is—how secure is YOUR data? What do you use for backups? Do you have backups offsite? How about a disaster recovery plan?

If you work for a large company, chances are good that the firm has a regular backup schedule, offsite backups, and a disaster recovery plan. But far more data resides on home PCs and the computers of small and medium-sized businesses than on big company servers, and, from what I've seen, a lot of that data still isn't being backed up.

Most of us have never been diligent about backing up because, to paraphrase the old song title, "backing up is hard to do." Tapes are a pain, and, although DLTs are finally affordable and more reliable, they're still far slower than direct access devices and not nearly as reliable as a hard disk or a Zip/Jaz drive. They're also relatively expensive; it seems paradoxical that an 80GB disk costs $320—but a 40/80 DLT1 drive to back up that hard disk costs $1500, almost five times that much. (Prices come from the Insight Web site and are for an ATA/100 Maxtor 80GB drive and a Benchmark Tape Systems DLT1.) But, of course, it only seems paradoxical; the hard disk is cheaper than the tape because of differences in sales volume—waaaay more EIDE drives get sold than SCSI-based DLTs—because of the interface: The EIDE interface is cheaper than the SCSI LVD interface. We also don't back up because, in fact, modern hard disks are extremely reliable.

But not COMPLETELY reliable—and that's the point. Many of us have data on drives that aren't backed up. Ten years ago, losing such a hard disk would have been annoying; today, because we keep a wider variety of things on our disks, it could be a disaster. Whereas the lost disk of yesterday might cost us nothing more than the checkbook data, a dead modern disk might also contain the family photo album, the stock portfolio (which, given the current state of Nasdaq stocks, might not seem such a loss), our Web bookmarks, and our old email correspondence.

Backups don't have to be that much pain, however. Here are a few suggestions to make them easier.

First, make sure you know how to restore your applications' settings and data. For example, you don't really need to back up all of the Quicken program, just your checkbook, portfolio, and the like—but do you know which files to back up? (You back up qdata.qel, qdata.qdf and qdata.qsd, in my experience.) The same goes for your Internet Explorer (IE) Favorites and cookies: Have you ever backed them up to a floppy disk (they'll easily fit on one) and then restored them to another computer? (Choose File, Import and Export, and tell the wizard to export to a file.) Re-installing an Internet mail client isn't very hard, but can you restore your old mail messages as well? (Depending on the client, doing so can be tricky.) All of these example backups are possible, but they take a bit of experimenting to get right. And when you figure out how to restore each application's data, write the procedure down, print that information, and put it somewhere safe.

Second, after you've gone through that first exercise, you'll probably see that you don't have to back up that many megabytes after all. Sure, you might have an 80GB hard disk on your computer, but most of that is taken up in OS and application files. Even if you're an email packrat, your application data (address books, calendar, financial data, bookmarks, cookies), your documents and spreadsheets, and your old email would probably all fit just fine on a single Zip 250 disk. Write a batch file to grab and copy all of that, and you can do a complete backup in a few minutes.

Third, if you haven't done so yet, get some backup hardware. I like the Iomega Zip 250 USB disks because I don't have to open the computer to attach them. Furthermore, they're fairly fast, reasonably priced (less than $200), and robust. Even better, Windows 2000 supports them without even requiring a driver disk. I should point out that the disks have one disadvantage: Iomega built them to be very picky about how they use the USB interface. I find that they do not work reliably when attached to a USB hub; they tend to report that I've disconnected them whenever I use something else attached to the hub. Therefore, I just keep my Zip attached to one of the USB ports in the back of my computer and don't use any other USB devices while I back up. (You could buy and install an EIDE Zip drive to avoid these problems, but I've grown weary of fiddling with the case screws on my system.) The fact that the Zip disks "look like" hard disks means that I can build my backup batch file out of simple XCOPY commands.

Of course, when I suggest backing up to Zips, I'm speaking about workstations. For servers, tapes are (unfortunately) still the best way to go for a home or a business on a tight budget, and spending that $1500 on a DLT1 is a very good idea because it's considerably faster than the DAT tapes I used on my servers until recently.

About 2 years ago, I wrote an article in Windows NT Magazine suggesting that because EIDE drives are fast, cheap, and small, a drive manufacturer could sandwich three drives into a small package and add a circuit board with logic to implement RAID striping with parity. The drive would look to the EIDE interface like a basic hard disk, and so wouldn't need any OS support for RAID. I imagine that in a world in which an 80GB disk costs $320, a vendor could combine three 30GB drives with RAID for probably no more than $500. I can't speak for anyone else, but I'd gladly pay a half-grand for a drive that would give me plenty of warning before it died. That drive's not on the market yet, but I keep hoping.

Fourth, if you don't do some kind of offsite backup, start. Leave a Zip or a tape at the office or at Grandma's house. Or just put your backups in a Ziploc bag, the bag in a Tupperware container, and leave the container in the garage. (Summer heat and closed automobile windows make your car a bad candidate for an offsite backup location, as you might know.) Or put the tapes in the same fireproof safe in which you keep the house insurance policy.

Fifth, if you want an OS that's less vulnerable to disk failures, consider getting a second physical hard disk and mirroring the boot disk. Mirroring requires a bit of work, and then some more work to build a fault-tolerant boot disk that you can use if one of the drives fails, but it's good extra protection.

The techier you are, the more time you have invested in the content on your hard disk. Even if it would be of no interest to anyone else, the disk represents a significant part of your life. Take a little time and figure out how to protect it, and you'll sleep better at night.

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