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Data backups – face it, you’re screwed!


If there’s one common theme that has run through my career spanning more than 25 years in IT, it is how badly data backups are done and how often they fail. I’m talking about the data backups failing. Not the failure that led you to discover that your backups were rooted.

Ask your IT guy, be they in-house or outsourced, about data backups and I’d bet a squirrel’s stash of nuts that you won’t see their eyes rolling. All you’ll see is the back of their head as they leg it for the horizon.

Do you want to know why?

It’s because when they tell you that you need to do data backups, your eyes glaze over and you run for the horizon.

There’s nothing more boring than listening to a computer person tell you how much money you have to spend right now so that at some indeterminate time in the future you’ll still have exactly what you’ve got now.

It is a bit like picking up your car from the repairer after a smash. You are happy that your car is back the way it was. You’ve spent money, you’ve been without it and you should be annoyed. But you aren’t. You are happy that you’ve got it back just the way it was and that is good enough.

But is it? Have you opened the glove box yet? Did you find any screws or parts? Have you been out in the rain yet and did the windscreen leak? Was there a new rattle that you are just going to have to live with? Did they put on different tail lights because the old ones can’t be found any more?

See, it ain’t all roses is it?

But I hear you say “my car was insured so it didn’t cost me that much and I can live with the little problems because at least I’m mobile again”. Very true, but now ask your business insurer to see if your company’s data is covered in your business insurance? I mean it. Pick up the phone now and find out. I’ll wait while you do it…

…what did they say? Hmmm, that’s a worry isn’t it?

You should also consider that your important data is unique. There is no warehouse somewhere with data just like yours that can be bolted on to replace the damaged parts. Chances are that when it is gone it is really gone. Totally and irreversibly gone. All you’ll be able to do is recreate it from scratch and only you know the true cost of that!

I’m sure you’ve heard all this doom and gloom before and I am equally sure you’ve ignored it to one degree or another.

I’m not going to tell you how to do your backups because every case is different.

I am going to tell you something else that I suspect you’ve not heard from any IT person before. It is probably the most important piece of information you’ll ever hear about data backups. It comes from the heart, it comes from cold hard facts and it comes from painful experience.

1. You need to keep a person who cares about the data in the backup process.

Up until now I’m sure you’ve been sold automatic backups solutions that “look after themselves”. Now why would you believe that? Nothing else in computing looks after itself. Why would your backups?

I do not care what anyone else has or will tell you about data backups. I will stand by this assertion until the day I die. You need an actual person regularly checking that your backups are working and testing that the data can be recovered.

Sometimes, if you are a small business, the person who cares about the backups may be the person doing them. In larger operations it is most likely that the person who cares about the data doesn’t even know the person who is doing the backups. This is a problem.

Some responsibilities simply cannot be outsourced.

I’m going to tell you something else that I bet you’ve never heard from an IT person before either. This is probably the second most important piece of information you’ll hear about data backups.

2. You need to build a “backup” mindset into how all your team works on a day-to-day basis.

Home and small business computer users simply don’t have the time, resources or expertise to do the sorts of batch-like backup jobs that big businesses do. In big business it is a common belief that “someone else is doing the backups”.

Instead, individuals need to be encouraged to build backup strategies in how they work on an item-by-item basis. This can be hard when your team is made up of people who just know enough about computing to get their job done and nothing else.

An example implementation of this mindset is manual file versioning. Most people will work on a single copy of a document until it is complete. Not me, at least once a day when I reopen a document I make a new copy of it. I keep track of which is the latest document very simply. The end of every filename includes the date and an incremented alphabetical version identifier.

For example, this document is called “Data Backups you are screwed if you dont pay attention 200709 AB.docx“. In very important cases, where lots of data changes from hour to hour, I include a timestamp in the filename too “Data Backups you are screwed if you dont pay attention 200709 1221 AB.docx“. You’ll also note that my document name is more descriptive than most. This helps when it comes to finding lost data later on.

Here’s the last thing I’ll tell you that you’ve probably not heard before from your IT person.

3. You need at least two completely different backup strategies and every piece of important data should be in at least three different physical locations.

Of course, working on local copies of documents and storing them on a server gets your data in two places. If you don’t have a server you can get a pretend one by emailing documents to your Gmail account, putting them on your Skydrive (25GB of storage there free, that’s amazing), copying them to your DropBox or any other number of things. Just get your files onto a remote computer somehow.

If losing what you are working on would cause you pain, then back it up now!

These three points are but the tip of the iceberg. When data loss happens, it happens very fast and data recovery is very, very slow.

Data backup and data loss is a horrible business. Sooner or later you will need to come to terms with losing everything and starting from scratch. Some people find that liberating and the process of renewal exciting.

Yeah, well, not me.

David Moore has 25 years experience in the computer industry and is now Principle PC Hater at ihatemypc.com.au

Photo: Guillermo