This year’s presentation was a slightly revised version of last year’s, including some scary statistics, a couple of video clips, famous photos from Drivesavers.com, and a few questions that I put to the students. I also contrasted the types of backup systems that someone like me and someone like the Ur-Guru need, and provided a few tales from the trenches. (The speaker from SETI had just told me a story about how the IT department at Stanford managed to wipe out an entire year’s worth of research for a project she was working on some years ago. She had to re-create it from hard copy and hard work.)
I started by doing a live version of the poll on the FileSlinger™ Backup Blog: I asked how many people in the room had backed up their data within the last year, the last month, the last week, and finally the last day. By the time I got down to “Who backed up yesterday’s data?” only one hand went up, though one student pointed out that not everyone there had brought a laptop. Everyone had made backups within the last year, though, and most backed up onto external drives or other computers, or onto the Internet. No one mentioned optical media or tapes.
After exclaiming over the photo of the multi-screen display in the Ur-Guru’s home office and the diagram of which machines he backs up where (all via the network), the students gasped over the figures I use to illustrate just why backup is so important. They seemed particularly shocked that the average cost of re-creating lost data is between $2000 and $8000 per MB. It sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But the Ur-Guru says that you could add another zero, even two, onto those numbers if you were talking about lost source code for custom software of the kind he develops for his clients. (Source code, for those not familiar with it, is what programmers write. It’s plain text without formatting, so it takes a lot of code to fill 1 MB of disk space.)
I tend to walk into the room expecting all these kids to know more about computers than I do, not just because they have a specific interest in technology but just because they’re kids and they’ve grown up with computers. But I’m beginning to think that this isn’t actually true, except when it comes to games, IM, and the specific uses of computing that teens excel in.
I may not be a real geek, but I have been researching and writing about backups every week for three years now, and I have more experience with business applications for technology. So next year (assuming they ask me back, of course) I’m planning to include an overview of backup types, which I avoided in my first two presentations because I figured they’d know all about it already.
Apparently not. When I divided the room into four groups and asked the first group to come up with a backup solution that their grandparents could and would use, their brainstorming led them to invent the one-button backup drive. Not one of the 7 or 8 knew that such a thing already existed. (Warning: make sure someone configures these properly to start with, or pressing the button won’t do you much good.)
Asked about getting their peers to make backups, the second group decided force would be superior to persuasion—that their fellow teens needed to be intimidated into backing up. How long they’d stay scared is something else again. Not only do young people have a certain belief in their own immortality, but most of them don’t face the same kind of financial consequences that businesses do. They can download their songs again, after all, and if they already turned in their homework, they might not care if it’s gone.
Group Three had to devise solutions for small businesses like the corner grocery and the local auto mechanic. They took more time discussing the problem and came up with a practical combination of external drives, network backups, and transmission of files up to the International Space Station overnight while the business was closed. (You can’t get too much further off-site than that, though I’d hate to see the upload and download times.)
The fourth group worked on backup solutions for their schools, paying attention to the need to ensure that student data and faculty data stayed separate and to avoiding situations like the one where both the main and backup server were kept in the same poorly ventilated closet. Cool rooms and monitoring software to ensure that someone would be notified if problems developed on weekends were part of that solution, as well as software that would back up each student’s or staff member’s data as soon as s/he logged into the system.
Then they started to open up and get creative. “I wanted to write a virus that would automatically back up all the data on the computer,” one boy said. Another suggested a program that starts deleting files if you haven’t backed them up for 7 days, with a notice saying “This file has just been deleted. You did have it backed up, didn’t you?” That seems just a bit harsh to me, but I’ve heard of companies that started taking employee data off the network after six months, and if the employees haven’t made their own copies, too bad. I think the idea actually has some promise, if, rather than deleting the files, the program would simply make them inaccessible until the computer user runs the backup software.
The ultimate conclusion? “What we really need are self-replicating hard drives—but then they’d take over the world and replace us.”
To find out more about the National Youth Leadership Forums, visit http://www.nylf.org/.