Backups—and the consequences of not backing up—have appeared twice in as many weeks on my favorite podcast, For Immediate Release. First my Podcast Asylum colleague and fellow FIR correspondent Lee Hopkins reported on a hard drive meltdown, and then frequent commenter Ricardo from Amigo Audio in Costa Rica called in with a request for tips on developing a backup plan.
While I’m a little dismayed that this blog didn’t turn up in Ricardo’s searches, I’m happy to provide some guidance, particularly as it may be of use to other readers.
According to the comment in FIR 410, the Amigo Audio offices have 3-6 staff members and 5 computers. He didn’t mention a network, but it seems reasonable to assume one exists. (And if it doesn’t—Ricardo, get a router.) The computers are not the kind of mega-workstations used by the Ur-Guru, but ordinary desktop PCs with modest-sized hard drives (120 GB). Up to this point, Ricardo has been using primarily DVDs and USB sticks for backup, but without any regular schedule.
Here’s what I recommend for this situation.
Part I: NAS Drive with RAID
That stands for Network Attached Storage, which means that instead of connecting the backup drive to one computer via a USB or FireWire cable, you connect it to all your PCs through the network by plugging it in to your router (see above). This is an efficient way to handle backups for multiple computers, and you can very often access that data through a Web interface when you’re away from the office. (You do have to set that part up and put the passwords in and so on.) Each computer connected to a NAS drive has its own “share,” a private area for backing up that computer’s data. They also often have a “public” directory as well, which any of the computers can access. I keep software on the public share of my Maxtor Shared Storage II, Teratides.
If you are really geeky, you can build your own NAS drive out of an old computer using FreeNAS—my brother did that. For the rest of us, there are several different models of SOHO NAS drive. If space is at a premium, you might want to look into the LinkStation Mini from Buffalo, which I wrote about in June 2008. Physically, it’s very small, but it packs in quite a bit of storage.
Those two drives contain only two disks, and can be formatted for RAID 0 (spanning, to make a single large drive) or RAID 1 (mirroring, to duplicate everything on the first drive to the second drive). If you want a higher level of RAID protection (see my December 23rd post for more about RAID), you need something like HP’s MediaSmart with Windows Home Server, which has 4 drive bays with removable drives, or Buffalo’s TeraStation, which actually does RAID 10. Netgear, LaCie, D-Link, and Iomega all produce NAS drives, as well.
Part II: Automatic Backup Software
Most of these drives come bundled with some form of backup software. Almost all backup software these days offers the option of scheduled backups: you just tell it when you want to back up, and it will back up at that time. Your most critical files should be backed up at least once a day.
Many software programs also offer the option of continuous backup or sync. That means that whenever you change a file, the new version gets backed up. Running a continuous backup program can slow down your computer’s performance, but it does mean that you never have to worry about when the last backup was made.
The software bundled with your NAS drive is probably good enough; unless you know you need to do something you can’t do with what you have, there’s not likely to be a need to go out and buy additional backup software. You should check, however, to make sure there’s a way to recover your data if you can’t run the software you’ve installed on your PC. Some programs instruct you to create a rescue CD. Others copy your files just as they are, rather than creating a proprietary backup file format. That often requires more space on your backup drive, but does make it easier to recover files.
Part III: What to Back Up
If you have a relatively small amount of data and have just bought a massive NAS drive, you might just decide to back up everything. This saves the effort of prioritizing your files and ensures that you don’t forget anything.
However, very often what you really want to back up are the files you’ve created, rather than, say, your software. It’s more efficient to save one copy of the install package of the software on the public section of your NAS drive and then just back up your own files: documents, e-mail, financial records, photos, audio, video, etc. Many backup programs offer suggestions as to which files to back up.
The prioritizing exercise is also important to prepare you for Step IV. It’s good to make a written list of these files.
Step IV: Off-site Backup
A NAS drive in the office is handy for retrieving data when something goes wrong with your PC, but if your whole office building burns down, your backups will go up in smoke. That means you need to get your most critical, irreplaceable data off-site.
The easiest way to do this is generally to use an online backup service. If your office has multiple computers, look for a service that charges by total data stored, not by the number of “seats.”
For most of us, uploading data to an online backup service is a slow process. That’s why it’s important to be selective about what you back up. (Well, it’s part of why: if you’re paying per megabyte for online storage, you want to keep your costs down.) This is where that priority list from Part III comes in.
There are other ways to get your data off-site. You can burn DVDs with that critical data and store them at home or in a safe-deposit box (if your home and your office are in the same building). You can make backups onto an external hard drive and then keep the hard drive in your car, at home, in the safe-deposit box, etc. If the storage location isn’t secure, make sure you password-protect the drive or disc.
Step V: Annual Archives
As this is the first of the year, it’s appropriate to talk about annual archives. That’s where you take all the data from the past year and put it onto a DVD (or several) and store it with your paper files from the same year. (You know, the ones you have to keep in case the IRS audits you.) Eve Abbott recommends making copies of appropriate software (e.g. Quicken or TurboTax) and storing them with the data, so that you’ll be able to open the files if necessary.
If you’ve never made annual archives before, do it for every prior year whose data is sitting on your hard drive. Then delete any of the data that isn’t current. That makes room for the data you’re going to create in the coming year, and makes it easier to find things.
Of course, if we ever replace optical storage (CDs and DVDs) with a new technology, you’ll need to copy those archives onto the new medium. That’s assuming you still need to keep the stuff, which you might well not. Follow the guidelines for retention if you’re subject to regulations about what to keep and for how long. The rest of us can get rid of a lot of material once we’re past the risk of a tax audit. I don’t know how long that is in Costa Rica, but in the US it’s generally 7 years. (Which must mean it’s time for me to purge some more files from the archive boxes in my garage.)
There you have it—a backup plan for a small office, circa 2009.