Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Backup. Now.

I have two words for you: Backup Now. Ok, I have a lot more to say below than two words, but the two words - and the capitalisation of the first letters - summarise what  I have to say, and the gravity with which I say it. You have got to have a backup solution of some sort. Most people don't. I mean, really, let's see a show of hands. How many of you out there in Naija have a mechanism for, and a practise of, backing up their data regularly. Come on, raise your hands. One, two.... My point exactly. 


Some go through the fire, some go through the flood

Our personal computing has come a long way from what it used to be - just a few copies of our CVs and the occasional email. Now we have data stored on the hard drives of our desktops, laptops, cell phones and media players. Grown men would cry, and grown women would get extremely violent with the grown men, if we lose some of these files. Many of us have our family's entire photographic history, scanned copies of all our relevant qualifications, all our contacts, all our music, and the unfinished drafts of our MSc dissertations on those things. If fire, flood, freeze, thaw or theft should occur we have to be prepared, we have to have a copy of our important files somewhere else other than at the location where the disaster happens.

It is not enough just to make the copy, if the copy falls prey to the same thing the primary does. So when we make a backup, it is best for the backup to be moved away from the physical location where the main computer is for it to be really safe. Backups should also be regular. Depending on how often your data changes, that should determine how often you backup. If you are making regular changes, then you may need to backup daily, on the other hand if your data changes only intermittently, then you could backup once a week or even monthly. If you data changes irregularly enough, then you may choose to backup only when your data actually changes.


A case of two technologies

Focusing on computers (cell phones are not quite the same story) there are many more technologies available to help make and keep safe copies of our data than when we first started computing - and they're a lot cheaper too. There are two broad categories of back up technologies available. There are the more traditional backup technologies where you copy your data to a physical medium of some sort that you have control over – hard media if you will. Then there are the newer, internet based backup technologies.



The more traditional methods consist of copying our data to devices we are quite familiar with. So we can back up to recordable and rewritable DVDs. Many modern computers, laptops at least come with DVD writers on them. We can copy up to 4.7 GB of data to a DVD. However, as anyone knows using DVDs as a backup mechanism is tedious, time-consuming and it is heavy on consumables - the disks themselves. Additionally, the disks can be easily scratched once that happens the data becomes hard or impossible to recover.

Another mechanism many people use for an ad hoc type of backup is the near ubiquitous flash drives. With capacity increasing  and prices dropping almost daily a lot of people keep their files on theses devices. The main problem with flash drives is that they are very small and are easy to lose or to steal. In addition, if you choose a low quality product, its life span can be measured in days. I have had to tell more than one person that the files they so confidently had one and only one copy on their flash drive was gone forever.

There are other mechanisms that are useful. In the business world, the standard for backups is the use of magnetic backup tape. Tape has large capacity and is fairly long lived, but it tends to be more technical to handle and involves as much management as DVD. Tape can also be expensive for non-business users. There are devices similar to, but not quite tape.

for example Iomega have a cartridge-based solutions (anyone remember the "massive" 100MB Zip drives of yore?) called the "Rev". The Rev is a device with removable storage sort of like the way a CD is removable or an old floppy disk is removable. It comes in 35, 70 and 120 GB cartridges. I'm not sure it's availability in Nigeria though. This type of solution is probably the best in terms of fulfilling the most basic requirement of a backup solution which is the ability to remove the backup some effective distance away from the original data source.

When we back things up, we do it to avoid the things I had pointed out earlier, fire, flood, theft and so on. However, if the backup is in the house along with the computer when the fire occurs, then it is pretty useless isn't it? So with the Rev or with a tape solution (or even DVDs), the cartridges can regularly be taken away from the computer to some other location where it is less likely for the same disaster to affect both the computer and the backup.

The simplest backup solution for most of us to implement is to buy a large capacity external hard drive and set up an automated back up to this. By high capacity, I mean at least 500GB. I have a 750GB hard drive USB/Firewire Western Digital MyBook Hard drive. I had someone help me buy mine in the US, but it is available at Park and Shop on Adeola Odeku Street in Victoria Island. Drives like this come with an easy to set up backup programme and you can schedule it quite easily (PHCN willing) for nightly backups. There are some devices that come with up to 2 Terabytes of storage and there are also network shareable drives that let you backup multiple devices. The problems with most of these larger devices is that they are not designed to be portable. They have external power units (in other words, they need to be plugged in) and tend to be more sensitive to shock. The smaller 250GB and below drives are more portable, but of course they have less capacity.

Depending on the amount of data you need to back up, the frequency you choose to backup, and your tolerance for handling the tasks involved in backing things up, any of the solutions discussed above is a viable backup solution. At the least, any one of them is better than no backup at all.

Next week we'll talk about the newer internet-based backup solutions.


Have you had an experience where a backup saved you from disaster? What are the devices you have had the best experience with? What would it take to make you back up your files regularly? Drop me a comment.