Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Backed Up Yet?

Time to Confess

Ok, after the siren call to backup two weeks ago I am certain everyone has rushed to the shops to get the necessary hardware and have set up a backup schedule of some sort. Right?

I didn't think so. As much as we may understand and appreciate the value of a backup, unless there is a compelling business reason that forces us to do it (and someone we can delegate it to on pain of death) it is pretty difficult for most of us to adapt our lives to the requirements of a daily or any other backup regime.

An enemy formerly known as NEPA

Even if we setup one up, the first thing that will mess things up is our inefficient (non-existent) power supply. PHCN guarantees that the time you schedule your backup for is a time when there is no electricity and your computer or the backup device are off as a consequence. If not PHCN then something else will keep us from keeping our backups going.

One possible solution is rather than having backs as something you do with your data periodically, you could take advantage of the unique properties of the Internet to back things up without actually having a regimen of some sort.

The Web is your Backup site

Most of us generate two kinds of data - documents and pictures. Almost every document file we have is in the category of image files (jpg, png, bmp, tif, psd) or a Microsoft or other kind of document file (doc, xls, ppt, htm, pdf). Well there are two ways we can backup these files to the Internet. First of all, we can backup to dedicated storage systems. These are spaces provided for free or for a price where you can securely store your documents online. These range from the extremely simplistic such as Microsoft's SkyDrive which gives you 25 free GB of storage to more sophisticated solutions like Mozy.com that give you a full back up experience. Mozy.com is a pretty powerful solution. Sign up, install and configure the software, pay 4.95 USD per month for unlimited storage (or pay nothing for 2GB of storage) and you can forget about it till you lose data and need to recover it. Before you get bothered about the five dollar fee, that is about 750 naira a month to keep your data safe. How much do you spend on coke in the same time frame? Beer? Suya? Enough said.

The benefit of these is because they are on the Internet, the risks that we identified last time are mitigated without your having to invest in extra hardware that you need to manage and protect. In addition, because it is the Internet your data is available to you anywhere and on almost any device where you can get an internet connection.

These solutions are still very much like the traditional backup solutions previously discussed with the simplest of them requiring you to copy your files to the remote storage site. Another, arguably easier solution is to use services that allow you create the content directly on the Internet or allow you select your storage location as the default place your documents are saved.

Start it Online

One of the best example is Google Docs. With Google Docs you can create most document types directly in your browser and save them as you create them in the storage space google provides. When you do this, your data is automatically stored in a backed up location that is accessible from anywhere. You can then keep a copy on your local computer if you so wish.

For pictures, which are mostly created in cameras, instead of downloading them off our cameras into our hard drives, we can upload straight to media management and sharing sites such as Flickr. This not only provides a place to save our precious pictures, it also makes it very easy for us to share those pictures with the world.

A Seamless Experience

Lastly, there are software you can download that enable the best of both worlds where you treat an online storage location like it is part of your hard drive. An example is Gladinet. With Gladinet you can connect to your SkyDrive or similar online system like it is local. Frankly, I tried it, didn't like it (for one thing it didn't quite work) and uninstalled it. However it is still in beta (meaning it isn't quite ready yet for prime time and cannot be depended on) and hopefully should work better when mature. Nevertheless, tools like this are a viable option. So when you create your documents and download your pictures off your camera, that drive "W:" you save it can well be the Internet. Zoho, a competitor to Google in the online productivity applications (read Microsft Office) space has a plugin that integrates with Microsoft Office and lets you save to Zoho like you are saving to your PC.

Somebody, Anybody! Please I'll settle for 512 Kb/s!

The big problem with all this is that it is completely dependent on the slow, inconsistent Internet services we have in Nigeria and which I ranted about last week. Imagine trying to backup 1GB of data to your skydrive over those kinds of links. You will weep. Until we have reasonable speeds these solutions work only for small data sets and file sizes.

None of these solutions are usable much in backing up programs and system settings, but at the very  least you can secure the content generated on those systems in case of loss or damage. So pick the solution type that best suits your circumstances. Don't be caught with a dead system and no way to get the files you have created over the years. It could truly be a matter of life and death.

Can you estimate how much data you have? 1GB? 10GB? 1TB? How much of it is safe? How much can you afford to loose? Let's talk about it.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Somebody, Anybody Give me a 4Mb link to the Web.


As I write this, I am angry and frustrated with my ISP. I typed most of this with one finger on my phone because my Internet connection is not working, and no one is answering their 24-hour helpline and my only option at this moment is a stupidly expensive MTN 3G connection that will cost me 15k per kilobyte because I don't have a contract with them. The only other option is to not post my blog tonight, but that will break my commitment to post on Tuesday. 3 posts into a new blog would not be a good time to start missing schedules.

Not the Plan

This was meant to be a part 2 to my post on backups. I was going to talk about backing up to the Internet, it's advantages, the various sites and mechanisms available and some of the challenges. Well one of the biggest challenges is the cost and quality of Internet service in Nigeria. I was pretty green with envy when a classmate of mine the UK was celebrating 4Mb to his house! My company is forced right now to make do with 6Mb due to the SAT3 outage! Now the SAT3 thing is a different story all by itself, but my gripe right now is this: the Internet is no longer a novelty and a plaything for the “technoscenti” in Nigeria. It is an increasingly important part of our daily lives essential to communication, the forming of relationships, ecommerce, the dissemination of information and entertainment.

The big cog in the wheel of the rapid adoption of the internet as a communication medium is the quality and speed of our Internet services. Simply put, a handful of satellite connections and one subsea cable is not enough. The unreliability of the connections and the poor customer service of the providers means that there is a long way to go before we can be completely dependent on the Internet for critical services without investing in (sometimes multiple) backup connections.

The Usual Suspects

My ISP is DirectOnPC with their "Unwired" broadband product. It is generally reliable and for me, most importantly, there is no data cap. In addition they provide service in PH and Abuja. However, they just raised their charges, citing the rise in the price of the US dollar. More popular in Lagos (among people I know anyway) are services from Starcomms, MTN's 3G service and a lot of my peers use IPNX. However both IPNX and MTN have data caps. I absolutely refuse to use anyone that does a data cap for my primary ISP. This is the day of internet video calling, music and movie downloads and streaming, uploading pictures and yes, backing up data online. Data caps should be outlawed. As I mentioned earlier, MTN charges 15k per kilobyte if you don't enter into a 10 or 5 thousand naira contract with them. In other words, if you use their service without a contract and reach their data cap of 3GB you could potentially end up with a N150,000.00 bill.

What ISP do you use and what are your experiences with them? Tell us about your Internet service horror stories. If you have really good experiences let us know, we just might switch.


As I was rounding this up, my internet connection came back up. Too late. I’ll blog about backing up to the Internet next week. If something else doesn’t get my dander up.


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.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Take It To The Bridge

The Gap

If you spend enough time on the internet and are interested in technology, you will eventually hear about the "Digital Divide". Wikipedia describes it as the "gap between people with effective access to digital and information technology and those without. It includes the imbalances in physical access to technology as well as the imbalances in resources and skills needed to effectively participate as a digital citizen. In other words, it is the unequal access by some members of society to information and communications technology, and the unequal acquisition of related skills. The digital divide may be classified based on gender, income, and race groups, and by locations. The term global digital divide refers to differences in technology access between countries or large regions of the world."

Just as with many other things, the Digital Divide usually makes people think about Africa as the best example of the problem. As a matter of fact, it is a problem. A huge one. Commerce, education, health care, even agriculture are increasingly dependent on and improved by these technologies. No one needs to be told that African societies are significantly handicapped when it comes to information and communication technology. The good news is that many organisations are involved in addressing this unacceptable technological gap. One of them is Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child (OLTP) organisation (www.laptop.org). OLTP has developed and is distributing inexpensive laptops to give to the poorest children of the world for free and to give them a leg-up and help them grow up with information technology.

Building Bridges

In addition to organisations like OLTP, the natural evolution of society (well some societies anyway) is causing an acceleration of the adoption of technology into daily life. In some cases, these societies are actually "leap-frogging" older, more established technologies and adopting the latest and the greatest. For instance most of Nigeria never used wired phones - so called land-lines (some of us remember the military administrator who said telephones are not for the poor). Instead most of us use mobile phones. Societies like the United States however, started with land-lines, and most people and businesses still have land-lines as their primary line. So in Nigeria we have leap-frogged over land-lines to the more advanced mobile phones.

Digital Crossings, this blog, is about how we are crossing the Digital Divide. I'm an IT professional and deal with cutting-edge technology on a daily basis. I am also very interested in technology outside the workplace and what it can be used for in our daily lives. It's not just about communications (phone calls, emails and text messages) or entertainment (mp3's and video games), it's about all sorts of things that can make or already are making our lives significantly better. So this blog, will be a place where you and I can talk about computer and communications technology as used in or useful in our daily lives. It’s about how we have crossed, are crossing and can cross the Digital Divide. I'm a Nigerian living in Nigeria and my writing with be from the Nigerian perspective. However, it would great to hear from other Africans and know their own experiences.

The Game Plan

Every week, on Tuesdays, I'll post a new blog about some aspect of technology in our lives and hopefully stimulate conversation and ideas about how the technology works for us daily. As much as possible, the blog posts will not be about abstract concepts, but will take about real things we use or can use. In the weeks and months (maybe even years) to come, we will have interesting conversations about the best laptops in the land, which ISP is reliable (if any), how the Lagos State government is using technology in various citizen facing systems, free alternatives to Microsoft Office, vehicle tracking technologies, getting education on the internet, the best antivirus software out there, the simplest ways to get quality websites... Well you get the idea.

I’m just one person with only one perspective, so I can’t do this alone. I look forward to you and I making this journey together.


What would you like to be the very first real topic on Digital Crossings? Drop me a comment and let me know. Wouldn’t you like to have the bragging rights of choosing the very first blog topic for Digital Crossings?