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How to Backup Your Data - Best Practices

Media Choices for Business Continuity Strategies

crashed HD photo - uCom cleanroom No joke about it, backing up your data is not fun.  Except that backups can take a lot more of your time — even if you have to write checks to pay bills — implementing business continuity (BC) plans are otherwise a lot like paying your health insurance premiums: paying them does virtually nothing to keep you healthy, but it certainly saves the day after you find yourself in the back of an ambulance.

To connect with this analogy in terms of your information system, think of your computer as an automobile, and your data as the body of its driver... you are your data.  Now, think about driving down the road at fifty miles an hour, getting a fly in your eye, and slamming into an oak tree.  What you have is analogous to the condition of your computer when your hard drive (HD) goes belly up.  You donít see it coming.  It's a nasty situation.  As all of your bodily health is in your body, all of your data is in that hard drive.  Your insurance better be paid up.

Having a current backup (BU) is indeed very much like having a health insurance policy. In addition to having to deal with the tedium typically involved with creating data preservation backups on an ongoing basis, there is the further dilemma as to which type of data storage medium to use. To safely hold copies of your archives, what will you copy your files to; which kind of device is best.

Let me define what I mean by "best". "Best" translates to getting the most protection for the least amount of expense. Personally, I would define that to mean: the most reliable, most available second copy created in the least amount of time. To evaluate this statement, first letís go over some of the common media options available to most computer users for use in storing additional copies of data files.

Backup media you directly control:

  • Floppy diskettes, Zip® disks, Jaz® disks, and the like:  BU for only small amounts of data
  • Writable CDs, writable DVDs, and other types of optical media:  BU for less than ~16Gb for DVD; less than 700Mb for CD
  • SSD drive, Flash Memory USB drive (a.k.a. "thumb", "memory stick" drives):  BU for up to 256Gb
  • Tape:  full, complete BU
  • Another hard drive — USB external or internal HD:  full, complete BU — probably your best option.

All of these types of media are successfully used under certain specific circumstances, and the best among them ultimately depends upon certain particular circumstances, a discussion of which is beyond the scope of this piece.  This piece is designed not for IT managers of large data centers - they already know what we're talking about here ever since it became painfully tattooed on their brain just before they left to find a replacement for their previous employment. Instead, this is for you - the other 98% of Apple® or PC type microcomputer users who, as small business owners or individuals, must choose for yourself the most appropriate means to accomplish the goal of keeping your data safe from sudden loss.

In many ways, the best way to back up your hard drive data is to use another hard drive (details below).  This method optimizes for factors of overall cost, implementation time required, and most important in your time of need — reliability and accessibility.  The other media types listed above have various disadvantages for our user class of 98%.  That's you and me!  So let's go over the drawbacks inherent with each of these other media categories as they pertain to you and me, and we'll see why the fourth option — another hard drive — beats the rest hands down.

The Downside of Common Backup Media Types

Removable Magnetic Diskette Media

The most prominent drawback to floppy diskettes (FDs), Zip® disks, Jaz® disks, Orb® disks, and the like is the inherent vulnerability this class of media has for exposure to "environmental" degradation.  All of these types permit the delicate and sensitive magnetic media material to be touched by human hands, or possibly worse yet - something and anything else.  Even exposing this kind of medium to normal air is hazardous.  Further, the device cartridges have mechanical parts that can malfunction and cause damage.  I won't explain these various fault mechanisms in detail here, but you should take note that sudden failure of these types of media is statistically more likely than for your hard drive - the device you're trying to back up!

Removable Optical Disk Media

Writable CDs, writable DVDs, and other types of optical media inherently provide considerable defenses against environmental degradation for a couple of reasons.  One fact is that simply touching exposed media material with your finger does not risk nearly as much damage as would be likely with magnetic media (e.g., floppies or tape), and secondly, simply dropping a disc on the floor is not likely to make it unreadable as would be the case if you dropped a hard drive.  The major problem with optical media is that this type of device is not "native" to most common computer operating systems (OS) and therefore requires an intermediary software in the form of a driver and/or utility to establish communication between the device and your system.

This software comprises another part of your backup scheme, and is itself subject to error and failure.  One of your biggest risks in this case is that the software can fail in such a way that you are led to believe you have a good backup when in fact you do not.  As if backing up your data weren't onerous enough, in the case of CDRs, DVDs or any optical media, you must test your backups to be sure that you have what you think you have.  The data recovery industry sees numerous cases of clients who found that when they really needed their CDR or DVD backup information, it was not available to them.  The disc onto which they recorded their backup data has now, in their hour of greatest need, failed to deliver.  The needed data couldn't be read or wasn't there at all because it did not get recorded.  A final consideration of potential disadvantage is the fact that you must have a functional disc reader drive connected to a system in order to gain access to the recorded content.

With all the above said, if you do use CDR or DVD backup, and you do test to be sure everything is good, this is arguably the most reliable BU you can obtain.  Once successfully recorded, this media is never likely to let you down as long as it isn't melted by heat or cracked from being sat or stepped on.  For pictorial data such as photography and video, these keepsakes tend not to be edited or otherwise updated, and so CDR and DVD media are practically impossible to beat for long-term data storage.

Tape - The Other Removable Magnetic Media

Tape is often the preferred means of large data centers for maintaining backups to protect against catastrophic equipment failure and loss of critical database information. But for most of us, this means is anything but a preferable way to go. Tape actually combines the disadvantages from both of the two previously discussed options! The media is extremely delicate and it's easy to touch it with your finger, or get it scrunched by some malfunctioning cartridge or drive part. And, tape also requires intermediary software drivers and utilities that create yet another opening for system failure. And it gets worse. All tape just starts losing information after a few years. Tape is definitely not recommended for personal or small business use. If you do go by this means, always handle the cartridges with extreme care and - spend the time - test your backups.

Your Best Bet for Backup - The Hard Disk Drive
If you've read this far you're now edified sufficiently to understand why, when suddenly your computer or server crashes, having used another hard drive is likely the best means to insure your continued access to that information keeping your business alive. On the positive side, here are the main advantages:

Volume & Capacity:  Nowadays it's never a problem to have another hard drive at least as big as the one you need to back up. It will hold as much as you want to put on it. Hard drives have lots of space. With all the other methods you have to be sure you have enough storage space to hold the backup data you need to protect, or limit your backups to fit.

Reliability:  Why do you need backups? Well, you need them because of the inherent unreliability of your main hard drive. So why was that again I should use a hard drive to backup a hard drive? What chu talkin' bout, Willis? Like everything else, reliability is relative. Compared to FDs and Zip® disks, HDs are easily more reliable. And compared to optical media and tape, neither of which is native to your OS, when you make a copy to another disk drive and you don't receive an error message, you can be assured that your second copy has been made accurately. Because HDs are native to your OS, no error message equals good backup copy! The operating system automatically checks for accuracy so you don't have to test. You know immediately if a problem has occurred, instead of later - after you've lost your data and it's too late.

Cost:  Yet another compelling reason to make use of another HD for backup protection is cost. The purchase price of hard disk drives has never been lower. Around 1993 it made headline news in the industry trades when the cost broke through the one dollar per megabyte "barrier". In the last ten years the expense has been reduced by over 500 times! And a lot of people don't remember what the heck a "megabyte" is anymore. The other vitally significant cost factor is the time you must spend to implement your backup operations. Time is money! When transferring all that data to create those copies - well, nothing compares to hard drives when it comes to performance and speed.

The Best Implementation
There is one more point I'd like to cover - the physical location and connection of this "other" hard drive. If yours is a stand-alone system and you're not connected directly to another computer, the lowest cost choice is to connect a second drive or slave within the same system box. Another option is to use an external drive, such as a USB or IEEE-1394/Firewire unit. Compared to these two options, a third provides the greatest reliability: copying data backups to a drive on an entirely separate system. For providers of data recovery services, the stories about what went wrong or why some emergency cooked their data are an everyday occurrence. Often is heard tale that the power supply blew and took out the motherboard and ALL the drives. Poof.

Obviously if your backup drive is on the same power supply as your main drive you will lose access to all your data, the original and the backup copies, as both become lost in one fell swoop. In today's small business computer configurations (and indeed for many the same is true even in home systems) two or more computers are networked together. You can avoid at least the above scenario and give yourself an extra layer of protection by maintaining backup copies of important data on another hard drive installed in another machine. When you have a network, even if it is only two machines, with just a little bit of intelligent planning and discipline you can avail yourself to highly reliable, easy to use, high-speed, low cost backup providing for an outstanding level of protection from data loss.

The are numerous factors you must prudently consider to perform data backups in the quickest, least expensive, and yet most reliable manner. Hopefully the foregoing has put you in a better position to do that as far as choosing the best media for your particular operation. If you are among the largest group of computer users, i.e., those ultimately responsible for the safety of their own data, within the realm of data preservation it's likely that choosing the best type media for backup is your most important issue of concern.

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