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World Backup Day

Mar 31 2012

March 31st is World Backup Day. Just as we must remember to change batteries in smoke detectors when we change time, we must all remember to have a backup and restore strategy on the 31st of March. The date is pretty easy to remember because it is the eve of April Fools day surprises. This does not mean that you should make a backup only once a year, but it is a good time to check that we have an effective solution.

Why should we all backup?

As technology evolves, we constantly put more and more things that we hold dear on our hard drives. Just think about your photos, your music collection, important documents, emails, your contact list, appointments and even now your movies with the large hard drives available now.

The more we put all our content in the computer and the less we have that same content physicaly available on other medias. We print less pictures, we have less CDs and DVDs, etc.

Having all our content in the computer is very practical and with today's technology that content can be shared wirelessly with other devices such as laptops, tables, smartphones and even Televisions. Very usefull but very unsafe! If any part of your computer fails, you can just easily buy a replacement, replace it and return to your content. But this is not true for hard drives. Unless you have a huge budget for hard drive recovery, you can consider the data on a defective hard drive to be lost forever if it brakes. All you memories and your important data lost forever! To add to the problem, hard drives are the most likely part in your computer to fail.

Here are some interesting statistics:

  • 50% of all hard drives will be defective in the first 5 years of service
  • 89.1% of computer users don't make backups on a regular basis
  • Earch year, 46% of computer users will have lost music, pictures and documents for multiple unexpected events on their computer
  • 1 laptop computer on 10 will be stolen during it's lifespan
  • 1 laptop computer is stolen every 53 seconds

Reflections on a disaster

The goal of the World Backup Day is to raise awareness and get people to develop a backup strategy. Take 2 minutes to explore the contents of your computer in all the folders where you store your files. Be aware of anything you see that you do not have a copy. Finaly imagine that after reading this sentence, your hard drive fails and you just lost everything.

  • If you already have a good backup and restore strategy, you would just spend a few hours restoring your content. If you just realized that your strategy is not perfect or complete, this is the time to improve it. The simple fact of looking at your content while thinking about backups will make you aware of the situation. If you have no backup strategy at all, realize that you would have lost all your files and think about the impact of such a loss.

If you use your computer only for personal use, you would have probably lost memories, entertainment (music, movies, games), contacts, emails and important documents. But if you use your computer in any professional way, you also need to evaluate the cost of the data loss. How much time and money would you have to spen in order to get back on normal business. Think about the data you need to serve your customers, you billing, your contacts and at all the time needed to restore your data and reinstall the software you need to continue working.

Solutions

Enough about bad news, let's take a look at some solutions for different needs.

  1. Optical Discs: The good old methot of backing up your content to optical discs (CD, DVD, Blu-ray) on a regular basis. This solution could be adequate for some people but it has some major flaws. The capacity and the frequency.
  2. The capacity is limited for most needs of today.
  3. A CD can hold 700MB (about 100 pictures or songs)
  4. A DVD can hold 4.7GB (about 750 pictures or songs)
  5. A Blu-ray disc can hold 25GB (about 4000 pictures or songs)
  6. The frenquency is also a problem because you have to remember to actualy do your backups on a regular basis; and since this job does not look like it does anything usefull, people often forget about it or simply skip it to do something more visible. Furthermore the simple act of manipulating the discs can damage them. This method has however the advantage to allow you to move your data easily outside your house or office in case of fire or a break-in.
  7. Extarnal Hard Drive: Copying your data to an external hard drive is by far the most popular way of doing backups. All operating systems have a built-in backup and restore tool that can backup to an external hard drive on a scheduled regular basis. Once configured, you can forget about backups, your operating system will do it for you. This solution is the best security for price solution because of the cheap price of extarnal hard drives nowadays. But, you are again backing up to a hard drive that is likely to fail in about the same amount of usage as your main hard drive. For that reason, it is recommended to have a backup hard drive more recent than the main one so it risks less to fail at the worst moment. This solution however offers no protection agains a fire, a natural disaster or a break-in.
  8. Two external hard drives: This solution is just like the previous, but with two (or more) hard drives. You can then bring one outside your house or office and swap them once upon a while. This offers your protection against pretty much any situation, but you need to remember to swap them or your offsite backup will be very old and irrelevent.
  9. RAID: A RAID is a Redundant Array of Idependent Disks. In simple terms it is a system that stores data live on multiple disks. Many types of RAID exists.
  10. Without entering in all the technical details, a RAID 0 shares the data by splitting it on two or more disks. This offers a significant increase in performance, but if one of the drives in the array goes defective, all the data of all the discs in the array is lost. Obviously, this is not a backup solution at all.
  11. A raid 1 shares the data on two (or more) discs by copying the same data on all discs. This is like having a continuous backup without having to worry about doing any backups. If one disc gets defective, you only need to replace it  for one at least as big has the old one and reconstruct the RAID array. 
  12. Another popular type of RAID is a RAID 5 and needs at least 3 drives. The data is shared across all drives but a part of each drive is reserved to backup a part of the content of the others. This give both an improvement in performance and a fault tolerence in case one of the drives fails. Again if a drive fails, you need to replace it with one at least has big as the old one and reconstruct the RAID array.
  13. drobo: This peripheral that I consider revolutionary in many ways is very similar to a RAID 5 with none of the inconvenients of a normal RAID, drobo calls it "beyond RAID".  In a RAID 1 or 5, if a drive fails, we can simply replace it, but we need to shutdown the computer, replace it with a drive at least as large as the original and recontruct the RAID array (2 to 10 hours) and then restart the computer. Even if you replace your hard drive with one which is way larger, that extra space is lost, your RAID array cannot be bigger that what it was formated to. With a drobe, you just need to install at least 2 drives (no tools required) and plug it. If a drive fails, you simply replace it with another one and while the drobo reconstructs the data deduplication, you can keep using your content, you don't even need to stop your computer. If you bought a larger hard drive, your total capacity will increase. If you have no more space on your drobo, you can simply add a hard drive without any other steps to increase its capacity. If your drobe is full of hard drives already, you can swap your smalest drive (or oldest) with a larger one to increase the drobo capacity whily you keep having access to all of your data. Some drobo models can also been configured for double hard drive failure protection, that way in the unlikely case of two drives failing, you loose no data. Take a look at their website at drobo.com, if you have lots of data or need to increase your capacity regularly, drobo is the solution!
  14. Backing up to the cloud: Many companies now offer online backup services. This solution is perfect for offsite backup. This brings your data to a very far location on the globe so that you are protected event if a natural disaster affects a big area. With such a solution, you need to be aware that you will use a lot of bandwidth, so you need to make sure your Internet Service is adapted to such bandwidth so that you don't receive a huge surprise bill. I have tried multiple of these services and I have found that CrashPlan is the best out there for my needs. A free version is available that will allow you to backup to any local folder or external hard drive and to authorized friends computers over the internet. For only 1.50$ per month you can backup to Crashplan servers up to 10GB. If you have more data, the 3.00$ per month package offers the same but with unlimited space. If you have huge amounts of data, you can send or receive a hard drive to or from crashplan for the first backup or for a restoration. What made me choose Crashplan is the fact that it uses very few resources, it backs up files even if they are in use and it can have multiple backups of your data at different points in time. That is not only a backup solution but also a solution to have previous versions of your files. Take a look at their website and try the free version at CrashPlan.com 

My solution

The solution you will choose depends on your needs and on the consequences of data loss for you. I am a web designer and photographer, no need to explain that my business is based on my data and data loss is full business loss in my case.

My operating system and software are on a RAID 0 array for performance. Before commenting that this is not safe and that I am doubling my risk of a drive failure, you need to understand that the performance gain of a RAID 0 for me saves me more time per year that it would take me to restore it's data in case of a failure. But this might not be your case. In order to make sure I will not spend days reinstalling my operating system and all my software, I have windows create disc images every night to my drobo. Recuperating a disc image only takes one to two hours and my computer would be back to how it was last night. I also keep about 10 of these disc images on my drobo to allow me to return my computer to a previous state in case of a virus or bug. If I ever decide to change my computer altogether, I can just plug my drobo to the new one and restore all my software on the new computer.

For my data, I use a different aproach. I have all my data on a separate hard drive from my operating system and software for performance and capacity reasons. I use Crashplan continuoulsy backup my data to my drobo, to Crashplan servers and to a family member computer (who I offer an hard drive once uppon a while). Unless a natural desaster destroys all of Quebec and Texas at the same moment, I will always have all of my data secure.

As an example, if I come back from a photo shooting with 500 pictures, it takes only 2 to 3 hours and they are backed up on 4 different medias at different physical locations. Ultimate security! Even in case of a major large scale natural desaster.

Conclusion

To sumarize all this blog post about the World Backup Day. The most important thing about backups is to realize that they are invaluable and think about having a backup and restore strategy BEFORE you need it.

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