Personal Disaster Recovery: Backup, Don’t Archive!

By Rob Dunn
Contributing Writer, [GAS]
Opened Hard Drive
Aside from malware/spyware and viruses, the biggest trouble with most home computers can probably be attributed to the build-up of user data over time. You’ve seen it happen over and over again: digital pictures, videos, documents, spreadsheets, and more fill up the drive and eventually adversely affect the performance of the computer.

To help offload the data from the system, manufacturers have been producing low-cost storage solutions in the form of external hard drives, DVD burners and network-attached archival devices. Users with overburdened computers are flocking to their local electronics stores and buying these devices to back up their data and free up some hard drive space.

However, there’s another set of users: People who buy these devices and believe they are backing up their data for situations when their computer crashes, with the intention of restoring their critical files if needed.

The problem is that¬†many do not backup their data correctly…

External Drive Misconception: Backup vs. Archiving

When people buy an external storage device, often they will move and not copy files to the new medium (they want to free up system drive space). What our intrepid users do is archive not-so-frequently used data offline to make it accessible later. This really isn’t a solution for redundancy in cases of disaster, which is the purpose of backing up files.

Yesterday, one of my users had an external hard drive that just wouldn’t be recognized by Windows. As it powered up, it produced a telltale “tick…tick…tick…CLUNK” noise, letting me know that I had better power it off for fear of physically destroying areas of the drive platter. Unfortunately, that means I can’t use any hard drive recovery tools (free or not), nor can I plug it in to another system and recover it using a different OS.

The thought of freezing the drive entered into my mind (briefly!) as I pondered my next steps… I think this is one for the pros.

Since this user moved his data from his laptop to this drive over the course of the year, this drive contained the only copy of his important files. As such, yesterday and today I have been in touch with some drive recovery facilities so we can initiate a data recovery process – and be charged upward of $2,500 for non-priority restoration, which requires usage of a clean room, high tech super-recovery hardware, and other magical, geeky things that I am not privileged to have access to.

Backup is to Disaster Recovery as Archiving is to Free Disk Space

Backup (secondary copy)

The thing to remember is that when you purchase an external hard disk for hardware failure or disaster recovery (to use an IT industry term), you need to keep in mind that you are using it to back up your data. I consider backing up to be leaving a copy of your data in the original location, and then copying that data to another location so you have two copies at all times. The backup is your secondary copy of your data.

If one device fails, you have another to restore it with. If you are updating these files often, your backup job must update the backed up copies with the changes on a semi-regular basis.

Archive (primary copy)

If you are buying a drive to archive your data, then you really aren’t prepping for a disaster. Essentially, you bought the drive so that you could move data from your primary computer or hard drive to somewhere else that isn’t used as much, freeing up space for you to continue working efficiently. In short, the archive is a primary copy of your data, but saved in secondary location.

This solution is risky because you’ve moved your eggs into a single basket, which can fail, leaving you without your data.

This is really what most people do when they buy an external storage device.

What about optical media (CD/DVD)?

Some people use optical media to store their data long-term. This is an acceptable means of archival (or backup, if you use CDRW/DVDRWs), but the discs are easily damaged, can expire over time (five -10 years!), and 700Mb-8.5Gb isn’t really enough for most people these days. Blu-Ray or HD DVD drives/media are cost prohibitive at this time.¬† And as far as effort goes, optical media backups are mostly a manual affair.

At this time, an external HD solution really is the most economically viable solution for most of us on a budget.

Archiving and Backup

If you are concerned about restoring your data in case of disaster, you may even consider a hybrid of the two approaches. Archive your data to an external device, then have another process that copies the data to still another location for backup purposes (which is similar to how a RAID-1/mirrored archive solution would work).

Again, with fault-tolerance and restoration in mind, don’t buy an enclosure with JBOD or RAID-0 only. This is a setup that uses two or more drives to create a single volume, but your data is either striped or concatenated across all of the drives, increasing overall performance, but sacrificing redundancy. The integrity of the data depends on the stability of each drive in the set. If the third drive fails out of a four drive stripe set, integrity for the entire volume will fail.

No external drives? Try the DIY backup circle

Perhaps you don’t have any external drives, but you do have a few computers at home. You could try a circular backup approach like I do (make sure you have enough hard drive space for this, of course…).

In my setup, each computer has a dedicated folder that has been marked for backup (for the sake of simplicity). Computer A backs its backup folder to computer B, and computer B backs up its folder to Computer A. Since I am using Windows, I use Syncback Freeware via a scheduled job using ZIP compression, but you can use any number of backup utilities to do this (including Windows Backup). Not a Windows user? The same methodology can apply in all OS configurations.

Now if any one of my computers fail, I have a secondary backup to restore from. Not the prettiest solution around, but that extra hard drive space has already been paid for and is just sitting there unused – so why not put it to work? This system has indeed saved me on occasion.

Keep your eggs in many baskets

The most important thing to take from my advice is this: Back up your data to another physical volume. If you have a hard drive that has multiple partitions, make sure your data is being backed up to a partition on a completely different device. A physical failure can and will adversely affect your data on all partitions housed on the drive that failed.

What do YOU do?

How about you? How do you ensure that you are ready in case of a catastrophic hard disk failure? Do you have any creative methods to share with other readers? How about online backups using services like Mozy/ADrive/XDrive?