Data Backup: 4 Critical Mistakes

Most of us realize that our computer files are vulnerable to permanent loss due to a number of different causes. Over the last several months I have noticed that more people are backing up their files in one way or another. I am not exactly sure of the cause, but I hope the trend continues. I suspect a combination of factors is driving awareness of the need to backup data. As the months and years pass, more people own computers and they store more data and more important data on them. There is a large segment of the population who grew up in a non-computer age and now have computers, and a lot of these people don't pay much attention to backing up data until they they lose their data. Once someone has lost their hard-drive or important data, they gain a keen understanding of the need to backup their computers. And furthermore, people who have lost data tend to tell their friends and families about their experience and advise them to make backup copies of their data as well. While more people join the ranks of those of us who backup our data, critical mistakes are being made that can seriously affect their ability to recover from losses of data.

There is also a lot of bad advice being posted in various blogs and forums on the Internet. Comments such as, "just get a second hard drive and copy your files to it", or "online backup is risky", tend to lead people in the wrong direction. These comments generally come from people who have no expertise, but they have learned just enough to be dangerous. By the way, this is not just a problem for people looking for information about backing up their computers, you can get plenty of bad information from the Internet on just about any subject. Even with the bad advice, any backup is better than no backup.

Although backing up data is simple concept on the surface, a comprehensive plan to assess risk and mitigate the cost of various events and scenarios can be a complex exercise. I don't expect every small business and home computer owner to have a comprehensive disaster recover plan, but avoiding a few simple mistakes can dramatically increase your chances of being able to recover from most losses within a reasonable amount of time.

  • One reason for backing up computer files is to protect against a catastrophic failure of the hard drive or possibly theft or loss of the entire computer. These are certainly good reasons to backup the data on any computer, but there are other common occurrences that result in data loss. Accidental deletion of files, errant updates, or even corruption of the data that is stored on the a hard disk drive can be more common than a total loss of the disk drive or computer. In addition, we are all aware that viruses and other forms of malicious code can delete and replace files without our knowledge. In fact, it is very likely any of these causes of data loss can occur with no immediate effects. Days or weeks can pass before you know that a file is missing or corrupt. I call these latent data losses, see Online Backup Services and Data Retention for more on this subject. If you backup your computer system to a portable hard drive and copy over existing older files, then your backup data is unlikely to be helpful in recovering from a loss that you weren't aware of before your last backup. Avoid this costly mistake by using a backup system that allows you to keep a number of historical backups so that you can recover from common losses involving corruption, deletion, and malicious code. See Backup Retention for more information.

  • While most people think of a backup as a way to protect against computer failures, there is another very important consideration. What if your home or office is destroyed by fire, vandalism, natural disaster or even terrorism? Chances are that your backup data will be affected by the same event unless you have a copy stored in a safe offiste location. Even a burglary or other theft can render your backup data useless if the theves take your portable hard drive, safe, or other storage. When these types of events occur, your offsite backup data may be your only hope of getting a major part of your life and your business back on track. Even though these events are not as common as hard drive failures, viruses and others, the effects can be much more devastating. Disasters do occur and the people who are prepared recover quickly, others suffer catastrophic setbacks and never fully recover. Don't assume that you will never be affected by a disaster. Failure to keep off site backup copies of your data could be a fatal mistake to small businesses and could cause serious complications for home users in the event of a disaster. Take a little extra time and care to store recent copies of your backup data in a secure off-site location.

  • Keep in mind that the primary reason that you are backing up your data is so that you can restore it in the event of a loss. Many years ago I worked for Computer Associates International, we were the leading provider of systems management software for large, medium, and small computer systems. I am well aware of the complexities of backup software, how it works, and some issues that can make it not work. No software or hardware manufacturer can absolutely guarantee that a product will work flawlessly on your computer. Most do their best to test for all likely combinations of hardware, software, and usage scenarios that may affect the use of their products. Just because your backup system can backup your computer without errors, doesn't necessarily mean that it can restore data as you would expect. First of all, you may find that the restore functionality is not as easy to use as you thought, or there may be some idiosyncrasies that you aren't aware of until you try it. You don't want to be fumbling around trying to figure out how to get your files restored when you are reeling from a loss. I recently read a posting from a Mozy online backup user who said it took a couple of days for his data to be ready to restore after he initiated the process. That might cause me to panic a bit, if I hadn't already tested and knew what to expect. Speaking of Mozy users; I have also seen a number of complaints posted about the inability to successfully restore any data. In their defense most of these complaints were about a beta Mac product. This problem is not necessarily unique to Mozy. It could happen with any backup system, in fact is probably more likely to be a problem with tapes or other removable media. The best way to ensure that your data can be restored from your backup system is to test it. You should periodically restore some files to make sure the system works as expected and you know how to use it to restore data in an emergency.

  • One of the more serious and common mistakes that are made by small business and home computer owners is missing backups. Missed backups come in many flavors. There are the backups missed because someone forgot to do it. And there are backups that are missed because of technical or procedural problems. Regardless of the reason backups were missed, the result is the same, important data is vulnerable to permanent and irrecoverable loss. I have witnesses on several occasions where an automated backup system was supposed to be running backup jobs daily, but for various reasons the backups were not actually running or they were failing. Furthermore, it is not usually just one backup that is missed. When backup jobs and backup procedures are not carefully checked and monitored, many days and weeks can pass with no valid backups being made. These problems often go undiscovered until there is data loss. Don't wait until you need to restore data to find out that your backup jobs have not been successful. Monitor your backup jobs as diligently as you monitor the gas gauge in your car.
There is a high probability that you will need to recover from a data loss event within in the next couple of years. Avoiding the 4 critical mistakes discussed in this article will go a long way towards increasing your chances of making a full and painless recovery.

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