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July 6, 2011

Implementing a Proper Backup Plan

Who has heard this scenario before from a friend, family member, or co-worker?

Them: “Hey, so my computer was making this weird ticking noise and then this morning it said it couldn’t find the hard drive.”

You: “Uh-oh. It sounds like your hard drive is toast.”

Them: “Can you fix it?”

You: “Sure. I’ll pick up a hard drive after work. We’ll have to reisntall everything though. No big deal though, because you have a backup, right?”

Them, after a brief pause: “Um, no. I’ve been meaning to do that.”

Suddenly a not so painful task has turned into a matter of life and death. It’s imperative that you get that iTunes collection and picture of Aunt Agatha from the last family reunion back. Too bad there wasn’t a backup.

Now, yes I know that there are other ways to get one’s iTunes collection back and there are also all sorts of tricks to revive seemingly dead hard drives, but those are besides the point. Right now, we’re talking about backups. I also won’t be talking about anything too in-depth. Consider this a general overview to get the gears turning, along with a gentle push.

The 3-2-1 Rule

There are three very important things that you must do with any backup plan in order to consider your data backed up. These three things make up what is known as the 3-2-1 Rule:

  1. You must have three copies of your data. Your original can count as one of the three.
  2. You must have the copies of your data stored on two different types of media. This can mean, for example, on hard drives and DVDs, or SSDs and in the Cloud.
  3. One of the copies of your data must be stored in a separate location. Put a hard drive in a safety deposit box at your bank, or toss some DVDs in your bottom desk drawer at work. It doesn’t matter how many backups you’ve made if you’ve stored them all in your basement and a tornado whips through town.
By following the 3-2-1 Rule, you’ll ensure that your data will survive all but a nuclear apocalypse or zombie invasion. Even then, if you plan things really well, it will still be okay, but I’d hope that your priorities would lay elsewhere.

Two Different Types of Media?

Your backup plan needs to include two types of media. The reasoning for this, which also applies to the number and locations of backups you have, is to prevent a total loss of your data should something happen that affects your backup media. For example, if the only copy of a file exists on a DVD, it doesn’t stand much of a chance against a high amount of heat. Even if you have 50 copies of that DVD, they all are vulnerable to that one source of destruction. Now if you were to have two types of media, say DVD and HDD (which is much better at withstanding heat) you have drastically improved your odds of being able to recover data if something were to happen.

Another scenario where I’ll pick on DVDs: Assume that company XYZ is doing all of their archiving to DVD. What happens when 20 years from now a file is needed? How does one guarantee that XYZ is going to be able to read data off of those DVDs? DVDs are made very cheaply now, and I’ve personally had cases where a DVD has suffered from bit rot and couldn’t be read fully after only five years. Or what if DVDs don’t exist 20 years from now? Enjoy your time hunting down a DVD drive. Enterprises have been dealing with this very issue for quite some time now with tape backups. Tape holds a lot of data, but the standards for them change as often as the phases of the moon.

DVDs do certainly have their place though. It is very easy to toss one into an envelope and mail it to someone for safekeeping. A little more expensive to do that with a hard drive.

What About the Cloud?

As far as backups go, the Cloud has already been around for quite some time with various companies providing online backup solutions. With “the Cloud” being the latest buzz word, it seems to be prompting many more ways to backup your data online.

Types of Services

If you want to backup to an online service, there are many to choose from. Dedicated services such as CrashPlan, Carbonite, and Mozy provide a range of different features for a variety of costs. You can also go the freebie route (if you have a smaller amount of data to backup) by taking advantage of syncing services such as Dropbox and Live Mesh. Not only is the data synced to other computers that you setup, but in order to sync it, the data also gets stored on the service’s servers. If you’re paying attention, this simple solution satisfies all points of the 3-2-1 Rule.


The one gotcha to be aware of when using a cloud service as a backup location (although this can apply to any location) is to be aware of the fact that once your data leaves your hands, there is always the possibility that it can find itself under unwelcomed eyes (see the Huffington Post article discussing a bug found in Dropbox). Always consider your data to be public. If you’re okay with this, no problem. If not, you need to encrypt your data before it leaves your computer. This ensures that you, and only you, can view it both while it sits at its destination as well as while in transit. Encryption in itself is a whole other beast that I won’t be taking on right here, but it is something to be aware of when choosing a service. (Also, you can handle it all yourself with software like TrueCrypt.)

Restoring a Backup

What good is a backup if it can’t be used to restore any data? Actually, it’s a pretty big waste of time, effort, and money. It doesn’t matter if you’re working for a large multi-million dollar company, or if it’s just a few of your mother’s cat photos, try recovering data from your backups before it becomes a time where you absolutely have to. Why?

  1. To ensure that when you really do need to recover a file you can. Otherwise you’re dusting off your McDonald’s resume (or you mother is disowning you).
  2. You’ll be much better at knowing how to do the restore. You don’t want your first time stumbling through the process to include your boss breathing down your neck (or your mother crying on the phone).

It’s often preached that one should practice restoring data from backups. There’s a reason it’s preached so much though, and that’s because it doesn’t get done nearly enough (and for some, at all).

So everyone, please, backup your data. Back it up correctly. And verify that you can get those precious 1s and 0s back when you need to.

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