Monday, March 15, 2010

The most important part of computer security

I almost lost this picture.

That's #1 Son and me, maybe the last time I gave him a piggyback ride. Digital cameras are great, because you can not only erase the bad shots, but you can see when you took it whether it's any good. If it's bad, take another one. This one was good.

But it was a long, strange journey from the camera to this blog. At least one of the computers it was on got wiped by mistake. It was on company laptops, which went back to the company when I changed jobs. Ultimately, the only place I had them was my iPhone, and Apple doesn't give you a way to dump old photos from an iPhone when you plug it into a new PC. I could have emailed all the photos (a thousand) to myself, but now you've entered the realm of you have got to be kidding.

Fortunately, I figured out how to jump through the technical hoops to get the pictures back, although at reduced resolution. Which brings us to the subject of the post:

Backing up your data is a Good Thing.

Malware has gotten really clever over the last 5 or 6 years. It's generally much harder to find, and very much harder to remove. Like kudzu, it puts its roots down widely, and deep. If you don't get every bit of root out, it comes back. My (professional) opinion is that this will only get worse, because economics has all the advantages on the side of the Bad Guys. The entire security industry is maybe $10B or $15B a year; there's easily ten times that being made on the Dark Side. Do the math.

So what do you do to protect yourself? In this post, I'm only going to talk about making sure you can get your data; I'll post on how to keep private information private later. While this is an important topic, let's take things one step at a time. How do you make sure you don't lose all your pictures of the kids?This is a Western Digital 1 TB external hard disk drive, similar to the one we have here Chez Borepatch. Amazon has it for a little over $100, and it comes with software that runs on your Windows computer that more or less continuously backs up your data files. We have a version that plugs into the home network, so all computers back up their data to it. If I had had this 18 months ago, I wouldn't have had to jump through hoops to get my pictures back.

There are also online backup services, which I think are a very good idea. If you have a broadband connection, then for $5 a month or so, your computer will automatically upload its files to be stored on the 'net. The services encrypt the files. What I particularly like about these services is that if your house burns down, you still have your files. It's not just a backup, it's an offsite backup.

If you have good backups, then you are in pretty good shape when (not if) Malware hits you. You take the Restore Disk that came with your computer and wipe your computer. Then you restore your data, and then your applications. In an hour, you're back up and running, which is a lot faster than you (or I) will be able to rip out the kudzu roots from your system folder.

There's nothing sexy about backups, just like there's nothing sexy about changing the oil in your car. But it's the single most important thing you can do to protect the data that you really care about.


Eagle said...

That external drive is nice - except when IT goes south. And they will. I had a BRAND NEW system that died less than 3 weeks after purchase!

I would strongly suggest a network attached storage system (NAS) that uses 2 drives configured as RAID-1 (mirrored). These systems are a bit more expensive than your external single drive unit, but they have one major benefit: they do *NOT* depend on your current system to operate.

A NAS sits on your home network and looks like a drive on your system. You drag files to/from it, just like you would any other drive. But, when your laptop dies, you don't have to worry where you put your backup software CD for that external USB drive. You put your new laptop on your network, browse to the NAS, and you're back where you were.

These systems can be had for under $300 (Iomega StorCenter), and are well worth the money.

Why RAID-1? If one drive dies, the other is probably still running -- giving you time to transfer your data to somewhere else. Since they're "mirrors" of each other, they both contain the same data. DON'T USE RAID-0 UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES - YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!!

One last item? Get into the habit of making (at least) monthly backups of your important data onto good-quality DVDs (don't penny-pinch on backup media: get the best you can buy). Multiple copies of photos cost pennies per disc -- cheap at many times the price.

Danimal said...

I have to agree with you, and with Burt as well. External devices are groovy, but they can crap out as well. And, as you mention, off-site backups are also great (they protect you in the event of a house fire, which is better than a NAS).

However, online services can crash at the worst time, and can go out of business with little warning. So you still have a single point of failure.

If your data is truly valuable -- and gigs of family photos certainly are -- you really need to have redundant backup systems. A low-price external drive, coupled with a $60/yr online backup, gets rid of that risk. It's a solution I recommend to family and friends, and what I do myself.