Friday, October 31, 2014

Where's Your Backup?

When it comes to firearms, there's an old saying, "Two is one and one is none."

If you're reading this, you have a computer. If you have a computer, you need to be doing regular backups. Doesn't matter how much of a pain it is, it's part of owning a computer, same as having the oil changed is part of owning a car. Because there two kinds of hard drives, the ones that have failed already and the ones that are going to fail.

My day job is computer and server support. I see it regularly. I preach it. I preach it to my users well enough that the last couple of major failures the users understood that they had failed to be responsible for their data and that it was gone. Let's consider the possibilities.

1. The hard drive just fails.
2. The laptop gets dropped and the hard drive fails.
3. The laptop has a cup of coffee/tea/water/vodka spilled on it and the hard drive fails.
4. The laptop or computer gets stolen.
5. The computer gets a ransomware virus and every data file gets encrypted.

That last one happened to a user this week and she lost everything.

So, here is some advice. Backup. Here's some detailed advice. Buy a external hard drive large enough to hold three times as much information as all your files. Don't worry about Windows or whatever operating system you are using or the programs. That's easily replaced. It's your files, pictures, and documents you want to save.

The drive you buy may come with backup software, if so and you like it, it may be fine. If not, there is a freeware program called Cobian. I use it. You can set it up to do backups on a schedule, pick what folders and files you want to backup, and pick a location to store them, in this case, your new external drive.

If you want the expanded detailed advice, here it is. Backup once a week, at least once a month, and accept that every day that goes by increases the amount of data you will lose.

If you really care about the data (think photos and video) buy two external drives. Rotate the backups to another location so that if the house burns down you aren't thinking about running in to grab the computer. So that if one of the external drives fails, you still have one backup.

If all of this seems like nonsensical gibberish, it's time to learn more about the technology we all use or pay someone to help you set it up. Because all hard drives fail.

There's an existential question I ask people when I am harping on this topic providing training on backups, "Where does data go when the only copy in the universe is destroyed?"

UPDATE [Borepatch] 31 October 2014 14:31: This is a really, really important post by ASM826. Computers are cheap and easily replaced; data is precious and literally irreplaceable.  He and I were talking on the phone when he brought this up, and I asked him to post about it.  If you do not have a backup plan in place (or heck, even if you do*) run, do not walk to get Cobian or something.  I've never met anyone whose data didn't have any value.  ASM826 does this for a living; I trust him on this.

* The comparison to firearms is apt: two is one, and one is none.  If you only have one backup method, you actually don't have any.


Matt W said...

Great advice for sure!

The only thing I would say is that, although it is better than nothing, backing up a hard drive to another hard drive because you are concerned about the first hard drive failing isn't the safest bet in the world.

There are several scenarios where two separate hard drives can fail for the same reason at the same time, especially if there are in the same location.

I know there are all sorts of privacy and security implications, but backing up to an online location is a good option for many people. Backing up to other media such as DVDs etc.. can also be a good option, depending on how much you are backing up.

There is definitely no perfect technical solution - if there was we wouldn't need a backup in the first place.

Nosmo King said...

Pro tip: When the 'pooter is brandy new, create a drive partition used only for data. Leave enough C:/ space for new apps (no, more than that. No, still more.), but one partition that has nothing but saved data in it makes backups much more easier.

Then back that crap up. Repeatedly and often.

Dave H said...

What Nosmo King suggests is recommended in several Linux distributions. You make a system partition for the OS and software and another partition for all user data. Besides keeping all the stuff that needs to be backed up in one place it allows you the flexibility to repair, replace, or upgrade your OS and applications without having to worry about it mucking up your data partition.

burt said...

NAS RAID-1 systems are selling for as little as $200. They support both unprotected and login-protected accounts, do *not* run an easily-hacked OS, are *not* physical drives on the same system, may be accessed by multiple systems simultaneously, and typically support Windows, Linux, Unix, OS/X as well as some "cloud-based" activity. Many even come with a backup program for Windows/OSX that will automatically do those necessary nightly backups in an unattended manner.

Even an inexpensive NAS RAID-1 system provides a much greater level of data security than a "data partition" on your primary drive. It does this by isolating all of the data from the main system drive and by using RAID "mirroring" to ensure that a single drive failure does not cause a catastrophe.

At the price, there is simply no reason to *not* use one.

aczarnowski said...

See also JWZ's classic on the same topic.

With cheap USB drives and rsync/robocopy, laziness is the only reason, but no excuse, for not backing up your data. C'mon people.

I do miss relying on TruCrypt though. Unencrypted USB drives make me twitch and I haven't found anything that's cross platform like TruCrypt is/was.

Unknown said...

"If you want the expanded detailed advice, here it is. Backup once a week, at least once a month, and accept that every day that goes by increases the amount of data you will lose."

I'm not going to put myself up against ASM826; he's certainly smarter than I am. I will say that I worked for six years supporting enterprise backups, and I'm somewhat glad that I no longer do that.

The other thing I'll say is this: People think they need a backup strategy. They don't. People need a RESTORE strategy.

Those once a week, once a month backups? Won't do you any good when you find out that you didn't select the directory that all your photos are stored in. Or when you find out there's a bug in your backup software, and when you do a restore it only restores the directory structure - and NOT the FILES underneath it.

ASM is right: do backups daily, weekly, at least monthly. BUT: make sure that you can RESTORE from those backups. Any decent software should let you restore to a different directory than the file was originally in. Pick something that's important to you, baby pictures or whatever, and MAKE SURE you can get it back.

aurictech said...

What do y'all think about online backup services such as Carbonite and IDrive?

Nosmo King said...

burt's point (above) is well taken. One thing to consider with NAS is security. Personal NAS boxes traditionally sit someplace on the network where they can be easily connected and aren't in the way. And, even though most "homeowner" NAS has mirrored internal drives, it's easy to mirror a pair of the boxes, to have suspenders and a belt.

Problem is, they're right there all the time, potentially subject to fire, flood, theft, and if unauthorized personnel can access your network they can access the data on the NAS.

If my personal laptop has confidential client data on it, so does the drive I back it up with. That's why each sleeps in a different safe at night.

jon spencer said...

After a friend had a house fire.
I asked my insurance company if my music that is on my computers would be replaced if there was a fire.
They said that they would replace the computers but not the music.
There are around 7,000 songs on my laptop and 16,000 on my desktop, try finding those songs let alone buying new ones.

Backup, backup, backup.
And keep your external backup HD's in different location.

Unknown said...

What's worked for me is to periodically make a full bootable clone on an external drive. I also have a drive-dock for my laptop and one for my wife's desktop at home, each always has a raw-drive in it doing scheduled backups using backup software.
I've had hardware failure on my laptop, and drive-failure on my wife's machine, and it is oh-so-nice to just plug that bootable external drive into the same machine or a loaner and boot up right into your own familiar desktop.
The raw-drives in the drive docks get cycled monthly or so, a newly wiped drive goes in each one, and the one just pulled out goes to my office (for the home computer) or to home (for the work computer). The full clones tend to happen quarterly.

Scott_S said...

RAID 5 - done ;)

Spike said...

I've got a 2tb drive that has all my backups on it that leaves the house with me everywhere I go. If you do that, make sure you encrypt it.

All of the computers at my house are backed up to a freeNAS system in case I lose a PC.

I'm still trying to streamline the process, but it gets me by.

lee n. field said...

I don't know how many times I've heard it. "It's got all my pichers!" "I'm sorry, your hard disk is toast. I can't get anything. Ontrack, 2 grand."

I keep critical directories synced (a brute force script invoking rsync) across 4 laptops, and one desktop. Full home directory synced to the "server" in the basement with mirrored drives. And a periodic backup (script invoking tar) to a truecrypt encrypted drive that goes with me. If one fails, I pick up another and continue working.

And, I'm doing it right now, as the year old 500GB disk in the mail laptop appears to be failing. I'm at this instant clone it to a different drive (using rdd, which handles bad sectors somewhat gracefully. Yes, I know ddrescue will do the same.)

I haven't lost more than a trivial amount of data to disk failure in a long time. I'm more likely to delete something by accident.