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Prepare for the worst

Backing up data isn’t as simple as it used to be, but it is more crucial.

The Walden School thought it had its data covered. And this small private school had good reason to believe it. They’d done a lot of things right. The building is wired for Ethernet and equipped with a Windows NT server. All the administrative computers were hooked up to share e-mail, Internet connectivity, and printers. And the key players–the business manager and administrative director–had an external Zip drive and a stack of Zip disks for backing up the day’s work.

To the untrained eye, it looked as though things were set up pretty well. But that’s reckoning without Murphy’s Law. When things began to go wrong at the campus at the beginning of the school year, everything went wrong at once. One two-year-old hard drive began to fail–clattering like a machine gun and sporadically failing to boot up altogether. Other PCs on the network were under repeated siege from various e-mail viruses–which inevitably found their way to the server. And on one administrative system, whole days’ worth of work were mysteriously disappearing on a regular basis. That’s when the school called in the tech cavalry to pick up the pieces.

The mess they left behind

What Crash/Reboot Computer Consulting found was an ugly mess. One member of the school’s tech committee had suffered a complete hard drive failure. Despite sticking to a fairly regular backup schedule for files she was working on, she hadn’t backed up her e-mail in more than a year. On two of the other computers, a toxic cocktail of e-mail viruses had scrambled the data and programs–but at least these systems had Zip disk backups of their My Documents folders that were only a few days old. And after a detailed conversation about the disappearing edits, the mystery was solved. In an attempt to restore a single compromised file from Zip disk backups, the administrative director had been restoring a whole folder–not just one file–from an older backup disk. This overwrite changed every other document in the folder.

Most of these problems were relatively easy to fix, although some work was lost forever. But “relatively easy” doesn’t mean cheap: Several systems required a complete reinstallation and reconfiguration of programs, settings, and data files. This was a very expensive proposition, in terms of consulting hours. And in some cases, hundreds of hours of work had been lost.

This is unfortunate considering that a backup strategy was in place. The problem was that it wasn’t a good enough backup strategy. The school had made several tactical errors that ended up costing it time and money. Fortunately, these errors boiled down to a handful of easy lessons to learn from. (And isn’t that what schools are supposed to do?)

Lesson 1: don’t rely on busy people to do chores

Backing up data is a more tedious chore than flossing–and it doesn’t even leave your mouth feeling minty-fresh. And even in the wake of some data disasters like the ones suffered at The Walden School, most people sink back into sloppy backup habits after a while. The key to keeping backups up to date is to make sure that people don’t even need to think about it.

Many backup programs can schedule backup sessions using your system’s clock and calendar to call the shots. Storactive LiveBackup is one low-maintenance backup program they considered. It automatically backs up files whenever they’re edited, archiving them from the local hard disk to a network drive. If the network’s down, it saves backups to the local hard drive and uploads them when the network connection’s restored. This solution would have been ideal, except that the program costs $129 a seat, and requires Microsoft Windows 2000 Server or Advanced Server, Microsoft SQL Server 2000, and Active Directory or NT Domain networking. The school didn’t have any of this.

Instead, the school picked a lower-cost alternative called MirrorFolder from TechSoft. This $34-per-PC program mirrors the contents of individual folders as you edit them, copying the contents exactly onto a network or removable drive. If a system suddenly goes south, the entire folder can be edited directly on the mirror drive, or copied to a new location. From a network backup standpoint, this program creates a single central location for the network administrator to back up data from everyone’s PC.

For the more fastidious backers-up on staff–the business manager and development director, who needed to keep their own daily backups to store offsite–AJSystems.com Eazy-Backup was a natural choice. It requires interaction to start a backup session, but it uses some intelligence to locate crucial data such as Outlook or Eudora e-mail and QuickBooks data. This makes it easy to configure–a big plus for a staff that knows it needs to back up data, but doesn’t know what data to back up.

Lesson 2: plan for disaster

The biggest chore facing hard-drive crashes and nasty virus attacks isn’t getting your data back. It’s restoring programs and settings. It took the school hours of tedious work to set up new clean hard drives from scratch, a process that proved much more expensive than buying new hardware and restoring data. So at some point, you need to create a backup of your entire hard disk–and update that backup periodically after any major software installation or configuration change.

The best whole-system backup system is a disaster-recovery program that creates a perfect image of your hard drive. Norton Ghost 2003 and PowerQuest Drive Image 2002 are good examples of the genre. But your CD-R drive may well have a similar program. Many older Hewlett-Packard CD-R drives come with a bundled program called Disaster Recovery, for example. These programs create an image of everything on your hard drive that can be restored in one step to a new drive if yours fizzles out. Used in combination with traditional data backups, disaster recovery backups can seriously whittle down the time it takes to get back up and running after serious problems.

Best of all, recovery programs often double as traditional backup programs too. Drive Image can be programmed to perform backups to a network drive, for example, on a daily, weekly, or monthly schedule. For that reason, it was selected as the solution for most of the computers at the school.

Lesson 3: use the most convenient resources

Most people choose external storage media like Zip disks for backups. These are fine for personal backup, but they don’t have a massive capacity (they top out at 250MB, and most of the drives can only handle 100MB media). So they’re out of the question for backing up an entire drive. And like any removable media, they’re fiddly to handle. Here are your options, in increasing order of convenience:

External media: Zip disks are OK for small backup jobs, but CD-R or RW drives have much higher capacity–though it will still take a big stack of them to back up an entire hard disk.

Online backup: For systems that need offsite backup (for data such as financial records and important legal documents and e-mail), backing up to an Internet drive makes sense. At press time, the best choice we could find was Connected TLM–though at its small business rate of almost $90 per month for five PCs, it’s not cheap. And at the data transfer rates we clocked, they’re none too fast either–backup rates were about five minutes per 10MB and restore rates, 10 minutes per megabyte.

Network drives: If you have a network, backing up to a dedicated network drive is far more convenient.

When you’re making a choice of backup software, you must pick something that handles your medium of choice. In the case of The Walden School, individual users mirrored or backed up their data to a network drive, and the network drive got backed up to CD-R. (And the advantage of having a lot of old CD-R backups at a school is that they made great raw material for art projects.) The choice of programs that back up to writable and rewritable CDs is huge. Just a few of the ones we’ve clocked are Iomega Automatic Backup, Stomp BackUp MyPC, NewTech Infosystems Backup NOW!, and Dantz Retrospect Backup Express.

Lesson 4: don’t overlook unerase

The most common reason for needing to restore a file is accidental deletion of files. Although it’s not strictly a backup/restore function, unerasing deleted files should be part of any company’s backup strategy. Any time you can avoid restoring a backup, you’re averting the common problem of losing hours of work by overwriting newer files with older versions.

Most people know they can fish files from the Recycle Bin–but most of them don’t realize that many programs that routinely delete files bypass the Recycle Bin. To restore files reliably, you need a program like Norton UnErase (part of Symantec’s Norton Utilities and Norton SystemWorks), Winternals FileRestore, and Executive Software Undelete 3.0.

Lesson 5: keep a tight schedule

For backup tasks you can’t automate (ones that involve slipping removable media into disk drives), you need a hard-and-fast schedule for a designated backup person. Because you’ll be saving data from all your networked PCs to a single network drive, that makes backing up easier–a single backup person should be able to compress all the data onto a CD-RW or possibly two at the end of the day. But how and when to save the data is the key to a successful strategy.

Before backing up, you must give some thought to what you’ll restore from the backup if things go wrong. If there’s a virus that infects data files, for instance, you’ll want to restore a backup that isn’t infected, and that may not be the most recent backup. So you’ll need to keep older backups for a while–two weeks is a good rule of thumb. Because backup discs such as rewritable CDs can get expensive, you need a rotation scheme. Backup administrators in big corporations have devised various strategies, but for small business, the simplest method is called the father/son rotation. To do this, label six discs with numbers one through six. Then perform a backup on your data folders using the schedule below.

Week 1

Monday — CD-R #1

Tuesday — CD-R #2

Wednesday — CD-R #3

Thursday — CD-R #4

Friday — CD-R #5

Week 2

Monday — CD-R #1

Tuesday — CD-R #2

Wednesday — CD-R #3

Thursday — CD-R #4

Friday — CD-R #6

Each day, you back up the day’s work on that day’s CD, alternating between two different CDs for Friday. This scheme keeps records up to two weeks old, which is long enough to ensure that some version of your data remains uncorrupted. If you need to restore corrupted files–or get to a version that was correct before someone introduced an error–you pick the most recent disc you can get away with.

If you’re using CD-RWs, erase the disc before performing the backup, and toss the disc after six months or so (or when it starts to look scratchy) to make sure that you don’t lose backups to worn-out media.

You shouldn’t need to renew disaster recovery images of an entire PC every day or even every month. Minor updates such as Windows Update security patches and virus signature updates can be done on a newly recovered system quite quickly. But after you perform a major update to any computer’s software, that’s the time to create another image of the entire drive.

Nobody knows when disk disaster may strike–or when someone’s going to do something stupid to a file and not realize it for a couple of days. But with an adequate backup-and-restore strategy in place, you don’t really need to. Just keep on working as usual and get ready to whip out your pristine backups at a moments’ notice.

Where to buy

Disaster recovery

Norton Ghost 2003, $69.95, Symantec

Drive Image 2002, $70, PowerQuest

Online backup

Connected TLM, starting at $7 for one machine; Connected Corp.

Backup programs

MirrorFolder $34 per PC; $135 5-pack; TechSoft

Eazy-Backup. $59.95 each for 2 and above; EazyWare

Iomega Automatic Backup, $40, Iomega

BackUp MyPC, $70, Stomp

Backup NOW! Deluxe, $80, NewTech Infosystems

Retrospect Express, $50, Dantz Development Corp

Drive Image 2002, $70, PowerQuest

Unerase programs

Winternals FileRestore, $39

Norton SystemWorks 2003, $100, Symantec

Executive Software Undelete 3.0, $45

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