Backups -Essential Defense
May 10, 2006

I've been talking about computer security issues, and today I'm going to talk about backups. Backups aren't often though of as a security issue, but if you've been hacked and lost data, backups become an important part of your recovery plan. An even more common scenario where you need a backup is when your computer itself messes up an important file, and backups can then be used to recover from the file errors.

I help out friends and associates by answering their computer questions. The calls I dread go like this: "I tried to load a file (either a Word document, Quicken file, or other important data files) and it says the file is corrupted - what should I do?" And of course, they always proceed to tell me how important the file is. I ask a few questions just to rule out some obvious things, but it's almost always a corrupt file that can't be salvaged. I hate delivering the bad news. The sad thing is that I've never had anyone call about a similar issue who had a backup with which they could restore the file. I wish I could help them revert to uncorrupt data instead of giving bad news.

The easiest backup you can make is to a secondary location on your hard drive. Once you've saved your document to the normal location, you can save it to a second location and thus have a copy of the original file on the hard drive. This way, if the original file gets corrupted from a security attack or some other system error, then you can just use the secondary document file.

Saving copies of your files to a floppy disk is one of the oldest and most widely used backup procedures. It's good, but you have to realize that floppy disks are somewhat unreliable. I've had many students come to class with their final project on a floppy disk. When they try to load their project file from the floppy disk, a message saying the disk is corrupted occasionally comes up. Of course, these students become upset since their project can't be turned in. If you backup to floppy disks, always backup to two floppy disks in case one goes bad.

I find that burning backup data to CDs works fairly well. CDs hold a lot of data, and they're not as susceptible to going awry like floppies are. With that said, though, I need to raise a caution flag. Not all burnable CDs are created the same. A friend of mine and I bought some cheap CDs. He burned all of his financial data to these CDs as a backup. His laptop crashed and then reinstalled all of his software. When it was time to restore the financial data from the CDs, it didn't work. None of the data could be recovered from the CDs. It seems that the cheap CDs didn't burn correctly and the data was lost. My recommendations for using CDs as backup media is to use high-quality CDs, consider letting your CD burning program do a data integrity check after the data has been burned to the CD (there is a selection checkbox for this), and use My Computer to check what's on the CD after the CD has been burned.

Within the last year, I've begun to keep my most recent backup on a flash drive. Those are the little sticks that some people wear around their neck or attach to their key ring. Flash drives don't usually have enough capacity to store all of your backups, so I just keep the very latest backup on my flash drive and the rest on CDs.

At one time, backing up to tape devices was a popular way to backup data. This method is still used in corporate environments. For small business and homes, tape backups aren't practical as they are slow, the tape drives are expensive, and you need to take time to learn how to use it.

There's an important principle concerning where you store backup media: Put the backup media where it's safe. I held the position of Director of Technology at a medium-sized software company in Miami, Florida. After hurricane Andrew rolled through, I went to the office building. It was a mess. And where my desk had been was a pile of splintered wood. This is where the backups were kept. Fortunately, the computers were removed the previous day and we didn't lose the data on them. But if we hadn't removed the computers from the lab and then had to rely on the backups in what used to be my desk, we would have been in real trouble. Here's my recommendation: store you backup media in a place that's not susceptible to severe weather, theft, or any other mishap.

I also have another strategy that works well for me. I created several email accounts at yahoo and google. From my normal email account, I send an email to these repository accounts with data files attached. If I need to retrieve the data, it's available from any computer that has an Internet connection.

There are some online data storage web sites. One is XDrive.com. I've used it and it's easy to use and convenient. If you want to store your data on a server that's offsite, consider an account at XDrive.com.

Those are the basics of backups.