Vol. 82, No. 4, April 2009
I am a veteran of many all-nighters spent at clients’ offices, restoring data from their failed computer systems and nursing the systems back from the brink. I’ve seen it all: from cassette tapes in the wild, wooly frontier days of the early 1980s to floppies to the earliest backup tapes, through the pre-dark ages (called the Colorado memory systems era) to the true dark ages (the “Travan nightmare”), through Bernoulli disks, to zip drives and their infamous “click of death,” to magneto-optical drives, to DAT, DLT, LTO and VXA tape, to tape libraries, to external hard drives, to modern D2D SATA systems, through the complete evolution of online options.
The subject of backup still comes up, and dangerous ignorance and rampant tempting of the fates still seem to be the order of the day. Ultimately, while nothing is as tedious and boring to talk about as backup, it’s the one technology with the ability to one day save from utter apocalyptic destruction your law practice and your entire ability to make a living.
Great Truths of Small Firm Data Backup
1) Why we do it. It’s not about backing up, it’s about restoring.
2) Tape is so 1990s. No one should be backing up to tape media anymore; doing “disk to disk” or “D2D” backup is the sensible approach for primary daily backups.
3) Don’t tempt the fates; spread out your protection. Your backup approach should have several layers of protection – never put all your backup eggs in one basket.
4) Bad things happen to good lawyers. Expect and prepare for the worst and be pleasantly surprised if it never happens.
5) Primary backup. Do a full, nightly automated backup of your primary server/system. That means everything, not just your view of where your data might be (you’ll likely miss important data that can hide in digital nooks and crannies on a hard drive), and never, ever settle for an incremental backup under any circumstances. Why? Because trying to stitch someone’s system back together from a patchwork of miscellaneous incremental backups spread across multiple backup media is a nightmare that you never want to endure.
For the best written explanation of full backups versus incremental and differential backups, read “Build Your Skills: Learn the Different Types of Data Backups” on TechRepublic (http://articles.techrepublic.com.com/5100-1035-1048814.html). Full backups take the longest and require the most storage space, but they’re also the fastest to restore.
6) Primary backup, part two. Use actual data backup software suitable for either an individual PC or a network server. When performing a backup of a network fileserver (the “main-brain” computer on a network where all information is stored and to which everyone else connects), you’ll need backup “agents.” These might include an add-on software agent to back up Microsoft’s Exchange Server email engine, perhaps another agent to back up open files (files in use might not otherwise be backed up), and an agent to provide you with a disaster recovery function to rapidly restore a repaired system post-crash without having to first laboriously reinstall the entire network operating system (a job that can take all day).
As a general rule, avoid using any backup software that comes built into any version of Windows – they don’t function as well as separate products from third-party companies. For networks using the popular Microsoft Windows 2003 or 2008 Small Business Server, my favorite backup software is Symantec’s Backup Exec for Small Business Server / Disaster Recovery Edition, currently version 12.5. For individual PCs, I recommend Acronis TrueImage Home version 11.
7) Alternate media each day. Alternating daily between at least five (or more) disks makes sense and minimizes the risk of having bad backup media. More is better – for example, use a 10-disk set to get two weeks of restorable “snapshots” and then include an 11th alternating “monthly” cartridge to give you an end-of-the-month system snapshot that will be around for the next 30 days before it is overwritten. You could add an annual backup cartridge that goes on the shelf after being backed up on Dec. 31 of each year and is never reused – a best practices approach.
8) Store the media out of the office. Each day, store the backed up media in a location as far from the office as is practical. The backup media will do you no good if it melts in the office fire. Don’t expose your backup media to extreme temperatures. Put the media in a small padded case for added protection.
9) Secondary backup. Store a secondary backup offsite if your jurisdiction’s ethics rules permit you to. Unlike primary full-system backups, in which the operating system and your programs are protected along with your data files, the secondary backup approach is different. This is a data-only backup (mostly because you can’t really restore a computer’s operating system or applications from an online backup set), automated in real-time or after hours to either Mozy.com (for individual PC or Mac system), MozyPro.com for fileservers (I like the interface for restoring and pricing), or alternatively to Connected.com, CoreVault.com, or eVault.com.
10) Image backup; protect against operating system blowups on individual PC systems. Use Acronis TrueImage or Symantec Ghost to keep an image backup of each class of PC setup so you can quickly restore a blown-up Windows system (or quickly set up a nearly-identical new PC). An image backup is like a snapshot of a PC’s setup at any moment in time. This type of backup is not ideal for trying to restore individual folders and files (although technically possible); it is best for the use described – do this at least once a year.
11) Test! Test! Test! The most important point is to exercise your backup systems. Do a “mini” test restore from your primary backup media at least weekly. To do this, randomly pick a couple of documents you backed up, copy them on your PC to a different location for safekeeping, and delete them from their original location. Then, using your backup software, select the documents from your most recent backup set and restore them (do this only after moving the originals to a safe place first). Then see if you can access them using the program intended to view them (for example, Microsoft Word for .doc and .docx files) to make sure they restored correctly and in a usable manner. Test less than weekly at your own risk – if you go two weeks without testing your ability to restore, you risk losing up to two weeks’ worth of work. It’s amazing how many people I know who do backups but have absolutely no idea how to restore files.
12) Dispose of old backup media intelligently. When you decide to dump your antiquated and unreliable tape-based system, you’ll need to either keep the media forever or physically destroy the media to prevent unintended or unauthorized recovery of your confidential client and firm information. For a more thorough discussion on this subject, see “Dumpster Disasters: Tips for Retiring Old Computers” in the March 2005 Wisconsin Lawyer.
13) Be redundant! Look for other ways to protect your data and reduce the chances of expensive downtime. In network fileserver systems, use a “RAID Arrays” of hard drives (that is, “redundant array of inexpensive drives”). Use RAID Level 1 at least for mirroring of functions between a pair of drives (here, pairs of hard drives replicate, or mirror, each other’s functions so that if one fails, the server switches to use the other hard drive, thereby cutting downtime). RAID Level 5 adds smart error correction and online rebuilding capabilities to cut downtime if a network drive fails. Use heavy-duty SAS (f/k/a SCSI), server-intended hard drives in your server; do not use the cheaper and lighter-duty workstation-intended SATA drives.
14) Think about spot backup. For critical stuff you can’t afford to lose between the times you conduct your multiple backup layers of protection, use your word processor’s emergency backup function. I set mine to auto-backup every five minutes in both Word and WordPerfect in case the software crashes. Know how to recover those .BKx files when you need to (before the disaster happens). Also, consider emailing process documents to yourself at your webmail account for spot offsite backup purposes (I do this regularly when working on a major document, emailing it to myself at my Gmail account). Think about keeping a hefty 4-, 8-, or even 16-Gb flash drive plugged in to your computer, and double-save key documents and emails to the flash drive as well as to their regular folders stored on the hard drive.
Failure to follow these field-proven, University of Hard Knocks-learned lessons can put your entire practice in peril. Please back up responsibly and practice safe computing.