Rules for Effective Backups

Let’s start by stating a few basic rules that govern any effective backup strategy

  • You must have a backup strategyThere are two groups of people in this world, those who do effective backups, and those who are destined to lose priceless, irreplaceable data. That data may be the digital photos of your grandchildren, or it may be your financial records, or may be the draft of your novel that you have worked on for the last 5 years. Whatever it is, it is either appropriately backed up, or you will eventually lose it. And don’t think you will be the exception here. Drive recovery firms are doing quite well charging people $1000 and up to recover the contents of their drive. And what if you don’t have the drive? Francis Ford Coppola, the film director, had backed up his files onto a backup device in his home. And then thieves broke in, stole his computer, and also stole the backup device. He could not even take a drive to a drive recovery company, and lost 15 years worth of work. (Read about it here.)
  • If you do not test your backup, you don’t have a backupAnyone with any time in the computer industry has a story like this, but some years ago I was in the IT department at a university. Every day one of the employees of the IT department put a tape into the tape backup device so it could record a backup. This went on for months. Then one day the server crashed, the data was lost, and we had to go back to the tape backups to restore. Well, as you probably can guess, every one of those tapes was blank. The backup server had not been configured properly, and no data had ever been written to the backup tapes. So if you have created a backup, take the time to do a restore and make sure you really do have a backup. If you wait until you really need that backup, it is too late to fix things.
  • RAID is not a backup solutionRAID stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks, lets you set up a disk array with a parity disk. The idea is that if one disk fails, you can put in a fresh hard drive, rebuild the array, and no data is lost. Sounds great, unless something happens that wipes out more than one drive. That turns out to be a lot things: fire, flood. lightning strikes, theft, etc. Or just bad luck, or two drives from the same bad batch. RAID has its place, and its place is not in doing backups.
  • Any effective backup strategy must be automaticLet us face facts here. Most of us know we should backup our data. You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t already know that. But none of us is going to take the time to do it manually. None of us. Ever. So an effective backup solution has to be one that we can set up, and then let it run on its own. That does not let you off the hook entirely, since you still need to periodically validate your backups. (see above) But I believe it can be regarded as a statistical fact that the number of people who will do a manual backup approaches zero.
  • Only backup what is really irreplaceableI may get some argument on this one, but I think it makes no sense to backup things you can easily get elsewhere. Backup has costs associated with it, and there is no sense in backing up things that you can recover from other sources. For example, I use Linux as my primary operating system. I can always download a fresh copy of the OS at any time free of charge. So I won’t pay money to do a backup of it. My data, yes. The OS, no.

So, I have written this How-To in a way that reflects these rules.