C3 Technician Interviewed about Backups
Cape Cod Computer technician and resident cheer leading coach Robbin Kelley was interviewed last month about a New Year's Resolution we'd love to see everybody make: backing up your data. We'd like to take a moment to explain some of the finer points of the approaches brought up throughout the article.
First, there are several different levels to backups and redundancy, including data, power, hardware, and software. These are just a few. Many people on cable modems and DSL lines also have backup dial-up accounts. After all, if you're selling items on eBay, a bit of inauspicious downtime could mean a big difference in the results of an auction.
Computers don't run without power. Computers don't run long without clean power. Consequently, Robbin states that you need a "line interactive uninterrupted power source" (UPS). This solves two problems. First, it provides power to get you through brief outages as well as time to shut down your computer properly during prolonged outages.
Now, read close because this is important. If you have a UPS and the power goes out, shut down your computer immediately. Don't wait. Don't say, "Well, it will probably be back up shortly." You didn't buy a UPS so you could work through the power outage. You bought a UPS so that you'll have enough time to save your work and shut down your computer properly.
This last point is important because, if you lose power while QuickBooks is open, it is almost guaranteed that you've trashed your QuickBooks file. This is true of almost any application, even Windows itself. They all store data in databases. Databases keep data organized. If the computer crashes while the databases is adding or removing data, then the data is out of order, unorganized, and useless.
The second problem a UPS addresses is identified by Robbin in the phrase "line interactive." A line interactive UPS ensures clean power by clipping off high voltage and boosting low voltage in real time. This ensures that the sensitive electronic components in your computer get correct current all the time. Most inexpensive UPSs found at your local office supply store are not line interactive.
It should be noted that certain operating systems accommodate unexpected power outages better than others. Without getting into the gritty details, Microsoft's Windows 2000 and Windows XP both use a modern file system that can get you though some (but certainly not all) failures. It's called a journaling file system, and it makes sure data gets written correctly or not at all.
However, these operating systems are not nearly as popular and well supported by third party software vendors as the Windows 9x series (95, 98 and ME). Additionally, though Windows 2000 and Windows XP are generally more resilient, they tend to be more difficult to repair when broken.
As a result, home users have generally preferred the 9x series (which supports most software, scanners and other gadgets) while office environments (where only one or two specific applications are used) prefer 2000/XP. You will need to consult with a technician to find out which operating system works best for you.
Robbin also mentioned RAID (redundant array of independent disks). Don't be put off by the terminology. All this means is that, instead of having all of your data on one hard drive, it will exist on two at the same time. So, if one fails, all your data will still be intact on the other. This all happens transparently behind the scenes.
RAID involves 1 card and 2 drives. Most mid-tower PCs (like the ones Cape Cod Computer sells) can easily accommodate this extra hardware. The card generally costs around $150 and the drives, anywhere between $80 and $200 a piece depending on size. You may even be able to reuse your existing hard drive.
At these prices, it's my personal feeling that no workstation, and certainly no server, should be without RAID. It's a layer of redundancy at the most failure prone component of a computer, the part which is, coincidentally, responsible for storing all of your data.
Don't confuse RAID, or any of the technologies above, with backups. Backups refer to copies of your data that exist on a removable media. Though RAID will protect you from 1 failed drive, it will not protect you from 2 failed drives, a fire, or, as Robbin points out, theft.
More important on a day to day basis, RAID will not protect you from data corruption. In other words, if an employee accidentally deletes an important file, then that file will be deleted on both your drives. If QuickBooks crashes and corrupts its database, the database will be corrupt on both drives. RAID just makes sure your data exists in two places. It doesn't ensure that you have a prior copy of your data to go back to should something bad happen to the current version.
There are many different types of backup media. None of these provide an ideal solution for everyone. You'll have to judge what works best for you. Some of the more popular types include:
- Floppy Diskettes - Besides holding very little data, floppy diskettes are notoriously slow and unreliable. If you use floppy diskettes, use many of them and check them frequently to make sure you can still open and read your files. If, however, they work for you, and you've developed a good backup routine around floppy diskettes, by all means, continue to use them.
- Tape Drives - Tape drives aren't much more reliable than floppy drives, and they are generally even slower. They do, however, store an enormous amount of data. Once on a schedule setup by a professional, tape backups are usually pretty brainless. So, if you have a centralized computer which stores all the data for your office, a tape drive may be an ideal solution. Make one employee responsible for swapping the tapes daily. Use as many different tapes as you can afford (because tapes, just like VCR cassette tapes, degrade in quality over time). And, again, check your tapes regularly to ensure that you can still open and read your files.
- Removable Hard Drives - Though relatively expensive, removable hard drives can hold as much data as, well, your hard drive. They are also much faster than floppy diskettes and tape drives. It is important to note, however, that a hard drive is mechanical device (as opposed to an electronic component) and, therefore, more prone to failure. Though certainly no worse than floppy diskettes and tapes, they will not stand up to a lot of abuse.
- Zip Drives - …and this is where it gets interesting. Zip drives are my personal favorite. They are relatively small and fast. The diskettes themselves are cheap at $12 to $16 a piece. Though they are mechanical, I've never had a Zip diskette or Zip drive fail (though Iomega's drivers leave something to be desired). Finally, outside of the scope of backups, the popularity of Zip drives means I can share Zip disks with others, especially printers and graphic designers, though this often requires a separate piece of software to read Mac formatted disks.
- CD ROM Burners - Copying a CD is called burning, and everybody else in the world (except me) seems to love CD ROM burners, whether for backing up data or copying music CDs. I, however, am personally cursed when it comes to burners. I can't successfully burn 1 CD without throwing away 5 failed attempts. Luckily blank CDs are exceptionally cheap at roughly $1 a piece. CDs also hold over 700 MB (the equivalent of the new large Zip drives, but 3 to 7 times as much as older Zip drives). When the DVD burners are standardized, you'll be able to burn up to several Gigs (3 to 6 times as much as a CD) on a single DVD. However, this will require a new burner (the actual physical drive) and the much more expensive DVD blanks. Even so, a DVD can only hold a small fraction of what a modern tape drive can hold. Rewritable CD ROMs allow you to copy over and over again using the same CD. Because CD ROM drives are almost as ubiquitous as floppy drives, you'll be able to share files with just about anyone.
- USB Drives - A new breed of backup device has sprung up, capitalizing on techniques used to download pictures off of digital cameras and portable MP3 players. USB drives tend to be small, solid state (i.e. not mechanical) devices which can store anywhere from 32 to 512 MB. On many newer systems (though not many older systems), you can simply plug them in and go. Unfortunately, their current novelty comes with a hefty price, $600 for a 512 MB drive. This will change, however, making USB drives one of the most promising up and comers.
Regardless of which backup solution you choose, it's a good practice to remove your backups from the premises. Take one home every night. If you work out of your home, you may want to leave one in the trunk of your car. Of course, how sensitive your data is will make a difference as to where you can safely store it: don't store your customers' credit cards in your car.
Finally, and for the last time, routinely check your backups. Don't just assume they are working or that your employees are swapping tapes as you've directed them to. Try to open up a file off of a backup. Make sure all your data's really there, but whatever you do, don't restore over top of your current, up-to-date copy.