I had a close call last week with an internal database last week. Though I don’t consider myself an expert on back-up and network security issues anymore, folks nonetheless ask all the time. I got through our little crisis because at least this time I listened to my own advice and was prepared.
These days, the volume of storage continues to grow, individually and organizationally, and desktop and network environments also continue to become more complex. Meanwhile, back-up options have also continued to expand. It makes sense to check yourself and your organization on three types of questions:
- Will every document and file that could have changed today get backed up tonight?
- Can I go back to a previous version of a critical file if the most recently backed up version turns out to have problems?
- Can I recover from total meltdown of my computer or server?
The break-through revelation for me a while ago was that it often makes sense to have a strategy that includes multiple tools. These days, I personally use a combination of external drive, Mozy and Dropbox. Let me define run through the categories these reflect, offer some evaluation questions to ask, and then comment on how these choices affected my own little dilemma last week.
Option 1: Tape. Traditionally, back-up meant one thing: tape. And tape is still pretty cool as a long term archival format. Tape has gotten a lot better, faster, cheaper, higher capacity. Still, in general, I don’t recommend tape anymore. With tape, you have the cost of the drive and the tapes. You have the chore of loading the tapes daily and cleaning the drive regularly. Usually, re-mounting last night’s tape and searching for a file could take time. And maybe only one person knew how to do that. And drives
Option 2: External disk storage has emerged as the popular back-up alternative to tape. Lately, it seems like manufacturers are just about giving them away free.
A complete back-up will fun fast, can be scheduled conveniently and there's no cartridges to load, check or clean. As disks grow in capacity and drop in price for computers, external storage has become truly cost-effective as well. Act now: Right near the snack isle at Costco, you can find your 1.5 Terabyte drives for just $129.99!
They come in different sizes and configurations. Direct attached drives, via USB (or Firewire for older Macs) are the most popular and cheapest. They require direct physical attachment to the computer, while Network Attached Storage (NAS), which bear a premium cost, can locate anywhere on the network.
The cute pocket-sized USB drives ones are also more portable. You can move the drive around to back up more than one computer and you can stash it away someplace safe when you leave. These can be pretty fragile if you drop them. One approach is to get two, and alternate back-ups on each, so that if one fails, you have the other. In a workplace, it also means, you can have one off-site at all times.
For both tape and hard drive back-ups, keeping the back-up drive (or the box of tapes for tape drives) next to the computer or server is convenient. Check out the image below: looks familiar, no doubt. Yet doing this pretty much wipes out the use of the drive as part of a disaster recovery strategy. That is, if you have water damage, theft, etc, where you have the computer, you don’t want the back-up drive sitting right next to it. An advantage of Network Attached Storage is that you can locate the drive as far away as possible within the house or building from the computer it backs up. And NAS devices can include RAID, which ensures the same stability as a network server—but at a cost. For a smaller organization and its network, it’s probably cheaper to go with the 2-external drive approach rather than setting up a NAS with RAID. For a larger network, RAID may make sense.
For laptop users, a related issue with USB drives is that you have to remember to plug them in every night to soak up all your day's work. You may forget, or when you plug it in, the back-up software may not find the drive again automatically, and your back-up may not run. If you use direct attached external storage, you have to pay attention! If you use NAS drives, things may run more automatically.
Well, enough about the hardware choices. In a way, that's the easy part. The real challenge with external hard drives is with the software. You can pretty much take as a given that the cheaper the drive, the less flexible the included software. If you are using an external hard drive, you can also get your own software. Enterprise software, such as the suites from Acronis
, are well regarded, but expensive and as complex as anything else on your server to set up.
For Windows environments, I really can’t say enough good things about Second Copy from Centered Systems
. For $30, it’s worth the extra purchase to have software you can really configure and monitor easily and that will work with most any drive you have—as well as to send files via FTP to off-site or on line storage. I appreciate how easy it is to have multiple profiles running on different schedules with different parameters. These include the option to keep multiple versions of files to go back in time. Mac users also now have a great alternative, with Apple’s proprietary Time Machine. It too is geared toward backing up to external disk storage.
Option 3: On-line back-ups.
These days, Mozy.com
are probably the two best-known low cost on-line storage solutions. I have used both. For less than $60 a year, you can get unlimited back-up, running in the background of a desktop computer. Both now support Macs, and are moving toward mobile file access as well. While they vary a bit, both are good personal alternatives.
Both also have server versions, and that’s more my focus here. The server versions are priced by volume of storage. I am more familiar with the Mozy server product, which came on line first. I like that you can manage multiple servers from one dashboard, and also designate different users with access to each.
Online back-ups present a different security profile than external drives. Not better or worse, just different. On the on hand, you are trusting that the connection they provide is as encrypted as it needs to be and that you can trust them with your data. On the other hand, you don’t have to worry about theft, physical problems on site, failure of things to run and so-on.
Most have trial periods, but be warned that the start-up time for an initial back-up can be days.
For many the answers to these questions plus the predictable, recurring cost compares well these days. Aside from this, they offer a compelling answer to most of the issues with external hard drives.
Option 4: Shared on-line folders, such as Drobox.com or drop.io.
I started using Dropbox.com
as a way to sync my older laptop with a baby netbook I take around most days. And it has grown to also provide a neat way to have project and team folders with co-workers. I blogged about it on idealware.org a while ago. It syncs files almost continuously, allows Windows, Mac and Linux computers to sync with each other, and has many other great features, including 2 GB free. I'm a Facebook fan and all that.
Lately, I can see that Dropbox has ambitions as a back-up strategy. The paid version provides 50 or 100 GB of storage. Not likely enough for a full back-up, but enough to get all your files and not just the priority active project documents. For my desktop, I considered eliminating Mozy and just using Dropbox. Here’s the problem: I really don’t want everything on my desktop syncing to my netbook. I don’t want them to be on that machine if I lose it, and I’m not sure the hard drive can hold all that stuff anyhow.
Option 5: disk imaging software. None of the options described so far seriously address disaster recovery. This is really important to know before it happens. You can back up all the files on your desktop to a disk drive or on-line and still be stuck if your laptop or server fails. Why? Most back-up software either can be used at all or can’t be used easily to restore the operating system, system configuration files, or your installed application software. You have to start over from scratch. Then, once you have gotten back up and running, you can bring your files back over.
Disk imaging software addresses that issue because it aims to provide a means to recreate the server or desktop environment entirely in case you have to wipe it clean and rebuild. Acronis.com true image is a well known commercial product that I find most frequently recommended for Windows Servers. Other commercial choices I have tried at one time or another include Drive Image, Symantec Ghost and Paragon, and there are some solid open source products in this category. Here is a comparison on Wikipedia
My dilemma with these solutions is that they are not easy to master or test for a server environment if you are not an experienced system administrator. You also need to really be sure that an image from your 3-4 year old server will work on the newer hardware you end up replacing it with in an emergency. This too requires technical adeptness. It seems a great irony that the organizations that need a simple not so costly approach to disaster planning have the least staff resources to do it.
For this reason, I generally recommend that if you don’t have a staff systems administrator, partner with a support organization who can put an acceptable plan in place. In any event, do not assume that just doing a daily back-up will protect you if your server fails.
A low cost approach here, if applicable. Replace your server or desktop before it dies on you and then keep the old one available in case of emergency. Do an actual drill of what it would take to restore all your files and switch back all until you can decide what to do. Even if not perfect, it will likely give you enough leeway to recover everything grinding to a halt.
Option 6: portable USB flash drives, CDs, DVDs and so on. I mention them since so many of us relay on them. I don’t really recommend these. Too easy to forget, lose, go sour on you when you most need them. Use them for what they’re intended, not as a back-up strategy.
Some evaluation questions
Here are some questions to consider in selecting among these to make up an overall strategy:
- Can you control when the backup runs and with what frequency?
- Can you be reasonably sure they will run on the schedule you set without intervention or monitoring?
- Can you create profiles, for example, some files only need daily or even weekly checking, while others should be backed-up every four hours or even close to continuously.
- Can you throttle back the processing power and bandwidth if they consume too much for the computer?
- Related, how much memory and CPU cycles do they consume when they are NOT actively backing things up?
- Can they effectively back-up system files and databases even while they are in 24x7 use?
- How long and how easy to restore a file or folder?
- Can you get technical support?
- Do you feel comfortable with your data up in their cloud?
- For external hard drives, how reliable is the drive? (It should be at least as stable as the drive on the computer it is backing up, yes?)
- Does your back-up include versions, so that you can go back days, a week or a month in time if you need to get an older version of a file?
- Do you need archival storage? This may suggest other criteria, since hard drives eventually wear out. While tape may not, tape drives and their software may fall into disuse.
- Do you have special medical or other security requirements? Know what alternatives could be ruled in or out in this way, including checking new legislation such at that in Massachusetts covering data security.
So what happened in my little adventure last week? We did an upgrade to our billing system to enable it to sync with new on-line project time tracking software (another time for that…). We did not realize for two weeks that activating the sync clobbered some existing data. Mozy server back-ups were reliable but did not enable me to go find the last good copy of the database with the missing data. The NAS external hard drive was cranking away running Second Copy, but I had not created a back-up profile for multiple version back-ups of this database. Instead, we had specifically configured a dropbox account to sync the project tracking software with a back-up server off-site, as part of a disaster plan. There I was able to go back day-by-day in Dropbox’s simple-minded but really straightforward web interface until I found the day when the upgrade took place and the data was lost. A day earlier was missing updates from that day. A day later and the data was missing. Worked great—and prompted this post. What’s your story and what solutions have I missed here? Would be great to hear. .
(water tower in the clouds image, Creative Commons courtesy http://www.flickr.com/photos/purpletwinkie/; the rest, yours truly)