Network Productivity Group

... a computer consultancy


The tip...

I know you all did your backups over the weekend, right?  

I know the preceding line is a bit of jab to get you to think about regular backups but now I am going to tell you a horror story.  My intention is not to cause anyone embarrassment, we are all guilty of not being prepared for that ultimate disaster, a hard drive failure.  Hard drives have become so reliable it almost seems like ancient history to worry about them and what the loss of one might mean.  Well, one of my clients now knows what it can mean.  Please give some thought to what might be on your computer(s) that you could not live without or might do your business serious damage to be without and devise a way of making a copy at least weekly to another medium (disk, tape, floppies, CD, something).  The second and equally key step is to store that copy someplace where, if your place of business burned down, was condemned by the authorities after an earthquake or otherwise made inaccessible, you could still get to that copy.  The trunk of your car is just fine.

There is an old consultants story, probably even true, that of the typical small businesses that are hit by a fire, 50 per cent never re-open and 85 per cent fail within the first year afterward.  I don't know that losing a hard drive is as bad or that losing all your computer data with a fire makes the fire even worse but it is pause for thought.

A note about earthquakes, in case you haven't thought about it.  In the Northridge quake a medical building on the west side of LA was condemned as too dangerous to enter.  The doctors housed there could not enter the building to recover any of their patient or billing records.  Think about it.

Although I have not actually done this yet, it seems to me that the best backup method out there today is an external hard drive.  First, let me give you the assumptions that lead me to this conclusion.  It would be nice to have a "non-selective" backup plan.  Let me be more specific.  You probably have a hard drive of several gigabytes.  A good backup medium is a zip disk.  They will back up 100 to 250 megabytes (perhaps 1 to 2.5 per cent of your hard drive).  A CD will hold about 700 megabytes or maybe 7 percent.  Typical backup programs will compress the data about 2 to 1.  So you can figure on backing up 2 to 14 per cent of your hard drive.  Obviously if you want to do this backup without intervention you have to be very selective about what you backup.  Fortunately most of the stuff on your hard drive is also on the disks that you use to install Windows, Office, and any other software you have.  So it can be done.   But you have to figure out what you need to backup and what you can skip.  That can be hard to do.  That is why we would like to have a "non-selective" backup.  We copy the entire hard drive and that is that.  Until now, the only way that was practical was tape.

You can now get an external hard drive for $200 to $500 dollars that will hold 20 or more gigabytes.  Many of these new drives attach via what is known as "Firewire".  You will also see this described in PC terminology as 1394.  This is similar to USB or Universal Serial Bus but about 10 times faster (and USB is about 10 times faster than the parallel port).  The advantage of both is that one simply plugs in a device, such as this disk drive, Windows recognizes it has been plugged in, installs the software to support it and you can start using it.  If you have two devices and one adapter, without re-booting, you can unplug one and plug in the other and use it.  There are bus adapters that let you have as many of these kinds of devices as you want.

For Firewire to work on your computer you need Windows 98 or higher and a 1394 adapter card.  I have priced these at about $30.

What I would propose is that at the end of a day, one plugs in one's new external drive and using Explorer, drags drive C to drive (probably) D, the external drive and goes home.  Now, I know that if the earthquake or fire happens that evening, well, what a bummer.  The other alternative is to get two but I'll expand on that thought a little more in a second.

The next evening, at the end of the day, stick the external drive in your briefcase and go home.  You are safe and sound.  IF you want to do backups weekly, take the drive back to work on that day and do the copy again.  It would be nice if one could get several copies of the C drive on external.  This protects you from the inadvertently deleted file.  If you copy C over C and then discover that you've deleted a file, there is no recovery.  But don't get too crazy, some backup is better than none.

The ultimate backup scheme?  Do daily backups and at the end of the week, start re-using those backups but put the Friday backup away.  Do this every week and at the end of the month put the last backup of the month away.  Do this every month and at the end of the year put the last backup away.  Do this every year.  Usually data more than three or four years old is of very little value but, if you wish, you can follow this scheme until you retire.  This may be more than you want or need but please do something!

A practical backup scheme?  Backup the entire C drive to the external using a backup program.  Next week do the same thing but this time indicate you only want "new and changed" and create a new file.  Do this weekly (or daily) until the external is full.  Now you have a tough choice:  start all over or get another drive.  That decision is probably driven by your business.

A final note on backup programs.  A little story.  I was installing Windows for the first time.  I dutifully backed up all my key files with DOS Backup, installed Windows and started Windows Backup to restore the files I had backed up.  Windows Backup would not recognize the DOS backup files!  (Thanks again, Bill.)  Fortunately it wasn't that hard to fix but the warning should be clear.  A backed up file without the software that created that file is of almost no value. 

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