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Data loss: all a question of luck?

by
01 June 2015, at 12:00am

ADAM BERNSTEIN stresses the importance of looking after data effectively and ensuring it is all backed-up regularly with a copy kept off-site – and explains how the process need not be prohibitively expensive

“UH uh. I know what you’re thinking. ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”

Anyone who’s a fan of Clint Eastwood films will recognise the quote from the 1971 film Dirty Harry. While very colloquial for the time the film was made, the point Eastwood’s character is making is one about gambling – and the question when it comes to protecting your business data against loss or accidental deletion is: Do you feel lucky?

Some feel that their data recovery and back-up plans are fine as they are and not in need of reform. The reality, in our modern, hyperconnected world couldn’t be further from the truth – systems and procedures can always be tested and improved.

Whether it’s a fire, theft of equipment or the activities of a hacker, we are all so data dependent and vulnerable to loss. Consider that you hold data on your clients, billing, banking, designs and so on and you’ll see the imperative.

Writing from a personal perspective, in 25 years of business I’ve learned the hard way that data do get accidentally deleted, that viruses can attack a computer (which is why I moved to the Apple platform years ago) and that hard drives do fail.

For these reasons and in contemplation that, shockingly, my whole digital world can fit on a device the size of a deck of cards has made me paranoid enough to create a data back-up plan that suits my needs. For me, gambling with my data, both personal and commercial, is not something I’m prepared to do.

The need for a workable system is more acute considering the move – certainly for the Apple world – from the traditional hard disk drives (HDD) with spinning platters to solid state drives (SSD) which are markedly faster than HDDs. The difference is in the way they work and retain data.

When you delete a file on a HDD, only the reference to the file is deleted, not the file itself. In other words, it’s possible to recover the file, albeit at a cost and the right software. SSDs are different. Once a file is deleted or lost, that’s it – there is no recovery possible no matter how much money is thrown at the problem.

So how do you plan for data disaster? The answer is with a triple layer of back-ups.

Level one: local devices

Hard drives and USB memory sticks are as cheap as chips so not utilising them as simple back-up devices is a cardinal sin.

A portable 1TB drive can be bought from Amazon for under £50 while the same site will sell you a 512GB USB stick for £25.

Buying (say) five hard drives, each labelled for a day of the working week, and creating daily back-ups is a lowcost option to secure protection. By recycling the drives once a week means that you’ve always got one week’s worth of data secured.

The next step is to have a separate disk that is a full back-up that is updated weekly.

In its simplest form, a back-up procedure is just a question of connecting the drive/USB stick to a given computer and copying the files over.

Level two: off-site

The key to level two, as obvious as it may sound, is to keep back-ups off-site. There’s no point keeping the disks next to the system or even in the same building. A fire and burglary defeat everything you’ve done. This is why you may want to use a more sophisticated method that involves something called a Network Attached Storage (NAS) drive which allows all computers on the network to make back-ups.

Apple Macs, for example, have Time Machine which makes and keeps backups hourly, daily, weekly and monthly, each of which are accessed through a typically Apple, easy-to-use interface for the recovery of files. The problem is that the storage drive is attached to a given computer or network – they’re not off-site.

Solutions are available from the hard drive manufacturers. Seagate, for example, offers free software called, uninspiringly, Seagate Backup, that will back-up from a mobile device (say iPad, iPhone or Android) to one of its hard drives. The company also has PC software that offers its own version of Apple’s Time Machine.

Even better, if set up correctly, you can use two compatible NAS devices – one in the premises and the other at home, and set them to backup to each other over a network or the web. Once a feature of expensive devices, today practically every new NAS model does this. Look for NAS devices that support block-level sync, which conserves bandwidth by transmitting only the changed portions of a file.

Level three: the cloud

One marvel of the web, among many, is that is allows access to a number of providers of cloud – off-site but online – data storage.

The simplest are drag and drop cloud storage services where, for a fee (or free for a more limited service), you can either store all of your files in the cloud or just place copies in there periodically as a back-up.

Not only will you have backed-up your data off-site but also will have copies that any machine that has signed onto the cloud account can access. The downside, of course, especially if all of your files are held solely in the cloud, is that should the internet fail somewhere in the chain you’ll have no connection and therefore no files. They’re safe but inaccessible.

Dropbox and Box are two wellknown firms offering this service free. They also offer more complex and more secure versions for a monthly fee.

An alternative to drag and drop is an automated method using third-party software. Essentially software that resides on a computer, it uses your broadband connection to create an automated off-site back-up held in the cloud.

Apart from the set-up, the back-up process happens in the background. The only fly in the ointment is that the initial back-up can take days or longer depending on the volume of data being backed up and also the speed of the broadband connection. But once completed, subsequent back-ups are much faster.

About.com (see http://abt.cm/1djnfhb) has reviews of a number of providers of this type of service.

From experience, noting that I’m not on commission and have no axe to grind, my favourite is Backblaze. It’s $US5 a month, $50 a year or $95 for two years, for an unlimited volume of data per computer.

The software is simple, secured and can be freely used by the technically illiterate – and just works. Even better, data backed-up can be accessed from any device with Backblaze installed (and that includes mobile devices such as an iPhone) and it works across both PC and Mac.

In case of disaster it’s a simple process of using authorised devices to find the file. If you suffer a serious disaster and need all of your data restored quickly, Backblaze will send data on a USB disk by FedEx for $99 or on a hard disk for $189.

See backblaze.com for more information.

It’s up to you…

Clearly, data back-up is a huge topic and one which corporations spend small fortunes on. But in an SME environment, the process, as we’ve seen, needn’t be expensive.

All it really requires is a small investment in back-up devices, a little forethought in what needs backing-up and the commitment to be habitual and cognisant of the need to keep the back-ups off-site.