How’s your backup strategy?

All businesses know how important it is to back up data regularly, but how often is often enough?

18th January 2009 at 7:10 am

Last week, I researched all manner of stuff, some of which I expected to land up in this blog post. Then, on Friday evening, disaster! My main computer failed. Totally and utterly. Could this happen to you or your staff? Would they be as snookered as I was?

“What about backups?”, I hear you ask. Well, I had, very fortunately, treated myself to one of those 500 gigabyte external drives about a month ago. A Maxtor, in case you’re wondering. I’d had good experiences on another machine with a Maxtor OneTouch external drive. Prior to that, I’d been copying important stuff to assorted thumb drives, SD cards and a Seagate pocket USB drive (a 5gb external drive which is no longer available) as and when I got the urge.

As soon as I got the new drive, I created a mirror image of everything on the hard drive. Then I backed up all the files normally. The first would enable me to encode a new drive exactly as if it were the original. The latter enables me to get at all the files through their file names in case I accidentally deleted something or needed to access them from another machine. Each Sunday evening, the computer automatically copied all the files that had changed in the previous week, so I never had more than a week’s work to recover.

I should mention that quite a lot of my work is stored elsewhere – an Exchange server looks after mail, calendaring and suchlike and delivers it to my BlackBerry while a Sharepoint server gets work-in-progress that I need to share with colleagues. This week I did a lot of travelling on the underground, which meant that I had printed some of my work-in-progress so I could work on the train. (Very unusual, but very fortunate as it turned out.)

It wasn’t until the crash that I realised just how utterly inadequate a weekly incremental backup is. Even a daily one is suspect. I was with a pal earlier in the week who told me he backs up his work automatically every hour and, if he’s going out of the house, he makes an extra backup of his current work to a thumb drive and sticks it in his pocket.

His approach struck me as excessive and slightly obsessive. Not any more.

Here’s an example of how I was caught: I needed to check in last night for a flight to America today. I’d already printed the itinerary, complete with booking reference. Unfortunately, this bore no resemblance to the airline booking reference. I was rejected. Then I realised that, to get to the real reference, I had to click on a yard long URL which took me to the booking system. The date of the booking was 27 November. I’d archived my email up to December 1st which meant it was no longer on the Exchange server; it was inside the crashed machine and somewhere inside the backup drive. But I was using an older version of Outlook on my spare machine and didn’t want to start messing around with possibly incompatible software.

I ended up typing the very long URL. Something that should have taken seconds eventually took over an hour (the airline system had its own problems which meant it didn’t recognise me when I tried to ‘early check in’ but it did recognise me when I asked to ‘retrieve booking’, from whence I went to ‘early check in’.)

That example is trivial, of course, but I hadn’t appreciated that clicking the ‘Yes’ button on “would you like to archive now?” would land me with such a lot of unbacked up data. In future, I’ll hit ‘backup’ whenever I do any kind of maintenance operation.

Hopefully, by now, you have a curl on your lip as you sneer at my predicament. But, just in case you don’t, I thought I’d share the tale. It could have been a heck of a lot worse.

How much work can you afford to lose? How much time can you spend recovering from a crash?


David Tebbutt is an award-winning columnist and feature writer who specialises on the subject of using software and technology to increase business productivity. He's an analyst with Freeform Dynamics but, in previous lives, wrote for Director magazine, Real Business and was also editor of Personal Computer World.

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  1. […] Sunday SmallBizPod.Co.Uk – How’s your backup strategy? […]

  2. Alexander Deliyannis says:

    Hi David,

    I had a couple of incidents myself and was saved by a rather ‘layered’ approach to e-mail backup. I am sharing it here as I imagine that it could be useful for smaller SMEs.

    1. I download mail separately from two locations (home and office) leaving copies of the mail on the server for a couple of days. I BCC myself everything I send out, to have access to it from both machines.

    2. I keep a 3rd copy of my mail in ‘the cloud’ by having my Gmail account also check my POP3 mailbox.

    3. As my main (The Bat!) mail program takes ages to backup and is prone to corruption because of its huge files (though probably less than Outlook) I am now testing Everdesk ( ) which keeps messages as separate .eml files. These can easily be backed up across disk drives. Everdesk is due to support exchange in the near future.

    That’s it from me, cheers, alx

  3. Thanks Alexander. I know what you mean about the Bat! And you don’t know stuff’s corrupted until it’s too late.

  4. I have been researching home backup strategies for my blog and came to a similar conclusion to you.

    External hard drives are the best option available because they give you the storage of internal hard drives with the ease of use of USB flash drives, the cost that is close to hard drives and they are portable.

    Thanks for the post

  5. Chris P. says:

    It’s great backing up to an external hard drive, but how do you protect that from disasters such as flood, fire or theft?

    It also sounds like you have a lot of data in a lot of places, gotta be hard to keep tabs on all of that?

  6. Not hard. Stuff is mainly in my main machine, a laptop. The one that crashed. A hosted Exchange service looks after current email but that’s mirrored locally. Blogs, wikis, Twitter etc are hosted as they have to be because they’re community services. So If I back up the main machine I’m safe. My problem is that I did it too infrequently.

    Re: fire, flood, etc. Good point. I should separate the computer and the backup when I’m not around. Most of the time this is automatic because I have the laptop with me. Not always though.

    As far as the saga is concerned, for £16.98 (delivered) I got something which enabled me to read the non-booting hard drive on a spare (XP) machine. It allows me to connect all manner of disk drives to a USB port. And it works. The lost data was nicely visible and accessible using Explorer.

    It’s called “USB 2.0 to IDE & SATA Adaptor Kit for 2.5/3.5/5.25 Inch SATA or IDE Drive with Power Adaptor.” And I think its description says it all. I got it from Amazon. Hurrah! Actually, it came from Nexons Electronics.

    Prompt delivery. Exactly what I expected. Worked a treat. My digital life has been saved.

    Off to do a backup now…

  7. […] a subject close to my heart, backup and resilience in general is all taken care of for you. (I’m still scrambling through […]

  8. Sahail says:

    Does seem a little obsessive at first glance to back up on the hour. However, as business grows so does information. Great post, and food for thought.

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