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Have You Backed Up Today? Part 1

by Adam C. Engst

Recent popular discussions on the TidBITS Talk list have orbited around the issue of backing up data - what's the best media to use, how often should one back up, what software works well, if backup devices should be built into computers, and how iMac users will back up their data. These are all important questions, and the answers affect literally every computer user today, irrespective of platform.

In the first part of this article, I'll examine backup strategies and some topics to consider when formulating a backup plan. The next part of this article will discuss specific products you can use to back up your data.

Importance of Backing Up -- Most computer users don't back up their data. It's easy for people - especially novices - to believe that computers are infallible. You press a key, and they just work. (Or, for those in large organizations, if something goes wrong, you call the help desk and someone else fixes the problem.)

But those of us who have been around the block a few times know that's far from the truth. Files are deleted inadvertently, PowerBooks are dropped, hard disks fail, drinks are spilled, and of course, offices are burgled and houses burn down. Digital data stored on a disk is anything but secure, and pretending otherwise invites disaster. As an ad for Retrospect, the most popular Macintosh backup program, once said: "There are two types of people. Those who have lost data and those who will." That's truth in advertising.


Backup Strategies -- If we agree that everyone should back up their data, the next question is what they should back up. There are essentially two backup strategies, with a continuum of possibilities in between. One strategy says that when your hard disk fails, you want to be up and running as quickly as possible using a complete backup that's as recent as possible. Call this the Complete Backup strategy. The other strategy assumes only your data files are important, since you can always reload applications from master disks or download freeware and shareware applications. Call this the Minimal Backup strategy.

The two strategies require roughly the same amount of time. If you subscribe to the Complete Backup strategy, you spend more time dealing with your backup system on a regular basis, although automating the process makes it easier. You must feed disks or tapes to your backup device and verify that everything is working. That takes a fair amount of time up front, but recovering from a dead hard disk takes only a little more time than that required to read back your files.

In contrast, adherents of the Minimal Backup strategy spend less time up front - just the occasional copying of a file to floppy, perhaps - but may require days or even weeks to restore a system to full working order. The Minimal Backup strategy puts the burden on you to backup the appropriate files. Will you remember to back up every important file you modify or create? If not, you may be forced to rehash days of work. Also, you must specifically back up preferences and other out-of-the-way files: Remember that you've spent time configuring your applications (think keyboard shortcuts in Microsoft Word); setting up utilities and extensions; and creating scripts for programs like QuicKeys, OneClick, and KeyQuencer. What's more, finding and downloading new copies of freeware and shareware takes time and can prove difficult in the case of incremental updates to commercial programs or system software. Even locating serial numbers can take a surprising amount of time.

I'm strongly in favor of the Complete Backup strategy. I back up our internal machines to DAT tape using Retrospect every night (or in the case of PowerBooks and my infrequently used PC, whenever they turn on). I also use a pair of 2 GB hard disks in a RAID setup on my main machine, such that if one dies, the other will contain an exact duplicate of the data and instantly take over (in theory - it's hard to test). I use the RAID setup because I hate losing the important email that arrives between the time my Mac backs up and the time some sort of data loss occurs.

Why do I do this? Call me paranoid, but I can't guarantee I'll have time to spare when something goes wrong: Murphy's Law being what it is, it seems more likely that I'll need to start working as quickly as possible. You must decide how important your work is to you; that decision affects the type of hardware and software you choose, plus your overall backup strategy.

My primary weakness is that I don't have a solid offsite backup strategy. Geoff Duncan and I periodically trade DAT tapes, but if my house burned down, I'd be weeks or months out of date.

Backup Considerations -- You must keep a number of issues in mind when forming a coherent backup strategy.

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From Strategies to Solutions -- For most people, massive data loss is something that only happens to someone else. But if you've ever been forced to attempt the resurrection of a lost report or Quicken data file, you probably don't want to get burned again. In the second part of this article, I'll explore many of the backup hardware and software options available.