Back the Data Up, Part 1

I used to love watching Home Improvement. One of Tim the Toolman Taylor's favorite sayings was "Back the truck up!" I thought I would appropriate (and modify) that saying for today's title. So now you can go back and read the title with appropriate emphasis. Ar, ar, ar...

So we all know we should back up our data. But how often do we actually do it? We all know that it's not a question of if our hard drive (or entire computer) will fail us, but when. But what do we do about it? Before we talk strategy, consider the following tale. 

Our lead pastor, Kurt, was out of town a few months ago. One morning, he went to wake up his MacBook and heard that unnerving sound of a drive that won't spin up. All he got on the screen was the flashing disk/question mark icon. He took it into the Apple store and after some tests, they couldn't get the drive to spin either. It was a total hardware failure. All his data was lost. In fact, the only thing he had left, was his iPhone, which had his contacts and music on it. 

After having a new hard drive installed, new system software loaded, and all applications reloaded he went to sync his iPhone. In a perfect world, it would have moved all of his contacts and music back to his new hard drive. Except he didn't read the dialog box closely enough and he ended up blanking his iPhone. Now it was all gone. Luckily, he had a...no wait; he didn't have a backup. Now that hurts, I don't care what planet you're from!

Now that I've hopefully scared you into thinking you actually need to backup your data, let's consider some options for doing so. 

Network/Server Backup

If you are connected to a server system such as an Exchange server or a Tiger or Leopard server, you are probably backed up on a regular basis. Still, it's not a bad idea to check in with your network administrator to find out what and how often your data is backed up. One of the great new features of Leopard server is the Time Machine backup feature. It makes backing up your user account very simple, assuming the server has enough storage space to accommodate all users. 

Network storage is great as typically it's going to be a RAID. RAID storage, when configured properly, gives you some security in case of a drive failure. RAID 1 is a mirror copy--that is, two drives with identical information. One fails, the other still has all the data. Arguably better is RAID 5, which stripes the data across multiple drives and in the event of a single drive failure, the data can be rebuilt. You can even set up RAIDs that will survive multiple, simultaneous drive failures. These are not cheap, however. Your network storage may also be backed up on a tape drive for further security. If you take the tapes off-site, you really have a strong system going.

While this is a great plan, it gets expensive quickly and typically requires some in-depth IT knowledge to set up and manage effectively. 

Network Attached Storage (NAS)

Many manufacturers are coming out with NAS devices. These nifty devices are essentially hard drive enclosures with a Gigabit or Fast Ethernet port on them. Hook them up to your network and you can backup right to them. You can pick up a few terabytes of storage for under $1,500, which would accommodate a dozen or so people. They are often configured as RAID systems, so they too provide a level of protection against a hard disk failure. There are a few caveats, however.

First, you typically need some type of software to backup your computer. Often it comes with the NAS device, which is good. Apple's Time Machine would be great, but it only backs up to Apple's own Time Capsule, Leopard server or an Airport Extreme base station with a hard drive attached. There are some workarounds, but they are tricky. For a few people, the Time Capsule is a good solution, as would be an Airport Extreme base station and external drive. The downside is that they only work with the Mac, and they will quickly max out with more than few people using them.

The second caveat is speed. Gigabit Ethernet is pretty darned quick, but unless your IT infrastructure is built out to support it, chances are, you'll only be getting Fast Ethernet speeds. Once you get to the point of doing incremental backups (which we'll get to tomorrow), the network speed isn't that big of an issue. But, if you're like me and have 87+ Gigs of stuff on your laptop's drive, that first run at backup is going to take a while. Backing up the 250+ Gigs of media on my MacPro editor would be a good weekend project. If you're setting up a NAS backup, plan on doing one user per day, and start the initial backup first thing in the morning. 

Local Hard Drives

This is perhaps the easiest and fastest to implement. And now that drives are as inexpensive as they are, it might be the cheapest. You can pick up a 500 Gig hard drive at your big box store or online for $150 (less if you stick with USB 2.0). Plug it into your computer, and it's backup and away. Last week Santa (OK, it was the UPS guy brining a box from my favorite drive store, Other World Computing) brought me three external drives; two 500 gig quad-interface (USB 2.0, FireWire 400 & 800 and eSATA) and a dual drive enclosure with a 500 Gig and 750 gig inside (with USB 2.0 and FireWire 400 & 800). The tab for all this storage (2.25 Terabytes!) was about $600.

Using the FireWire 800 interface, I hooked into my MacBook Pro and had Time Machine go to work. A little over an hour later and my entire drive was backed up. I will be deploying the other drives to different computers in the office this week. 

The nice thing about local hard drives for laptops is that you have essentially off-site storage for your backup. That is, if your laptop is with you and your office burns down, though your backup is lost, you still have your data. If your laptop flies off the roof of your car because your wife put it there while buckling the kids in (this actually happened to someone...), your data is safe at the office. 

The downside of local hard drives is that a backup hard drive is still a hard drive, and will fail eventually. It's never a bad idea to have an additional backup of really critical data. For that, you can look into tape, optical or even online storage with a company that provides that service. 

Optical Backup

This doesn't really qualify as backup, per se, but it could be a viable option. Burning DVDs of your iTunes library, photos or other files that you want to keep safe (and that don't change that often) is a good way to keep them safe. Managing it can be a chore, however. You can quickly end up with a stack of discs with no way to quickly find the files you need. Still, I wouldn't argue with anyone who burns their photo library to DVD once in a while. 

Well, there are a few targets for backup. Tomorrow, we'll discuss strategies for making sure you have stuff backed up in a way that's useful, efficient, and most of all, there when you need it.