What is your computer backup system? And will it work?


For some time now, we’ve been meaning to offer a few words about computer backup, but somehow never quite got around to it. We kept putting it off a little, in favor of something else. And a little more. And ... does this sound familiar?

Recent news about worldwide ransomware attacks (“Wanna Cry” last spring, and "Petya" just last week) have brought this issue back to sharp focus. Those attacks may not have been aimed at the typical home-office business, but experts say that their perpetrators care little about collateral damage, and any future attack might be even more pervasive. Besides, most threats don't get such publicity. Every day, data is tragically lost to mundane causes such as a failed hard drive or power supply. When it happens to you, only you and a few others will know.

So here goes. What is your computer backup system? And how do you know it will work?

Every computer user should have a reliable backup system – and should use it. Whether your computer succumbs to a malware attack, a hardware failure, or your own human error, having a backup will make the situation much less nerve-wracking, and probably far less expensive. It will also minimize your downtime, which can also be costly.

We're talking about more than the cost of replacing your equipment, or a bit of downtime. Losing your stuff can cost you clients. Consider, would you continue using an accountant if they had lost your documents? And if your data goes south, could you even do your billing?

You can’t really know how it feels to have a system failure ruin your day, week, or month, until it happens to you. It’s likely to be gut-wrenching unless you’ve prepared for what you’ll do next. Data retrieval services are time-consuming and may be prohibitively expensive. Re-installing all your software from scratch can be a huge timesink. Replacing a computer component – or your computer itself – can lead you into a maze of options.

Even more nerve-wracking is when you don’t even know what to do next.

It’s far easier and cheaper to back up your data regularly, in a proper way, and – almost as important -- to have an emergency action plan.

What’s the proper way? There are many options. Some are overly simple, others may be overly cautious. The important thing now is for you to understand your needs and know that your backup system will reliably meet them. Then pick a solution that feels right for you, one that you know you will use.

We’ll leave specific recommendations to our Tech team or your other consultants. There are just too many variables, situations and products to cover everything here. What’s more, new options are emerging and old ones fading all the time. (George Whittam, Edge Studio Director of Technology, teach an HS201 Webinar about this stuff.)

But the following considerations are virtually universal. (We’ll focus on your audio needs, although, as a home-office business, these issues also apply to your email, word processing, promotional database, website, images, accounting and invoicing, and other business data.)

Multiple questions for planning your backup system

What is your Operating System (Windows, Apple, Linux, Android, etc.)? Some backup options will vary accordingly, because different devices and systems support various forms of hardware and software. For example, you can add a USB or other external drive to a Mac or notebook, but cannot easily add a removable drive sleeve the way you might with a large Windows PC. Windows includes backup software, but it may not be as simple as Apple’s Time Machine.

How complex is your computer setup? Do you essentially have a standalone audio workstation with just a few programs? Or is your entire life on one computer, holding dozens of programs, many of which are specially configured? The answer to this might decide whether your backup strategy is to copy everything, or just your data. After all, reinstalling a few programs is one thing. Reinstalling and configuring scores of programs and utilities is another.

Do you need to backup one drive, or many? If you use a notebook computer or tablet, all your stuff might be on one drive. If you use a traditional PC, you might have one drive for programs, another for general data and configuration files, and maybe yet another just for audio recording.

How will you make both short- and long-term backups? Both are important. If your computer goes down tomorrow, and your last backup was weeks (or even months?) ago, that’s an intolerable amount of data lost. On the other hand, if you unwittingly downloaded malware yesterday but are not yet aware of it (some viruses trigger themselves after a delay), the backup you made yesterday would include that malware ... so you should have another backup made at an earlier date.

Is your backup isolated from your computer? If your backup is on a second hard drive, or on a USB drive that is always connected, and you get hit by a virus or massive surge, what’s to keep that virus from jumping from drive to drive, or the surge from traveling throughout your system? This is one reason to back up onto a dedicated removable drive. After each backup session, disconnect it.

Do you have both local and remote backup storage? Suppose you have a fire, flood or other disaster? To protect from this, don’t just disconnect that backup – store it to another room, or someplace else altogether. (Remember to avoid storing drives near magnets and large motors!)

Below, we'll talk a bit about offline backups, which (depending on the product) are another way of backing up automatically and/or storing your data off-premises.

Why it's smart to have multiple backups

Fewer and fewer people have a large Windows tower these days, but if you do, there’s yet another option: one or two removable drive bays. They’re affordable and some don’t involve a “drawer” – to replace a drive, you pop it out and insert another. (But unless you are sure you know what you’re doing, don’t “hot swap” them; that is, before swapping, do turn off your computer.) This gives you a virtually infinite number of backup targets, so, if your backup software allows, you can “leapfrog” them, never overwriting your most recent backup.

Online storage is another way to deal with this concern. There are services that back up your data automatically, just as you would on a removable drive. When you check them out, be sure they are compatible with your system setup. For example, if you have multiple drives, can the service be configured to back up files from all of them, or will it back up only one? If the latter, that one drive should hold all files that can't be replaced or reinstalled.

A backup stored in the cloud is immune from local mishaps. But be sure you know and remember how to access it from another computer.

That’s another concern. ... Suppose you have everything backed up -- regularly, redundantly, reliably. All your data is securely stored away.

Do you know how to restore it? Consider restoring an insignificant file, just as rehearsal. Restore speed is also a factor. Some users report that some remote backup services' restore processes are impossibly slow. Test this by restoring a folder that contains a LOT of tiny files.

Since your need for a restoration might be far in the future, that raises the issue of hardware and software compatibility. What if your backup hardware fails? We know people who have had various such episodes: a tape drive started smoking (the mechanism had seized); a proprietary type of external drive was discontinued, as were its removable discs; the software reported: "Backup File is Corrupt." All these were standard business products at the time.

Luckily, a USB hard drive or thumb drive is universally supported, and storage in the cloud by a mainstream service provider is also likely to remain available.

Still, some people feel more secure with a backup backup method. Don’t be paranoid or go overboard, but it's not overly cautious to have more than one backup method, especially if your continuous availability is critical to your clients’ operation. This applies to both software and hardware.

For example:

Backup continually (automatically) to a USB hard drive. Also back up regularly to the cloud, either by copying critical files or using an automatic service. And after a major project, back up your irreplaceable active file(s) to a thumb drive (or any other reliable device or service).

(One of our key people uses Mozy.com, which has various options including redundant local and cloud backup, and the ability to back up a document every time you edit it.)

There is even technology where a computer maintains two identical hard drives, so if one goes down, the system just keeps on going. Meanwhile, the failed drive can be repaired or replaced.) (If you know how to set that up, you probably already know the importance of following a reliable backup plan. But thank you for reading!)

Backing up multiple devices

Speaking of multiple devices, you can also set up "backup operations." Suppose your system fails, or you can't get to it, how will you record and do business until things are back to normal?

For example, if you typically record on a PC, know how you would use your tablet or even your phone to record in an emergency.

Do you have a computer for your office computer, and another for your home entertainment system? If the office computer goes down, know how you would temporarily put the entertainment computer in its place. Of course, you should be sure your essential software (including drivers) can be installed (or better yet has been installed) on the backup computer.

Edge Studio’s tech staff knows audio software and hardware inside out, and we’re also conversant with a wide range of hardware, operating systems, and related programs. We’re available remotely at a moment’s notice, so you can consider us as your consultant in all things audio.

What we use

As we said, different people will have different backup needs and methods, and that applies to Edge Studio departments and personnel. But for example, here's how George Whittam covers his risks:

1. Mac Time Machine
2. Dropbox for all WORK files (a limited-storage Basic account is free)
https://www.dropbox.com/
3. CrashPlan (a cloud-backup service) for every file.
https://www.crashplan.com
4. iDrive for Android phone backup (trying it with Mac as well)
https://www.idrive.com/
5. Offline USB hard drive, to archive files when access no longer needed (past video projects, photos, etc.)

Note how George's plan includes various types of redundancy. Your needs may vary.

Rather than let all this make you tense and nervous, sort out your needs, create an appropriate backup plan, one that can be easily adhered to, and follow it. A simple plan that you follow is infinitely better than a complex plan that you don't.

Then rest easy, relax, release the tension. It will help you be vocally free.

ADDITIONAL READING:

A Quick Guide to Backing Up Your Critical Data, by J. D. Biersdorfer And Kelly Couturier. New York Times, March 31, 2017
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/31/technology/personaltech/data-backup-g...

The Best Backup Software of 2017, by Michael Muchmore, PCMag.com
http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2278661,00.asp

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