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Are Your Backups Actually Good?

Computer Failure

Being the founder of a property management software business (LandlordMax), I can’t tell you how many times we’re contacted by people who’ve lost their data because of a hard drive failure, a complete computer failure, a virus, and so on. It happens all the time. So much so that a few years ago I wrote 4 Simple Steps to Protect Your Data From 99.9999% of all Computer Failures to help prevent this from happening to as many people as possible.

The good news is that today I’m seeing a lot more people pro-actively backing up their computers and their data. The bad news is that not all solutions are good. Whatever your backup solution is, you should test it before you NEED to use it. You might be surprised at how exactly it works. Or maybe it just simply doesn’t work. Maybe the automated backups aren’t actually backing up anything. Maybe it’s backing up the wrong files. Maybe the software you’re using is faulty. Whatever backup method, test it.

To give you an example, I was recently talking to a customer who was very active in her backup procedures. She knew that backing up was important, and she was very actively using a service to remotely backup her data in real time. I highly commend her for that, that’s better than most people. That’s exactly what we all want to see. I can’t praise her enough for being pro-active. And because of this she felt confident that her data was safe, which is completely reasonable, I would too.

However there’s one very big issue, and maybe you’ve already spotted it. If not, re-read the previous paragraph. Can you see it now? Her data was backed up in real time! If you think about it, this only protects you from a hardware failure or theft at best. And even then, if the harddrive is bad, you’ll still have the bad (corrupted) files overwrite your good files!! It only really protects you from a computer failure that’s very quick (power supply that shorts the machine) or theft. Maybe a few other situations, but it’s very limited. It doesn’t protect you from a bad harddrive, you’ll just push the same bad data to the backup service as the files get corrupted. It doesn’t protect you from a virus, the virus is just pushed over to the backup. It doesn’t protect you from accidentally deleting a file, the file is just as fast deleted on the backup!! Real time backups are good for backing up you system as it is exactly right now, good AND bad!

In other words, real time backups can be very limiting unless you can revert to a previous day, week, or month. And because most of these services are low cost, they don’t really offer these options. They just can’t, it’s not economically possible. For example, the solution use by the previously mentioned customer charges $54.95 a year for real time backups. If you look at the numbers, that’s less than $5/month for unlimited storage. I did notice that in her case the bandwidth was really slow, an 8MB file took about 15 minutes to restore. I would also assume support is about as good as $5/month hosting. But ignoring that, how can they feasibly offer tagged (dated) backups at those prices? Would most consumers pay $100/year for backups? My guess is probably not. Which means you won’t be able to revert to a previous version, just to your current version, whether it’s good OR bad.

Which means that if you overwrite a file, it immediately overwrites your backup. You can’t revert. You can only get what’s on your  disk right now. The same is true if you’re infected. All you can do is get back the infected files. The only time it will save you is if you’re computer dies suddenly due to a hardware failure, theft, or other even less likely events.

So the moral of this post, whatever your backup solution is, I strongly recommend you verify it before you NEED to use it. You may be in for some surprises. The backup disk may not work. The backup system may not actually be backing up anything. Can you get a previous backup that’s not from today (in case you have a virus)? How long will it take you to get your computer back up (at 8Mb/15 minutes, a 1 GB backup could take days!!)? Don’t just think because you have a backup solution that you’re good to go, test it!



 
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Comments:

  •     Karen Tiede
    · June 23rd, 2009  · 4:53 pm  · Permalink

    Something I’ve pondered–testing the restore on a different PC. I’m not enough of a PC-expert to be absolutely sure that what I’m seeing on a test restore (or equivalent) is what’s coming from a backup and not something on my still-functioning PC. Plan on taking my backup drive to a (trusted) friend’s PC and testing there one of these days.

    Question: Do you still recommend the same services / applications you recommended in the 4-step article? it’s been a while…

    thx

  •     And now, a word from your hard drive
    · June 23rd, 2009  · 6:38 pm  · Permalink

    […] Grenier, of Landlord Max, wrote about testing backups yesterday. I’ve pondered this problem. It’s a partial solution to dutifully kick off a […]

  •     Steph
    · June 24th, 2009  · 11:25 am  · Permalink

    Hi Karen,

    For everything but a disk image, you should be able to just try to restore a backup to another directory. For example, can you retrieve old files from your external drive, etc. As well, and very importantly, try and imagine how you would retrieve a backup of your data (disk image or even just files) from 3 months ago (assuming you got the virus 2 months ago). How would you do it?

    As for the services/applications, I still very much use the same. The only difference now is that at my company LandlordMax we use a NAP (dedicated storage device) located on the network instead of external drives. We use the DNS-323 device with mirrored raid for our NAP. Very nice little machine, and it’s incredibly quiet. The only thing is that if you do get the DNS-323, I recommend getting the version 1.0.5 firmware, we had a lot of problems with versions 1.0.6 and 1.0.7. I don’t know if it’s still the latest thing, but it’s been great for us.

  •     ryanvines
    · July 6th, 2009  · 12:08 pm  · Permalink

    Thanks for the post.Your post looks very important to me .Acctually I also do the same as the lady you mentioned,but from now on I will be a little more careful in backing up my files .Now I came to know about the real time,thanks again.

  •     Steph
    · July 6th, 2009  · 12:26 pm  · Permalink

    They of course have to know about this issue, they have customers encountering it all the time. And I can only imagine some of the nastier emails when they can’t backup because their backup is also corrupted.

    Short term the customer is happy, until they experience a catastrophic failure. Seeing as you don’t get infected with viruses everyday, most likely the customer has been with them for some time before they encounter any issues. Sure after they major failure you lose the customer, but in the meantime you’ve basically milked them for a year, maybe two, or if you’re really lucky for several years.

    That’s the difference between building your business for the long haul versus making a quick buck. In this scenario, the company knows that their product has some severe shortcomings and they don’t plan to fix them.

    What they’re really offering is a false sense of security to their customers, not real protection. But whatever, they’re making money today. Definitely NOT my kind of business!

  •     elina
    · August 9th, 2009  · 2:30 am  · Permalink

    its extremely important to have backups ready at all time.I know how it feels.thanks for the information.going to help me too

  •     shashikant
    · September 25th, 2009  · 9:47 am  · Permalink

    very fine

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