RIP, Backups

Posted by Keith McMillan

February 20, 2008 | 2 Comments

I recently installed a new 750 gigabyte hard drive into one of my systems. As I was realizing that I now had 3/4 of a terabyte of information on a single spindle, and chuckling with glee, I was also thinking about backups, and that they’re really no longer a fact of many people’s life at home. This is disconcerting for me, because I understand the risks involved, if that spindle goes away due to any of a number of reasons (power problems, mechanical failure, coffee in the chassis, etc) then all that data is gone.

There are two primary reasons that home users, and in fact even  a fair number of businesses, don’t back up their machines. Size of media and time involved.

Where is the typical home user going to find space to back up 750 GB? CD-ROM and even DVD devices are too small to serve as effective backup media, and too slow in addition. Backing up to other drives is really the only viable approach. Adding in an additional drive simply for backup seems excessive.
Microsoft has recently introduced their Windows Home Server, which would be another logical place for such a backup. Network attached storage devices from manufacturers like D-Link, Netgear, Western Digital and Buffalo have been around for a while, and would also be a good location. Your typical home user doesn’t realize either these tools are around, nor should they need to. Both of these solutions presume more home network infrastructure than the typical house has, and setting up a backup schedule requires users that understand they need to do it. Unfortunately, this doesn’t occur to most people until it’s too late.

The second reason is time: unless a backup is scheduled to run automatically, and at a time that the machine is both on, and unused (or lightly loaded) the backup interferes with use of the computer. This creates an incentive to disable, reschedule or cancel the backups, in turn decreasing the likelihood that they’re actually done.

Larger businesses tend to have network file servers that provide shared drives, which are backed up, and also to run  backup software on their employees computers. This however is also an imperfect solution, unless employees are unable to store files anywhere other than on the shared drives.  It also doesn’t address machines used by road warriors, or by employees working at home temporarily or telecommuting.

This is a problem without neat solutions, unfortunately. I’ve run for years without backups by using RAID to reduce my risk of device failures. This doesn’t help me with accidental deletion, though. The rapid growth of primary storage device capacity, which has not been matched by secondary storage capacity and speed have created a situation where backups are not really a fact of life for most people.


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Comment by John W
2008-03-02 00:21:39

Another solution albeit a slow one that requires direct action by the user is internet based storage. I use Yahoo to store zipped backups of files. If something happens, I can always replace my computer, get a copy of winzip and restore my data.

Of course because it does take my direct intervention I don’t do the backups nearly as often as I should. I know I should know better I’ve been at this long enough.

Though I did just buy a 500 gig external hard drive to store media files on and probably some backups.

Comment by Keith McMillan
2008-03-03 18:37:20

Good point, John. It has the advantage of being accessible from “everywhere”, although as you point out, speed might be an issue.

I was thinking about this some more. There have been a spate of “one-touch backup” solutions in the last few years, although most don’t come near the capacity of my 750 GB hard drive.

And just imagine how many of these drives you would need to do a reasonable backup regimen! I used to do backups to tape, and using the time-honored “Towers of Hanoi” backup regimen. It requires n tapes for (2^n)-1 backups. Can you imagine buying 3 disks to get 1 week of backups? And that would involve understanding how to use the Towers backup scheme.

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