How to create a data Backup Strategy

Backup StrategyHave you ever lost pictures, logbooks or the source code you have worked so hard on during the last few nights? Then you have already experienced how painful the loss of data can be. If you want to avoid this unpleasant experience, it’s definitely the right moment to think about a data backup strategy. I’ll split up this topic in two separated posts. In this post I would like to present you the most important factors you need to consider when defining a backup strategy. In the second post I’ll present you my backup strategy and how I implemented it.

The 6 most common ways to loose data

1. Hard disk crash

Sometimes it just happens; the harddisk in your PC doesn’t boot anymore. A harddisk failure can be classified into several stages. Maybe there might only be a damaged sector so that there is still a possibility to recover (at least partially) the data. In case of a physical damage, often the only possibility to recover the data is, to send it to a professional recovery service. Unfortunately these services will charge you easily up to several thousand dollars.

2. User operating error

Oups! Your kids just accidentally deleted the fotos from your last family vacations? Sometimes the problem isn’t the PC, it’s the person who’s sitting in front of it. Everybody makes mistakes, and that’s ok, but be aware of this fact.

3. incompatible Software / hardware

For Windows there is a hugh amount of software available. It’s both, a blessing and a curse. While having the freedom to install and connect basically everything to your computer, (hardware) compatibility can’t be guaranteed. Corrupt drivers might cause bluescreens of death every time when booting Windows. Wouldn’t it then be handy to have yesterday’s backup available?

4. Malware

Cybercrime is a real threat to our IT systems. There are several possibilities to protect your computer from viruses, Trojan horses and other malware. However there is no absolute protection. Modern rootkit viruses are anchoring themselves deep in the system. Sometimes it is impossible to remove them anymore. The only solution which protects you from a system re-installation is the restoration of an uninfected backup.

5. Theft of your Laptop / Computer

Are you prepared in case your Laptop gets stolen? Laptops get stolen quite frequently in busy places like the train station or the airport. This might even happen at home. While you are on vacation, burglars might steal the brand new MacBook out your shack. Even if your harddisk was encrypted to prevent the misuse of your data, you need a backup / copy to recover the lost data.

6. Environmental risks

There are environmental risks which can’t be controlled by you. The most obvious factors are flooding, hurricanes and earthquakes. But also the unexpected water damage of your washing machine might become a risk while you are passing the weekend out of town.

Best practice for a backup strategy

In the previous break we identified several threats how data loss could occur. Obviously there is no guarantee that anything happens at all to your data, but there will always be a certain probability that one of the mentioned risks become true.

Unfortunately there exists no unique backup strategy. A backup strategy always has to be tailored to the individual needs and circumstances. This might include the importance of data, the available Backup Strategy - Single Point of failurebudget and the probability of the mentioned risks. The best way to avoid data loss, is to avoid a single point of failure! Best practice has identified 5 major rules which should always be considered when designing a backup strategy:


1. Your data should exist at least in two separate geographic locations

2. You are only as safe as your latest backup

3. Failures can occur both, in hardware and software

4. Regularly check the integrity of your backup

5. Be sure how to perform a recovery

1. Your data should exist at least in two separate geographic locations

Try to have a copy of your important data / backups in two geographical separated locations. The easiest possibility is to create a full backup on an external USB harddisk and bring it to another place (e.g. Work, you parents house, a friends house…etc). Another solution are cloud based services where you rent storage on remote servers. Services like carbonate.com provide unlimited space for backups on their servers. They usually come with a configurable client software which automatically backups your data in the background. If you are worried about the confidentiality of your data, ensure that your remote data strorage is encrypted (e.g. with Truecrypt). The following diagram shows a simplified view on having backups in a remote place.

remote Backup Strategy

2. You are only as safe as your latest backup

What is the usage of a backup you created two years ago? Perform backups frequently! Try to automate the backup process as much as possible. The more convinient it is to create a backup, the more likely your backups will be up-to-date. Try to make the backup process as easy and painless as possible. A good backup software (I’m using Acronis True Image) will create automated backup jobs on the fly so that no more interaction is needed.

Adjust the frequency of your backups to the frequency of changes. If you are a software developer, you might want to backup you code on a daily bases, if you’re using mainly your PC to browse the web, anything between a weekly and a monthly backup might be appropriate.

3. Failures can occure in both, hardware and software

Hardware failures are as probable as software failures. A typical hardware is a harddisk crash. A software failure could be a corrupted filesystem which prevents you from booting the operating system anymore. There are a couple of good software maintenance tools available (e.g. checkdsk or spinrite) which try to correct problems in the filesystem but they can’t substitute a second copy of your data. Each backup software has it’s strength and weaknesses. A good idea might be to use more than one backup software utilities to decrease the effect of possible software bugs. The following diagrams show a possible implementation of this strategy. Perform daily an incremental backup to a local USB disk and a full backup to a cloud based backup service once a week.

Defining a Backup Strategy

4. Regularly check the integrity of your backup

When creating a backup for a longer time, be sure that the backups created still can be restored. Don’t create incremental backups only. The more incremental steps you create, the higher is the probability that integrity is endangered. The recovery of an incremental backup needs each individual incremental step. If just one incremental file is damaged, the whole backup might be useless!

5. Be sure how to perform a recovery

It just happened. Your system system crashed. You can’t boot the operating system anymore. You need to recover the latest backup. Fortunately your backup software performed yesterday night automatically an incremental backup. Do you know how to recover the data? Do you need a kind of recovery / bootdisk? Did you generate that disk? Do you have to format the drives before restoring the partitions? Will you be able to access the USB drive or the web based service? It is crucial that you understand the recovery process and know how to to perform a recovery. Use a virtual machine to train at least once the recovery of  a backup.

Summary

I hope that this article will be helpful for designing your individual backup strategy. Data safety always costs money. How much it costs, depends on your individual strategy and the risk you are willing to take. Even if your budget is limited and you have to accept a single point of failure, you should see the backup with a USB drive as a minimum level of data safety.

Do you have any comments or thoughts? Let me know them!

About Tobias (DH1TW)

Self-confessed Starbucks addict. Loves to travel around the globe. Enjoys the technical preparations of Amateur-Radio contests as much as the contests themselves. Engineer by nature. Entrepreneur. For more, follow him @DH1TW

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