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Computer Counselor - February 2001

Planning and Implementing a Computer Backup System

Computer crashes are a fact of life, but backups can make big disasters smaller

By Carole Levitt and Elliott Stern

Carole Levitt is an attorney and president of Internet For Lawyers, an MCLE Internet research seminar company. Elliott Stern owns Maestro Computing Services, specializing in small office computer systems.

Attorneys are used to the concept of backing up their arguments by citing precedent and presenting relevant evidence. With the advent of computers, the concept of "backing up" gained another dimension. Just as a legal argument without backup is useless, an attorney's entire practice can be rendered useless if its computer system is hit by disaster and a backup system is not in place. Computer disasters can happen at any time and can stem from numerous causes. Lost or corrupted files, the inability of Windows to start properly, and even the loss of all data in the computer can be the result of small, everyday problems, such as wear and tear, viruses, electrical surges or outages, and accidents. 

Disaster protection is like title insurance, which ensures that the title insurance company will provide the owner with a legal defense against a claim on title (and, if the case is lost, compensation) but cannot shield the owner from someone's attempt to claim title. Likewise, a computer user who has disaster protection will be able to recover lost files. No backup system is a guarantee that disaster will not strike; rather, backups offer insurance to mitigate the damage.

A backup system makes a total or partial copy of the information on the computer's hard drive. Backup systems include floppy disks, Zip drives, recordable CD-ROMs, tape drives, disk imaging systems, and Internet storage. A partial backup usually includes only selected data files that the user has created, such as word processing documents and spreadsheets. Saving a copy of an important file or two on a floppy or Zip disk is always a good idea, but a partial backup cannot get a computer working again. Only total backups can restore a seriously damaged hard drive.

A total backup covers all the files on the computer, including system settings, configuration files, and the personal preference items that are part of the operating system as well as most applications. Thus, one important reason for having a total backup is that if the system files that enable a modem are lost or corrupted, the connection to the Internet is also lost, and thus online help becomes unavailable. If the system files that link a computer to a printer are damaged, then the ability to print a document is lost. The best solution for system protection and disaster recovery is therefore a total system backup that copies both the user-created documents and the system files.

Backup Choices

The best choice of media for partial backups is the type of disk that is most practical for the user. Floppy disks, Zip disks, or CD-ROMs all may be used to make copies of user files. When considering the making of total backups, important factors are cost, ease of use, reliability, and capacity. To decide how much capacity the backup system must have, figure out how much information is on the computer. If a computer has, for example, six gigabytes of information (including the entire operating system, all programs, and all data), it will take approximately 42 floppy disks, 24 Zip disks, 10 CD-ROMs, or 1 tape cartridge to create a total system backup.

Since everything on the computer fits on one tape cartridge backup, a recovery from a tape should proceed much more smoothly than it would on media of less capacity. Tape backup requires the purchase of a tape drive and tape cartridges. The drives can be installed in the computer like a disk drive or plugged into a parallel, USB, or SCSI port. These drives always come with backup software and instructions. Tape backups are in wide use, but, like anything else, they can fail, so users should practice due diligence by investigating the different brands and testing the system once it is installed.

Disk imaging makes a copy of a computer's entire store of information onto another hard drive or another portion of the same drive (in computerese, the different portions are called partitions, and a hard drive divided into sections is called a partitioned drive). Imaging software is relatively inexpensive and easy to use. If imaging is used as a backup, the drive used as the backup should be at least the same size as the main drive. With this system, catastrophic loss of data can happen only when both drives (or both partitions) fail at the same time.

The Internet is another source of backup space. Backing up to an Internet location has some risk. If a user's Internet connection is slow, the data recovery will be slow as well, and if an Internet connection is not available, neither is the data. When a user's computer crashes, it may lose the ability to connect to the Internet and thus reach the data that can restore the computer's ability to get on the Internet. Borrowing a computer is an option but leaves open the question of how much information can be restored from the Internet site onto a borrowed computer. Another worry is the reliability of the Internet backup provider. When Red Gorilla declared bankruptcy in November 2000, users' data became inaccessible for a week until another provider took control of Red Gorilla's data. Finally, what backup method do these providers themselves use to preserve data, and how can one be assured that the system is virus-free? With all this in mind, one may wonder why anyone uses Internet backups. There are two reasons: One is that Internet backups can be cheap, and another is that a user's backup data can be accessed from anywhere in the world where an Internet connection is available. This is

a boon to roving attorneys with laptops. (Travelers should also remember the American Express warning: "Don't leave home without it." Road warriors should always take backup disks with them. Disaster strikes anywhere, including out of the office.)

Natural disasters offer another lesson in data protection: Store backups off site. When the Northridge earthquake damaged a Westside office building, it was declared unsafe, and tenants were not allowed to enter it. The building was later destroyed, along with the offices-and any backup disks and tape-inside it. Attorneys responsible for their own computers (or perhaps simply for their own work product) may want to institute a procedure to regularly take backup media home. For example, an attorney's computer may have a tape backup. Every day (or whenever a total backup is made), the attorney takes the backup tape home for storage in a fireproof safe. Five tapes are rotated (after a new tape arrives, the oldest one is taken to work and rerecorded). As part of the backup procedure, the attorney should make sure that the backup recording on the tape has actually been made, with no errors. Backup systems usually create a log specifically for this purpose.

How does one know what to back up when? The simple rule is to back up as often as critical information changes. For some businesses this is daily, others weekly. Some businesses that cannot afford to lose any information for any length of time have disk imaging systems that make backups constantly. Whatever media is used, backup system manufacturers recommend using a media rotation schedule. Using one tape over and over is not a good idea.

Once a backup system is installed, users should learn all about how to restore their data-and this should be done before disaster hits. Users need to become familiar with the recovery method before they have to use it while panic-stricken. A full-scale recovery practice session is by far the best means of testing the backup system-and its user. In the best of all worlds, the safest protection, recovery, and restoration plan is fourfold. Item one is to use floppy or Zip disks to back up selected documents as soon as they are created. Critical documents do not have to wait for a scheduled total system backup. Two, use tape (and/or disk imaging and/or the Internet) to maintain a complete system backup according to a schedule. Three, rotate your backup media. Four, learn how to recover data before the inevitable disaster strikes.

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