May 6th, 2002

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Backing up Today will keep the Computer Technician Away

(And save you lots of money, heartache and perhaps even your business)

Over the 15 years I have been working with businesses, and their computer systems, I have found again and again that people fail to follow appropriate backup procedures.

If you bought a new car, and the agent told you that you need to have it serviced every 20,000 miles, and change the oil every 5,000 miles, are you going to believe what the agent says, or take a chance with your new car? Letting the oil get dirty and old can increase engine wear significantly and cost a bundle, when your engine needs replacing before its time.

Businesses buy and install computer systems to solve some business, administrative or organizational problem – or all three. We have become so used to the idea of using computers to run our businesses that we forget that, not so long ago, businesses were run quite differently – using the pen, paper and index card method.

Early implementers of computers were the pioneers who spent significant amounts of money on hardware and software so the organizational aspects of their businesses could be automated. Those who did this well reaped significant benefits. American Airlines spent millions developing an airline reservation system, which allowed them to service clients better, as well as make more efficient use of plane space, selling tickets at various price points so that airplanes would fly with more paying passengers, increasing total revenue significantly. In addition, American Airlines rented the system to travel agents and other airlines, allowing them further advantages.

In the cleaning industry, early implementers of advanced software and hardware systems found that they could also service clients better, run their business more efficiently and with fewer employees. These businesses gave themselves a competitive advantage. Having a more efficient business meant that they could cut costs, and either make larger profits, or be able to be more competitive in the marketplace when bidding for new work.

As more cleaning businesses learned about the competitive advantages of computerizing, they also implemented computer systems. As this happened, the competitive advantage of the early pioneers was lessened. However, computer systems were now seen as indispensable to any cleaning business.

At the same time, over the past 10 years, computers have become very reliable, sturdy and robust. In the early 80s, a 20 Mb hard disk could be expected to last two years, on average, before it began developing bad sectors, or it just died altogether. There was nothing as dreadful as that awful sinking feeling in one’s gut when one turned on the computer one morning and received a perplexing message indicating that the hard disk had died.

Nowadays, hard disks can easily last five or ten years without any trace of a problem. The other hardware installed in your PC will also probably prove just as reliable. It is highly unusual to see a motherboard fry, or RAM chips go bad.

So, you might say, “What’s the problem? If things are so reliable, I don’t need to worry, right?”

Wrong! It is because computers – both hardware and software – have become so reliable, coupled with the fact that we make greater reliance upon them, that the effects of a disaster can be even more devastating. I am frequently amazed to find that many businesses – both large and small – have inadequate disaster recovery plans in place. Some people are using computers without even an adequate understanding of how their data is stored, and how to access and backup that data.

What are the elements of an adequate backup plan? First, you should identify where your important data is stored. Programs are stored in certain locations, and data in others. Sometimes, the data associated with a particular program may be in the same folder as the program files. There is generally some way of determining where the data for a particular program is stored. If you’re not sure, ask the vendor, or a competent technician, For example, the data files for The Scheduling Manager (stand-alone version) are stored in the same folder as the program files ¾ generally “C:\Scheduling Manager”. These data fields are easily identifiable – they all have a “.mdb” (for Microsoft Data Base) extension.

For another example: Quickbooks stores data in files with a “.QBW” extension. Generally, the files for a company called “Acme Associates” will be named “ACME.QBW”, and will be found in the folder where you chose to install Quickbooks. Files for Microsoft Word will be stored generally with a “.DOC” extension, and Excel files with a “.XLS” extension.

I have many times encountered case where people do not know where they are saving their word processing documents. This amazes me, as I shudder to think of the agony they will go through of they forget where an important file, that they took hours to create, might be saved.

Second. After you have identified where your important data files are, you need to develop a plan where so that these files can be saved onto an appropriate medium – floppy disks, CDs, Zip Disks, tape or even another spare hard drive, specifically designated for backups.

Third, you need backup software – either off-the-shelf software, or software specifically designed for you – a batch file, for example. If you don’t know how to create a batch file, you need to get the assistant of a competent computer consultant. Note that certain backup devices come with software. Tape drives, and zip disk drives, for example, generally include backup software. You can also purchase specific backup software – Cheyenne Backup for example.

Fourth. Think about recovery. One of the most critical reasons for making backups is to protect yourself if a machine on which you store data goes down. In that case, you will need to take your backup media – tape, CD, Zip Disk etc – and be able to easily restore the data on a new machine, or new hard drive. I have encountered several situations where a person had a tape backup, and when the time came to restore data to a new machine, it was discovered that that particular tape drive was no longer being sold, and the backup tape was not compatible with the new tape drive. This meant that we would have to remove the tape drive from the old machine and install it on the new one, sometimes a time-consuming operation. Then one has to pray that one can locate the appropriate drivers for the tape drive on the new machine – and the new machine may be running a different version of the operating system. Then, once the tape drive has been installed you need to hope that the tape is not damaged in any way. Some tape drives won’t allow you to read any part of the tape if certain sectors are damaged.

The best form of backup is some format which can be read easily by the majority of machines in your office. Read/Write CD drives are pretty common these days, and you can pick up blank CD’s at a low price too. So, if your data is stored on a CD in uncompressed form, it can easily be copied to any location you desire on your new machine or hard disk.

We have sometimes been called in to assist someone in restoring data after a disk crash. One client had been backing up once a week for five years on his tape drive. We reinstalled the Novell Operating System on the hard disk, using the original Novell installation disks. Next, we wanted to restore the data and other information on the tape. However, the software for the backup program, and the driver for the tape drive were nowhere to be found. There was a delay of a day or two before we could locate the appropriate software to read from the backup tapes.

An interesting note: When backing up Novell, and certain other systems, it is important to also back up the User Information, and “Permissions Information” that is stored on the network. This is the information regarding individual users and three permissions, as well as file folders, their owners, and information about the files they contain.

Lastly: Make sure you keep our backup disk/s in a safe place. We always recommend that the business owner or some responsible person take one backup tape, or disk home with them, or deposit it in a safe deposit box, at least once a week. We had a client who made full backups once a week and incremental backups every night. They had a fire, and fortunately it was contained before doing significant damage to their building. However, the computer was fried. Also, the backup tapes had been left next tot he computer and they too were burned. They wanted to see if we could retrieve anything from the hard disk.

We installed the hard disk into another machine. No luck! We had to send the hard disk to a special laboratory that has clean rooms, where they can open the hard disk, remove the disk platters and place them in another drive. They managed to retrieve nearly all the data, which they delivered to us on dozens of floppies. The client was very pleased despite the cost, which ran into the thousands.

So, protect your backups. Always have at least one, once a week, off premises in a safe place. Remember that your data is sensitive – it could be valuable to others! Having the backup off-site is your insurance policy against fire, theft and other serious disasters.

Don’t try to save a few dollars, or a few minutes per day, by avoiding backing up. You will appreciate the time, discipline and money you spent if and when the day comes when you are hit with an unexpected disaster!

Glossary of Terms:

Backup: The process of copying data generally from a hard disk, to another form of storage – generally a removable storage medium, such as tape, zip disk, CD, etc.

Backup Medium: The type of storage used for the backup ¾ for example, tape, CD, Zip Disk, floppy disks, etc.

Compression: This refers to “compression” of data. Some very clever people figure out how to take very large files, and store the data in a different way, greatly reducing the amount of space such files occupy. Many tape drives have software which stores the data on the tape in a compressed format, making it possible to store roughly twice as much data on the tape. There is an overhead for this – if you want fast backups, do not use compression.

There is a popular program, available as shareware, called Winzip, which is widely used for “Zipping” (compressing) and “Unzipping” (decompressing) files. There were previous versions of this in the DOS world, called PKZIP and PKUNZIP, respectively.

Disk crash: Refers to the unfortunate situation, where your hard disk stops working altogether, making it impossible to read from it any longer.

Incremental Backup: Many backup programs will allow you to do incremental backups. You backup the entire hard disk once a week, then do partial (incremental) backups the rest of the week, just backing up data that has changed since your last backup. The software will automatically detect changed data, or new data. Note that restoring from such backups provides more challenges than restoring from a complete backup.

Restore: The process of retrieving data from your backup media, and restoring it to its original home.

Tape Drive: A device which accepts tapes, which can be written to, or read via use of the tape drive. Tapes are known as “sequential” storage devices ¾ this means that the data cannot be located and read “at will” the way one can with a hard disk.

Winzip: A popular data compression program – see “Compression”.

Zip Disk: A small disk, generally a bit larger and a bit thicker than a floppy disk. First manufactured by Iomega Corp. Originally, they would store 100Mb on each disk, Later, Iomega introduced a 250Mb Zip Disk. You need the appropriate Zip Drive to read each type of disk, although the 100Mb disks can be read in the 250Mb drive.

Zip Drive: See “Zip Disk”

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