The SMART Guide to Back-ups: Protect Your Data

When it comes to backing up data, there are only 2 groups of people involved. The first group are people who have lost data, like those who have had hard-drives die on them, or were exposed to the Virus that Ate The Internet. The second covers those who haven’t had the pleasure of that particular experience. Yet.

But it’s only a matter of time, statistically speaking. And you can never predict when, or how it will happen. Brand new drives die a few days out of the box, while older ones faithfully chug on for years. You bed down for the night, as your laptops purrs on, worry-free. The next morning a howl of disbelief shatters the early morning silence of the dormitory. “I didn’t DO anything!”
“Are you sure, dude?”
“YES!”
“Uh, download anything new last night?”
“Nuh–oh?”

Then, “Oh, crap.”

The drive can’t be detected. The laptop falls due to your cat’s panicked antics, and you can’t get it to boot. Your sippy cup wasn’t fastened as tightly as you thought it was. Viruses, trojans, hackers and theft. Lightning strike, fire, water from a leaky pipe…you just don’t know.

Thus, back-up. There’s something you need to understand about back-up, though:

Back-up is not a guarantee, unless and until you test it (data verification) and even then, stuff happens. Back up is insurance, and as with any kind of insurance, back up comes in handy after a loss of some sort. See the difference now? And as with any kind of insurance, you need a plan that suits your needs.

When you design a back up plan the goal is two-fold: data protection and integrity, and near-immediate restoration of services. You want things to go back to normal as soon as possible, and you want your data –however old or current it is–safe. So what do you need to do?

  1. First, define your ‘normal.’ (more on this in a bit). What do you want?
  2. Second, be smart. What can you reasonably expect?

You know this particular drill. When you’re making any sort of plan, the classic advice is to make sure you’re making SMART goals, with SMART standing for goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable (or Achievable), Results-oriented, and Time-bound.

When it comes to protecting their data, however, too many people let their smarts fall by the wayside and keep to a devil-may-care attitude — also seen as reckless by the people who have already experienced data loss first-hand. The first group trusts that nothing bad will happen, or that there will always be time enough to back-up later.

So, going back to “Define your normal.” (This is the specific part of the SMART plan, the “What.”). What data do you have worth protecting? We’re talking about relevance here. How important are the bits and bytes of your data to you?

See, your set-up is your set-up, with all its tweaks and hacks meant to provide as perfect a fit to your work habits and tastes as possible. For example.

  • You chose Firefox for its stability and safety. Then you discovered add-ons, and now you have a sweet profile perfectly set up for work, and another for play. Following that, you learn a few more things, and now you’ve customized your user profile out the wazoo. What happens when you get infected with a virus that takes out your system?
  • You love digital art. You’ve downloaded widgets, templates and brushes for your favorite graphics program, and lovingly amassed a set of custom tools you’ve used for years. One day you let your mother use your computer to check her email, and she opens an attachment. You get a trojan, and it’s a doozy.You kept the program installer CD and you can do a fresh install, but what about your widgets? There’s no guarantee you’ll be able to find them and download all of them again.

You’re a designer, you’re an accountant, you’re a coder, a veterinarian. A student, a professional, whatever….if a computer is essential in your business and daily life, you have data that’s important. Know what you have, know what’s important and take the necessary measures to protect it.

Side note: Reading the following articles can help you flesh out your planning process more fully as well as give you more ideas.

Look back and take notes on your ‘normal’. Examine your routine.
What do you do on your computer? A guy with just one laptop who uses it mainly for online research and writing needs a different approach from another guy with 2-3 separate computers used by the family and linked by a home-server/LAN /NAS set-up. A high-school student and a doctorate student (someone working towards their PhD) have different needs and very probably have different set-ups.

When you have established your baseline, you can draw up your back-up plan, apply it, test it, and keep refining to get a good fit you can rely on. Using your self-knowledge, your creativity, and by managing your resources and expectations with a firm grip, you can commit to carrying out the plan you come up with. Without action, the pretty plan is pretty much useless.

Specific. The data you need to identify and prioritize includes, but isn’t limited to, the following:

  • Personal – videos, photos, journal entries,music.
  • Business or study – records, software, client data communication (emails), projects, papers, presentations, research notes and annotations.
  • System – OS, passwords, tweaks, drivers, installers, configurations, etc.

(By the way, if you’ve ever experienced the ceremony of getting your computer out of the box, you may remember the various CD installers — or perhaps even floppy discs– that came with the system. Drivers for this, installers for that…where are they now? Store your software installer CD’s and documentation in one safe place so you won’t turn the house upside down looking for them if-when the time comes you’ll need them again.)

Methods and medium: The best way to back-up involves the ON/OFF switch: On-line and offline, on-site and off-site. As to medium, the digital photographers on DpBestflow.org advise in their very helpful Backup Overview to go by the 3-2-1 rule: 3 copies, 2 mediums, 1 copy off-site.
So mix it up: check out hard drives, optical media, and tape drives, and see which suits your needs and your budget.

Measurable. How much data are we talking about here, and what kind? Songs, photos and videos can be copied to an external hard-drive and burned to the optical media of your choice, with multiple copies of those sent to people you trust, or stored off-site. Pictures can be uploaded to Picasa, for example, or shared on Flickr.

Data that is updated on a frequent basis may require just as frequent back-up, and sensitive data (passwords, finances, proprietary information) needs a special layer of protections, like encryption, in place. What measures do you want in place that can give you this? Ask around. Do your research.

Achievable. When it comes to back-ups, remember the On/Off switch, so to speak. On-line, off-line, on-site, off-site. Lifehacker offers the following informative articles: 5 Best On-line Backup Tools and 5 Best Off-line Backup Tools. MakeUseOf also has recommendations for the best free back-up for your PC, and another Lifehacker article show a way to automatically back-up your hard drive.

What back up process will work for you? And it has to: if it’s too complicated, it will confuse you and turn you off. Too expensive, it turns you away. There are a lot of free back-up software and services available on-line. Quality CD’s can be had at very affordable prices. You want your data safe, you commit to what it takes to keep it so.

Result-oriented. After verification that you back-up methods work, are you okay with the results? You can easily test media and data you’ve burned to CD/DVD. Safe storage practice helps too. For data in electronic storage however, the true test comes after something happens. When you have your back-ups in place, you’re standing on safer ground.

Time-bound. When and at what intervals will you back up? Deadlines help reinforce the truth that you have to do this. Keeping to a regular schedule ensures that you have a plan in place and that you’re working it. And many online services and programs can be configured for automatic back-ups, keeping your data safe while you sleep, which helps take the stress off you in the process.

Something extra:

  • Draw up a checklist, it’s not that hard. They can literally be lifesavers. When you’re under pressure, good checklists take some of the strain out of the emergency.
  • Don’t whine about the extra labor, oh no, who has the time — Make the time. Time will go on no matter what you do, it’s just good practice to invest a few well spent hours carrying out a personally-tailored back-up plan to ensure near-seamless work-flow, a quick recovery (just in case), and your peace of mind (which is priceless.)
  • Backup is only 10% of the problem. Recovery in a useful manner is the other 90%. Recovery is the point, after all.

Some helpful links:

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