Daily Archives: 1 December 2004

Backup Your Data: A Hard Lesson Learned

There’s a letter
to the editor
(Sorry, the link to the letter dies at the
end of the day. When will these people learn?), lamenting the
loss of her laptop. There is a hard lesson here for her and
others like her working on important projects.

Actually, what she’s missing the most is the three-years
worth of data she gathered for her PhD. From her request for
the data, I assume she did not make a backup copy.

The lesson here, of course, is to make backup copies. I
say copies because you need to have more than one copy and
each copy should be in a distant geographic area – the more
distant the better.

To begin with, if you have no copies, you place yourself
in a single point of failure situation. As in this case,
having her laptop stolen means everything is lost.

If you have at least one copy you have a chance of
continuing on. But that chance is lowered if the copy is in
the same location as the original. As an extreme example, if
the copy was on the same laptop, having the copy wouldn’t be
of any use. Having the copy on a disk next to the laptop
might not be much better if the thief takes the disk or if
the problem is a fire that burns the laptop and the backup
disk. If the copy is kept in the same house as the laptop,
you should at least invest in a fire resistant safe.

But having a safe doesn’t do you much good if the problem
is a tornado, flood, or earthquake and everything is
destroyed. Hence, my recommendation to keep copies in as
distant a location as possible. For example, you can use
Google’s Gmail system with its 1GB storage as one place to
backup a copy. Or if you have an ISP that allows a certain
amount of network storage you might use that. You could even
just snail mail a copy to a friend that lives at least
several hundred (if not several thousand) miles away.

As a personal example, when I was working on my masters a
couple of years ago, our work group had at least eight copies
of our project at any point in time. One of the copies was
stored on my host server in Pennsylvania. A second was stored
on Hotmail as an email attachment. A third was on a CD at
work. Four and five at my house (one on my PCs hard drive and
the other on CD) and the other three with the other members
of our group on their PCs.

The point is, as the data becomes more irreplaceable, the
number of copies and locations should increase. I feel for
this student but also wonder why her advisor didn’t tell her
to make backup copies (one of my undergraduate professors,
bless his departed soul, told everyone to make backup copies
of important projects. This was back in the late 1970s so
this advice is not something new.), or why she didn’t see the
need to make them on her own. I can only hope she kept hard
copies of the data somewhere or can otherwise replicate the
missing information. If not, this will indeed be a hard
lesson to have to learn.