Effective Backup Strategies Part 1 – Hardware, Software, and Services Options

After our discussion of deciding an I/O strategy for a workstation, it only makes sense that we follow up with a discussion of backup strategies, tools, and techniques. The purpose of this article is to inform you of the decisions you are required to make when it comes to backing up your systems/files/important data and the best practices for doing so. This article assumes the data you are dealing with is long term storage/archival data – working system data is a different beast altogether and will be discussed at length in another article. Remember – while we can discuss the pros and cons of all the options available, only you can decide what is important to you and how important it is.

Consider the following questions to guide your backup strategy:
1. How important is my data to me? What are the consequences of not being able to access the data? (Loss of revenue, inability to perform a task requiring information etc.)
2. What are the consequences of having the data stolen or available to third parties? (Identity theft, financial loss etc.)
3. How much money do I have to spend on creating and maintaining backups to a level that achieves my goals? (Maintaining backups operating costs vs. level of accepted risk )
4. What level of redundancy is appropriate for backing up my data? (Level of criticality)
We will analyze each of these questions in detail to provide you with some ideas for how to execute an effective backup strategy. The key concept to take away from this discussion when dealing with backups is the following: learn to quantify risk, and translate that risk factor directly into your hardware purchases to cover your bases. Finally, ALWAYS ENCRYPT YOUR FILES. There exist excellent freeware options such as TrueCrypt that can provide strong encryption (AES, Twofish, Serpent algorithms of various bit lengths) for your files for free. To neglect this option leaves you open to trouble.

Develop a tiered system to classify the importance of your data to you.
Spending the time to decide how valuable each piece of information you want to store seems like a daunting task – however, after you develop a fixed system to use to quantify your data, deciding what data gets backed up (and to where it gets backed up) becomes easy. For example, if you do your tax returns online or with a program such as TurboTax and you choose to save this data on your computer, this would be more important (and sensitive) to you than perhaps a movie you ripped to your hard drive from a DVD or some freeware program you downloaded from the web. By the same token, you could argue that your monthly budget spreadsheet is more important and needs to be more accessible as it is accessed more frequently than your yearly tax returns are. This leads us into deciding on our selection of backup storage drives/media/services. We will discuss each of these at length so you can decide what is appropriate for your data. We offer a sensible recommendation that would be adequate for most users’ backup needs and budget.

Hardware, Software, & Services Options

1. USB Flash Drives
These are both cheap and plentiful – you can find drives up to 128GB in size at your favorite local big-box store. The speed(read/write performance) and size(capacity) of the drive generally increase along with the price. There are also drives that provide strong onboard encryption with data destruction capabilities in the event you lose the drive and someone attempts to access the data (the Ironkey series of USB flash drives) and ruggedized drives that are designed to withstand water and high levels of shock (Corsair survivor series). You can decide which of these features is best for you. These are great for storing important small files that you access frequently (documents for school, spreadsheets, online order forms etc.) Generally these are small in size and you do not need to go wild with purchasing a large capacity. 8GB-32GB should be sufficient for a USB flash drive backup, if you need more space it is time to consider alternative storage devices or services. For example, if you have an iPod Touch with a 16GB capacity, you can store a backup of all the media on it on a USB key the size of your thumbnail for $13 (SanDisk Cruizer Fit 16GB) with a 32GB version costing $25 (store two different backups!). [As a personal anecdote, I store all my school documents on a 4GB USB Flash drive and I have close to 8 years of files on it and I have barely filled it to 2GB. My graduate research is very data intensive (GBs of image files, MBs of .csv files), and all of my research data for my published work can fit on a 32GB USB flash drive – dr_dave]. Beyond this, it becomes more cost effective to purchase a traditional external hard drive for your storage needs. The beauty of the small size means that it can be stored somewhere safe (like a bank safety deposit box or other secure location) – hopefully out of harm’s way and somewhere thieves won’t find it in the event you are robbed. As many people’s primary computers become laptops – these backups become even more important as it is much easier to steal a laptop with all of your data on it than a desktop.

2. External Hard Drives
External hard drives are exactly the same as their internal counterparts but they come with their own protective container that has a number of different interface options available. Decide what external I/O interfaces your systems use and choose the medium that works best for you. USB 1.1/2.0/3.0, Firewire 400/800, eSATA and more are all options (USB 2.0/3.0 is the most popular). The good news is that USB is backward compatible with older devices; however they can only run at the rated speed of the old specification. The biggest decision you have to make is deciding how fast you want your external hard drive to be. USB 3.0 and eSATA drives will be more expensive as they are faster and allow you to copy larger files more quickly. The rule of thumb is the larger the capacity of the drive, the faster the interface you are going to want as filling a large drive with a slow interface can be a long process. However if time/speed are not an issue you can save money by buying a large drive with a slow interface. Another decision you have to make is weather to purchase a 3.5” drive vs. a 2.5” drive. 3.5” external hard drives generally have a larger capacity as they can fit larger platters in the hard drives and can range in capacity from 1TB-4TB. 2.5” drives range from 500GB-2TB in size. You can be more liberal with what files you are saving to a drive such as this as the large capacity allows for backing up files that may not be “mission critical” but are still important to you. Music and movie/tv show libraries come to mind as candidates for backup to this drive. Also there is nothing stopping you from backing up all of your files to this drive as well, but it will not be as space efficient as USB flash drives (some people don’t like having extra drives on their desk with more wires and additional power draw). Ruggedized options exist here as well, drives by IOSafe are rated highly for their durability and warrantee in the event their product fails to live up to its expectations (data recovery service and insurance payout). A 1TB drive from IOSafe costs about $300 – but the enclosure is solid and the warrantee/data recovery is worth the price of admission. They sell drives rated to survive floods and housefires, and are a good option if care a lot about your data. [I tend to go overkill when dealing with backups but if I’m saving it there is generally a reason for it – dr_dave]. The old adage of anything worth doing is worth doing well rings truest when it comes to backups. It is also wise to keep in mind the traditional shortcomings of magnetic disks when dealing with this category of drives, unless you are using a solid state disk in an external enclosure.

3. Home NAS / Personal File Server / Backup Server
This option has grown in popularity in recent years, as more and more people purchase new computers and use them for their rated lifetimes, the question of what to do with the old computer has been answered. There exists a few options in this category – you can repurpose an old computer as a PFS/Backup Server or purchase dedicated NAS hardware and fill it with Hard Drives. Repurposing an old computer is relatively easy – you just need to install the server operating system of choice on it, install the disk drives you want to use, spend a few minutes configuring the services that will enable you to use it safely and securely and you are good to go. Some popular options include Ubuntu Linux Server (free), FreeNAS (free), and Windows Home Server ($50 for a license) – these allow you to store and host files and other programs that help you manage your digital life. For example, Windows Home Server allows you to store backup images for all of your Windows PC’s -which you can restore over the network. It also works with XBOX and other media enabled devices in your home. [I do not recommend you use drive extender – as it just creates a large volume out of a bunch of disks. If you are bothering to set up an entire computer, you should spend the time to do your redundancies properly and build a real RAID array – dr_dave]. You can also stream movies and music from the server to devices that are enabled to interact with it. If you choose the Linux route with Ubuntu Server, you really have a significant number of options. There is nothing stopping you from running a full blown outward facing web server where you can host your own site and services. Spending the time finding and configuring the packages to fit your needs is the real challenge to setting up a linux server, but that discussion is best left for another article. The basic install will allow for you to copy files to it via SSH. Be sure to spend the time securing your server so that hackers cannot get it into it and steal or destroy your data. FreeNAS is a BSD based operating system designed specifically for the task of network storage/ file serving. It is very user friendly and easy to set up. It works well on most old hardware and provides a healthy list of features.

Second, there exist devices specifically made for this purpose, which feature customized operating system environments and redundancy options galore: these are the dedicated NAS boxes. Most of the time you will see between 2 to 5 slots for hard drives. Buy two identical hard drives and install them and you are ready to begin. Companies such as Synology and QNAP provide the highest rated NAS boxes for home office/ professional level users. They range in price from $250 up to several thousands of dollars depending on your performance needs. Their configuration and management software, small physical footprint when compared to full size desktop towers and their power consumption make them attractive choices. The built in RAID levels add the security and protection for your data that you desire, making sure that you can afford to have a few drive failures without losing any data.

4. Cloud Storage
This is the newest development in the backup storage world (for consumers, anyway) is that of cloud storage. Broadband internet technologies have disseminated to the point where most people have an internet connection that is fast enough to deal with remote online storage satisfactorily. Combine this fact with the rise of mobile broadband and smartphones and you have a perfect storm for the rise of this service in the consumer sector. Popular services include Amazon Cloud Drive, Google Drive, Microsoft SkyDrive, Apple iCloud, Dropbox etc. The size of the space varies from 5GB-50GB for free before you have to pay a monthly fee for extra storage. There are specific services designed just for cloud backup such as Carbonite.com. There are definite pros and cons to consider when using a cloud storage service. Some of the pros are: 99.9% uptime / high reliability (as long as you have a connection you should be able to get to your files no problem), it costs nothing, and you can access your files from any browser/ internet connected device. Some of the cons are: questions about security (hackers / 3rd parties viewing your data), questions about outages (will the server be available when I need it?), and internet eavesdropping /middlemen (who is listening in on the traffic on your internet line). Granted most of these services use SSL encryption, but it is important to remember that the files themselves are not encrypted. Also, reports of cloud services browsing through peoples files and banning them if they find that they are hosting material in violation of the TOS. While this is probably to the benefit of humanity considering the nature of the content in question, privacy advocates should take note. [I would recommend encrypting all of your files locally before uploading them to a cloud storage service, especially if they contain sensitive information. This provides you with that extra “insurance” that if something goes wrong you’re still safe to a large degree. Be sure to use strong encryption with a long key. – dr_dave] Some of these services have syncing applications that let you select what directories you want synced with your cloud storage. You can also configure this application on multiple machines and allow for several computers to sync with the service. This is a great feature and prevents you from having 3 different versions of the same document.

If you’ve made it this far – we will save our discussion of Redundancy & RAID arrays for part 2 and Incremental vs. Differential backups for part 3 of our series on I/O & backups.

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