Imagine this: something goes wrong and your important files and data are missing – your emails are all gone, your family photos dating back 10 years have disappeared, your CV and references for that new job you applied for, no longer exist. What do you do? Do you have another copy anywhere?
Enter the backup
The most common misconception is that a backup is either:
- Not required, because maybe you have your data in the cloud, or
- Not urgent, because “bad things will never happen” or “what are the chances of that?”
The danger in staying unprotected is that if something was to go wrong, what will you do? Can you afford to lose all the precious information, possibly collected over decades? It isn’t a question of how likely something is to happen, it’s whether you can afford it to happen. Can you put a price on irreplaceable photos and memories?
Backups are one of those things that everyone knows you “should have” but a lot of people don’t have: the perception is often “I’ll get to that later, when it’s important” or “I never lose anything, I don’t need one”. Sometimes people say “my files are in the cloud, I don’t need a backup”. It’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security because the threats against which you are trying to be protected are invisible and intangible: you can’t “see” a virus, you can’t “touch” the risk of a hard drive failing. A good quality backup strategy is your safety net against the unforeseen: you wouldn’t drive without car insurance, and a backup is like your “digital file insurance”.
Sources of failure
Often the lack of vigilance around backups can be attributed to a lack of imagination: there are a huge number of reasons why a catastrophic failure may occur, including some of the following:
- a physical disaster, such as spilling water on your laptop, your house burning down or some other unforeseen incident
- hardware failure whereby your computer stops operating and your hard drive (where all your files are stored) becomes inaccessible
- a malware attack that causes your files to become infected or irreversibly encrypted, denying you access
- user error where you accidentally delete something important and need to retrieve it after it’s gone
These are just some of the scenarios that a backup can help you recover from, but the list is not exhaustive: use your imagination and think of the things that could compromise your data. Do you want to take a chance on that?
This heading is a plural, not a singular, because in most cases we would recommend more than one single backup target. This is because there is no one silver bullet that can “solve” your backup needs. Like many protection strategies, a backup is about risk mitigation, not risk removal: the aim is to reduce the risk to something acceptable that you can live with and feel secure about, but we can never say there is a 0% risk.
There are many different ways you can implement a backup target, each providing protection against some things and not others. When thinking about strategies there a few different aspects to consider:
- target – where the backup is stored, and on what media
- method – how to take a backup
- coverage – what files to backup to be sufficiently protected
- frequency – how often to take a backup
We will break down each of these aspects in detail.
Sometimes where and how you store the backup is an important part of the protection itself. Many people use an external drive to make a backup copy of their files, but leave it connected to their computer all the time. This is good if your computer dies, but what if you become infected with a cryptolocker virus that will encrypt all attached drives as well? What if your house burns down and the drive and computer are together in the same room? Here are some tips to deciding which backup target to use:
- to protect against hardware failure inside your computer or an accidental deletion, a second copy somewhere (anywhere, really) will give you something to restore from. This could be a cloud account (Dropbox, Google Drive) or an external hard drive
- if you are hit by a virus that encrypts files (which is becoming the most present digital threat) your backup must not be connected to the same network. We use the term “air-gapped” – this means, “is the backup totally isolated?” Cloud accounts are not air-gapped (the internet is still connected) so these are not suitable protection for this.
Note: clever clogs out there will probably say “but I can have my computer air-gapped and still connected to WiFi, because the internet goes through the air”. Yes that is correct, but air-gapped is terminology for something totally isolated – WiFi is cheating.
- if you experience a location-based disaster (fire, flood, plague of locusts) you can consider anything in the same place to be compromised, so you need to have a copy of your data off-premises. For home users a cloud account is perfect for this; for businesses this is usually done by keeping a set of media at home and swapping daily.
A backup in its most elemental form is just a basic copy of your important files, which can easily be done via a copy/paste operation. This works great as a one-off, but when thinking in terms of an ongoing strategy it can become complex to capture everything important every time, without duplicating things that are the same. There are a few ways to solve this problem:
- manually take a copy of your files as often as you need to, and store each copy in a new folder. We recommend naming the folder according to the date you took the backup (and the time if you are doing this more than once per day). A good scheme is YYYYMMDD, so 15th April 2016 would become 20160415 – this way the most recent backup will always be at the bottom of the list.
- script your files to copy, and set this up as a regular task. This is good for people with a really good level of IT who want to save a few dollars by doing it themselves. This is really just an automated way of taking a manual backup.
- install backup software and configure it to do your backups. Good quality backup software can target multiple locations, run on complex hourly, daily, weekly or monthly schedules, do file-level checking to avoid duplicating the same files, and email you notifications if it fails for whatever reason.
Ultimately you want a method that is easy for you to execute, otherwise backups become just another arduous task that gets put on the backburner (like washing the dishes), leaving you unprotected.
Now that you know where to backup, and how to backup, it’s important to know what to back up. Is everything included? When you’re busy on computer it’s easy to not think too hard when saving a file, and important documents can become spread out all over the system. A few key things to check, to make sure you have them included:
- User profile: this includes My Documents (default save location for documents), My Pictures, Downloads (default download location) and Desktop (the classic dumping ground for “I don’t know” files). This will apply for every user with a login to your computer.
- Emails: if you are using Microsoft Outlook you need to locate your *.pst file and back this up as well. In some cases (mainly cloud email accounts like Gmail and Office365) you may not need to, as they are already backed up for you.
- Photos: wherever you keep your precious memories, make sure you back that up too.
However, we would not recommend backing up that library of illegal movie downloads you keep: firstly because it’s illegal but mainly because movies (and tv-shows) are quite large files, and backing them up regularly will take a really long time and use up most of your storage space. Ask yourself this: are they replaceable? Of course they are! So don’t worry about them – if you lose them you can just legitimately purchase them the next time around.
Lastly, when should you back up – i.e. how often? This is entirely up to you, and is solved by answering this single question: if you lost everything, how far back can you afford to go? Is it a day? A week? An hour? Generally speaking a daily backup is more than sufficient, but home users may get away with a weekly or monthly schedule if they aren’t changing a lot of files very often.
Now that you know why you need a backup and how to do it, go forth and get organised! However, a lot of you may read this and think “that sounds really complicated and I don’t fully understand it, I’ll do it later“. If this is the case, give us a call (08-8009-0009) so we can do it for you and make sure you are covered. We can have a chat to you about what your needs are and organise a solution that works for you.
One last tip: a backup will only work if the drive is plugged in! It sounds crazy, but the most common cause of failed backups is forgetting to plug the drive in. So now that you are in the know, go forth and backup!