When Backing Up Is Not Enough

This article was one of my MicroSoft Small Business Forum pieces.

It was about 10pm last night when the fire alarm went off in my apartment building. I run my small business from my home, so a threat to my home is also a threat to my livelihood. No fear, however, since I exited the building in an orderly fashion, along with the scores of other occupants, to wait in the frigid Ottawa winter night for the arrival of blaring fire engines.

Now, I’ve lived in apartment buildings in many cities, and tend to travel to some fairly unstable regions. So I’ve endured many a hasty exit, due to fires, eathquakes, etc. I have the calculated exit down to a science. First, I put on generic adventuring clothes (denim or something equally as tough… this can be useful if fleeing a crumbling building in the Third World, just in case you have to sleep outdoors for a couple of days).

Second, I grab the important documents: passport, wallet, credit cards, ID, etc.

Third, I snatch my beloved smartphone, which, of course, is both a communication device and a data device. This way, no matter what happens to my home, I can call someone and have access to all my contacts and key personal data, including encrypted financial information and passwords, all of which I keep well protected within my PDA.

Fourth, I usually grab one of my laptops. I have a few lying about. You never know how long you’ll be absent from your home, and it’s useful to have a method of both entertaining yourself and getting some work done.

Fifth, and possibly most important from a business standpoint, I grab a backup medium. See, I learned the hard way to never trust my computers to hold data securely. Computers fail regularly; external media less frequently. I keep several backups of all my data on external hard drives. In more responsible days (i.e., grad school, when data represented one’s entire thesis!) I would keep backups in the freezer, under the questionable assumption that should the house burn down, the the safest place is also the coldest place.

I also keep backups of my most vital data on a 2 gigabyte USB flash drive key, which I encrypt and typically keep in my pocket. By “most vital data”, I mean client-specific information for my business, and student-specific information for the classes I teach. This way, those data that most affect other people are the ones I keep best protected.

Sounds good, right? Problem is, my system broke down last night. Somehow I neglected to grab ANY of my backup media. I spent the night in the diner across the street, nervously waiting for the fire department to give the “all clear” sign before returning to my apartment to –thankfully!– find all my data intact. A split second of oversight nearly caused me to lose all of my client files, the manuscripts of the books I am writing, studies and analyses yet incomplete –all the work I had done and was doing, all the records of everything I had created and worked on since the advent of the computer. It was a terrifying prospect.

The lesson? As anal as I am about backing up my data to a variety of physical media, I neglected to consider the possibility that all the media could be destroyed simultaneously together, as in a fire. There are many possible solutions: online backups to a website or to a third party provider, or simply walking a DVD over to a friend’s place.

So if you haven’t done so already, invest in an offsite backup solution. It will save you several sleepless nights, and might save your entire livelihood!