How I Handle Backups and Disaster Recovery

After reading about Lisa Barone’s laptop being stolen, I got into a bit of a discussion about how I use cloud computing for part of my backup and disaster recovery plan. Since a few people started asking details I think this post might be useful.First a bit of history, anyone who worked in IT in 2001 probably heard the phrase disaster recovery plan. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it a  disaster recovery plan is basically an offsite hardware/software backup that allows you to store all of your documents, programs, applications, databases or information that you can bring online and have access to with a minimum of fuss and as quickly as possible. Onsite backup are quicker, easier and cheaper to put into place, but offsite backups give you an added level of protection should something make your primary location non functional. For example since most people keep their external hard drive next to their computer it’s likely that if your computer is destroyed in a fire the external drive sitting under the desk will be too.

Cloud Document Storage
First off you need to classify and separate your documents into sensitive and non sensitive data. Anything that’s non confidential can be stored in the cloud. I like google docs, but you can use zoho or any service. This allows you to reduce the amount of hard disk space you’ll need on your computer and backup. Articles or blog posts you are writing or authors are writing for you can go here. They don’t really contain “confidential” information, and they are really only secret until they are “published”. If someone does manage to gain access to your “7 Ways Make Brocolli Lasagna” before you push it on Digg it won’t be the end of the world … really.

File Server
We have multiple computers in my house, so it just makes sense to backup all of the documents in one location. Every night between 3am and 6am a syncback job executes wakes up each of the computers and does a backup of all documents on every computer. Your file server doesn’t have to be powerful or fast, you just need to have a lot of storage space, I’d recommend using an old computer with 500GB or a Terabyte hard drive, they are cheap enough at this point. So you store your client documents on each computer and they get backed up every night. If you keep this in place you’ll never lose more than a days worth of work.

NAS or External Drive
Because your file server is computer like every computer it can break down, if this is your only backup you have a single point of failure. So the next recommendation is to backup the file server. You could use a NAS (which is what I use) or an external hard drive. Usually this type of hardware comes with some automated backup software, make sure it’s running.

Offsite Storage and Disaster Recovery
If you use a reliable cloud document service you may have to deal with the occasional outage, but you don’t have to worry about backups. However you don’t need to be concerned about someone breaking into your house when you announce you are going on a two week vacation to Outer Mongolia on twitter,your house burning to the ground, or any other event that completely destroys any onsite computers, files servers and NAS devices. The simplest and easiest to use of these services are Carbonite and Mozy. Both of the services run in the background automatically backing up any folders you specify (I put mine on the file server). Your initial backup may take several days or weeks depending on how much data you need to backup. I accidentally deleted a whole year’s worth of photos and carbonite saved my butt, so they get a thumbs up in my book.

NetBooks and Folder Synchronization
Not everyone likes netbooks but I love mine, it’s small lightweight, easy to travel with and has awesome battery life. However the problem with using two computers is keeping the folder’s documents in sync. If you have a home/office setup you have this problem as well. If you’re on a windows machine you can use Folder Share, it works in the background and keeps any folders you specify in sync whenever the computers have an internet connection. It’s awesome and free.

Password Synchronization
If you do any amount of work on the internet chances are you have a lot of passwords to remember. If you practice bad security, you use a handfull of passwords on all your accounts and shame on you. If you’re clever you use a complex password scheme. If you’re old and your brain has turned to mush, you use a password manager like Roboform. If you use more than one computer you can use goodsync to keep your roboform passwords in sync on multiple computers.

Airports and Travel
If you do a lot of travel in and out of the US you run the risk of having customs seize, search or confiscate your computer. If this fits your situation, and you travel with confidential documents, your might want to partition and encrypt your hard drive, or travel with a netbook and use an extremely secure cloud storage solution. However for most people the challenge is not lose their laptop at TSA screening (did you know over 1200 laptops are lost each week at LAX … YIKES!!!!). My advice is to get yourself a TSA checkpoint friendly bag


The TSA likes them … really, I’ve had mine for a few months and have never had a problem, and I go thru super busy airports like JFK, LAX, and LAS. It’s really a relief knowing that my laptop isn’t laying in an open been while I’m stuck on the other side of metal detector behind the family with a stroller, 4 kids, and grandma with a walker, who haven’t been thru an airport in the past 5 years and all need a hand screening (don’t judge me … you know you think the same thing when it happens to you)

I also have a travel bag that has backup power cords for my computer, iphone, camera battery and charger, SD card and USB stick. After leaving several of these items home over the years and having to pay a premium to have them rush delivered, I bought duplicates from eBay. I have a seperate bag for family trips with gameboy and nintendo DS power cords, because they never forget to pack them.

Email, Calendar, and Contacts
I’m really a big fan of Google Apps for domains, it gives me all the features of gmail, google docs and calendar under my own domain. Because it all sits in the cloud I don’t need to worry if my computer gets lost or stolen I still have all my data in the cloud. Now that they allow your to sync with your iPhone, you won’t lose that data.

Google Voice
Google voice is really one of my favorite google products. It gives you one number you use and you can route all your calls anywhere. So if I lose my iPhone or leave it somewhere I can log into google voice and temporarily route all my calls to new number without having to notify everyone my number changed.

Anytime I speak at a conference or do some in-house training, there is usually a power point presentation involved, so I want to make sure it doesn’t get lost. First I’ll upload it to google docs, this does have the potential of putting sensitive data in the cloud but as long as you delete it after the presentation you give yourself a safetynet, in case something goes wrong. I also email myself a copy so it’s sitting in my inbox as well. One USB key with the presentation goes in my pants pocket during the trip, a second one goes on a second USB key in with a metal ring attached to a carabiner in my backpack. I’d have to be having a really really bad day for all of those things to fail at once.

I use wordpress as a CMS on a lot of websites I run, and I use the WordPress DB backup to back up each and every one every day. I have the backup sent via email to a dedicated gmail account. Once a month I archive the backup from the 1st and the 15th and delete the previous month. If my blog gets hacked with a trojan I have daily incremental backup and can roll back to any date I choose. I also backup my uploads directory of images, and thesis custom folders once a month, so I don’t lose the design if something gets borked. That backup goes onto my laptop and gets backed up there.

One of the dangers of using cloud computing, document storage, and backups is hacking. The sensitivity of your documents can run from mild to extreme depending on who and what you are working on. You may need to choose a more secure cloud storage option, which will inflate the price. However it’s a balancing act between security and losing the data. If you are using  cloud computing you are probably in better shape if your documents are in the cloud, and your laptop gets stolen. There’s not much data they will be able to extract from your machine. You are however at the mercy of the third party who stores your documents and thier security procedures, so choose wisely. The only way to make your computer 100% hacker proof is never to put it on a network or the internet.

To sum things up, the more you eliminate single points of failure from your disaster recovery plan the better off you’ll be. Some redundancy and duplication in your backup plan is a good thing and gives you a little extra insurance. Operating with all your documents in one place on one computer leaves you incredibly vulnerable to a single unfortunate event taking you and your business offline … not something you want to experience if you can avoid it
photo credit: rust.bucket

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