Data Backup Best Practices

Suppose one day you are doing some homework on your computer and a good friend of yours sends you an Instant Message with a link embedded in it. Without thinking, you click on the link which takes you to an amusing Web page. However, unbeknownst to you, clicking on that link also installed a bot on your machine. When you go to bed that night, the owner of that bot takes control of your computer. He or she downloads a ton of critical information from your hard drive, and then orders your machine to format itself in order to remove all traces of the attack. When you wake up the next morning, your computer is no longer recognizable as it has been reformatted. All of your programs, projects, papers, and other important information is now gone. What do you do?

Although this may be an extreme example, the fact is that technology, while increasingly sophisticated and helpful, is also prone to breakage. The average useful life expectancy of a desktop computer is approximately three years. After about three years of continuous usage, a computer starts to demonstrate increasing instability and unreliability. This can lead to erratic hard drive behavior, rebooting problems, and other issues that could result in a loss of data. In the absolute worst case scenario, a hard drive completely ceases to function and all the data on that machine becomes unrecoverable by any means.

All is not lost, however. There are some things you can do to prevent important data loss, particularly if you are not storing your data on a network.

Data Backup and Restoration from the Network

IT encourages customers to use campus network storage whenever possible to prevent the loss of data. As IT backs up all of its data storage every night, no customer will ever lose more than 24 hours worth of data. In other words, if you’ve been working on a paper or a project for three weeks and you suddenly lose it for some reason, you can recover the previous day’s version from the network and only be a day behind of schedule, at most.

Data Restoration and Backup Practices for a Non-Network Environment

Data Backup is not a “one-size fits all” solution, but instead involves considerable thought and planning in order to be effective. However, once you have a plan in place, it should be relatively simple for you to recover from a catastrophic hardware failure or another event resulting in massive data loss. The following is applicable to home users as well as customers using a non-network machine (for instance, a research machine).

  • Media – Select a media type for your backup storage needs: tape, external or removable hard drive, flash drive, CD/DVD-RW, etc. Generally, the amount of data you need to backup will determine what media you plan to use. DVDs can hold a lot more data than CDs can and are becoming more and more popular as the price of DVD duplication technology comes down. Magnetic tape is the oldest type of data backup medium and is still used for many backup applications (University of Missouri System still uses this for long-term storage). External or removable hard drives are also very common and are becoming less expensive, as well.

  • Needs – Decide on what information you want to backup. Generally this will refer to data files created by another application. For instance, you might backup all of your Microsoft Office documents (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc.). You do not need to backup Microsoft Word itself as that can easily be installed again as long as you have kept the installation disks in a safe place. You also need to decide on the relative value of the information. Mission critical data needed for a business/school project should take high priority when deciding what to backup. This sort of data should be backed up frequently and you should also maintain incremental backups or version backups of the data. For instance, whenever you make a major change to a document, you save it as a new file and indicate what version it is in the file name. If a later version of the document somehow becomes corrupted, you can go back to the earlier document, which is a separate, uncorrupted version of the same document. That way, you only lose the changes you made and not the entire document. Other data may not be as mission critical, but should still be regularly backed up after major changes.

  • Know Where It Is – Know where your data is stored and how its directory structure is organized. Compartmentalize your data in a logical, discrete fashion. Above all, keep data separate from operating system files. Some programs like to store data in with the program areas. For instance, Microsoft Word stores design templates in with the Microsoft Word files, while most Word documents are stored in My Documents by default. If you want to ensure that your Word design templates are not corrupted by Word then you may want to store them in a different area, perhaps a sub-folder of My Documents called “Templates”. Compartmentalizing your data away from application files will also ensure that if there is a problem with the application and it needs to be reinstalled, you will not lose any data.

  • Scheduling – Run your backup process when there is little chance of the data changing. It must be in a fairly static state in order for dependable backup snapshots to be taken. You also need to ensure that you schedule enough time for the process to complete, as data backup can take awhile depending on the amount of data you are backing up.

  • Encryption – Since almost all data backup media is extremely portable, IT recommends that you encrypt your files during the backup process. Save your encryption key or password in a very safe location. If someone manages to obtain your backup data, then they will not be able to access it without a lot of time and effort on their part. Note: Archive software that generates encrypted, compressed archives generally have weak encryption algorithms that can be easily cracked. Use caution when using this software. If you have any questions about it, please contact the IT Help Desk and we will be glad to help.

  • Data Retention – Not all data needs to be kept around for posterity. You need to decide on how long you want to maintain it. This depends on the type of data it is and critical it is to maintain a copy of it. Personal or research data may seem critical at one time, but may lose its value over the course of months or years. Once data has lost its usefulness, it should be discarded. Choose wisely, as sometimes data may also regain value.

  • Review Logs – Your data backup process will generate logs recording the files that were backed up as well as how successful the backup process was. You should look over these logs to ensure that all files were properly backed up and had no errors. If a file indicates an error occurred, then you will need to take corrective measures to reduce any risk associated with failed backups.

  • Library – It is important to clearly label and date the storage media. You should also note where it is stored. Most media should be kept out of direct sunlight simply because sunlight tends to destroy just about everything over time. Storage also needs to be secured against unauthorized access.

  • Rotation and Expiration of Media – Depending on your backup process and media being used, backup media can be reused to reduce the cost of backup media, but this means you will need to track the usage of the media. For instance, if you backup on re-writable CDs or DVDs, you will need to indicate on the label the last time the data was backed up. This information should also be included electronically on the CD or DVD (a simple text file tracking the usage would do just fine). Most media also have a limited shelf or usage life cycle. When media reaches the end of this life cycle, it should be properly discarded (see Disposal, below).

  • Testing – Periodically restore your backup data to a test area in order to ensure that all of your data backed up properly and has not been corrupted. This should be done in a test environment, if possible.

  • Disposal – When your backup media finally wears out from constant use or simply reaches the end of its useful life cycle, it needs to be disposed of properly. Do not throw it in the trash without physically destroying it first. Even if it is no longer useful to you, an undestroyed CD or other media may still contain enough data for a thief to recover. You should destroy all backup media as thoroughly as possible before throwing it out.

For most customers, it is not necessary to backup an entire hard drive’s worth of data every night. However, you should definitely consider using these best practices if your job or schoolwork requires you to keep important records or research-related files. Students and faculty involved in research should especially keep these practices in mind as a single research project can span several years and comprise hundreds or thousands of data files. Catastrophic loss of data can be devastating to a researcher, and is a setback to the entire scientific field.

If you would like more information on how to get started with backing up your data, please contact the IT Help Desk at 573-341-4357 (HELP) or submit a Help Desk Ticket.