Web Informant #219, 12 October 2000:
Burning a better backup


Ever since there was an after-hours fire in my office building several years ago I have been on a crusade about off-site backups of my data. And over the years I have evolved my strategy, based on the software and hardware tools available at the time.

Luckily, no one was hurt in the fire, and I had to repair my door which was broken down by the fire department to search the building for any remaining fires. The music store downstairs (where the fire originated, an electrical short) was devastated, but they rebuilt and have recovered.

But I could have lost everything, and that got me motivated about what to do about making a better backup. My biggest issue with backups is that they absolutely have to be brain-dead easy. The more convoluted the scheme, the less chance I will actually go through the motions, as I found out during the dark ages of the Tape Era. (For years I thought like most network administrators I should use a tape drive, and spin a tape from my servers every night. Well, that lasted about a week before I got tired of dealing with the state of tapes and tape software.) The backup has to be done on readily available removable media, so I can take them off-site and store them in case of a disaster. The backup also has to create files that I can easily check to make sure the backups completed correctly: the worst think about doing a backup is when you have a false sense of security.

I actually have three backup scenarios: you probably have something similar. First, I need very current copies of my production machine's major data files, including my accounting program, email, and the actual work product (articles, speeches, and consulting reports) that I produce. For this I create a ZIP drive each week and take it home with me. I wrote a simple DOS batch file that copies all the different things to a single drive and takes less than a couple of minutes.

Next, I need to have a hot spare production machine, in case of disasters or in case my working machine goes down for whatever reason. In years past I used to keep a hard disk configured with the various software programs in my bank's safe deposit box. My thinking was that I could readily insert this drive into any PC and have up and running within a few minutes. However, as Windows has become more complicated this isn't a safe assumption any more and I needed a better solution. Of course, I could just buy a twin of the current machine I am using (an IBM NetVista) and just bring it home. And I might still do that.

Finally, I need an easy way to restore the state of my test machines back to a certain moment in time. I test a lot of products, and they often mess up the configuration of my equipment. (Thank you, Microsoft, for creating the Windows Registry.) I also alternate between running a lot of different versions of operating systems, but don't have the room nor the time or energy to maintain lots of gear. (As it is, I usually have more equipment lurking around than I know what to do with.)

To help on these latter two scenarios, I use PowerQuest's Drive Image software. The latest 4.0 version supports burning the backups onto your own CD-Rs, provided the CD-R is an IDE drive that can be recognized by DOS (meaning, not a USB CD drive). I can make images (which are bit-by-bit copies of the hard disk partitions) and store them off-site, making it relatively easy to restore to another machine if something bad should happen. It took me the better part of two days to figure out the right combination of steps and ruining a bunch of CD-Rs before I got it right.

A reader, Mike Schwartz of Newmediary has taken this strategy a step further. He produces boot CD-Rs, using Adaptec's EasyCD Creator, which contains menus to prompt a user through the restoration process. The Adaptec software takes the files from a boot floppy disk and puts them on your CD-R, leaving plenty of space remaining to copy the Drive Image files. He says, "I boot a PC with my custom CD, select automated restore, and off it goes. Drive Image Pro has a great scripting utility which allows me to change the size of the disk partitions for different size drives."

I urge you to go through a similar analysis of your computing needs and set up something that will work for you. Because you can never have too many copies of your data when disaster strikes.

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David Strom
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