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Imagine coming to work and finding that all your data was gone. That’s everything: e-mail, documents, spreadsheets, the accounts, quotes – everything.

What would you do if all of your staff were unable to work for days while you waited for the data to be recovered? How would your business cope? The cost in terms of lost productivity – or worse lost reputation – could be substantial.

Why Backup?

People tend to think of their computer systems, the tangible equipment, as being valuable. What they often don't realise is that it's actually the data inside that has the greatest value. Computer equipment can be replaced; the business' data on the other hand is unique.

A reliable Backup System is the best insurance for your valuable data. A business that has good backups will always be able to recover lost data.

Requirements for a Good Backup System

The most important characteristic for any Backup System is reliability. Some businesses operate for months or years, assuming that their data is being backed up, only to discover a problem when they need to restore some important information. Good Backup Systems provide easy-to-understand reports that show at a glance whether the most recent backup has completed successfully or not.

Easy to Use
A simple, automated process ensures that your data is regularly backed up, while a more complicated, manual process quickly becomes a hassle - and a deterrent. Ideally, the backup process should be completely automatic with no human intervention required - not even to change media.

The next best thing, particularly at a small site, is to use Removable Hard Disks (RHD's) as your destination media rather than tapes. RHD's generally have significantly more storage capacity than tapes.

One of the biggest issues with tape backup systems is that the media needs to be changed nightly for the backup to be successful. If the tape is not changed then either the next backup fails as it will not overwrite last nights backup (so no backup) or the backup overwrites last night's backup (so you lose your history). Either way it is a poor outcome. As RHD's have far more capacity than tapes your Backup System does not require the media to be changed nightly for the backup to be successful.

Backup Your Entire System
This might sound obvious, but not all Backup Systems have this capability. All backup systems are able to backup files and documents that are not in use. Good Backup Systems can also backup open files, open databases (e.g. Microsoft Exchange, SQL Server) while they are being used (this means that the backup process can occur while people are still working). Good Backup Systems can also backup the computer's "System State" (System files, boot files, Registry, Active Directory etc).

Store Recent and Older versions of your Data
Many people don't realise the need to be able to access both current and older copies of their backup files. Obviously if your hardware fails and you lose all your data, then you will want to restore from the most recent backup - therefore daily backups are essential. However if a user deletes or corrupts an important spreadsheet, this may not become known for days or possibly weeks. In that case you will want to restore an older version of the spreadsheet. The ability to restore older "versions" of files is very important and good backup systems will have the ability to go back 12 months or even more.

Keep Backups Off-site
To properly protect against a "disaster" like fire at your premises, or theft of your equipment, copies of your data need to be taken off-site regularly. The best Backup Systems are fully automated and use the Internet to automatically maintain an off-site backup of your data without the need for any user involvement. The next best option is to rotate RHD's ideally on a nightly basis, or at least on a weekly basis.

Ability to recover from various causes of Data Loss
Data can be lost in many ways and most people - understandably - assume that their Backup system can cater for all forms of data loss. However as with many computer processes, the devil is in the details.

Lets look at some of the more common causes of data loss, and the restore capabilites required of the Backup system:

File Restore

User error : unintentional deletion of files or inadvertent errors in updating a complex spreadsheet

File corruption : due to an application "crashing" and not closing properly

These types of errors can be resolved by a 'File restore', that is, restoring the most recent backup of a file or possibly an earlier version of a file - if the error in the current document was not detected immediately. All backup systems should have this capability.

System Restore to the original hardware

Disk drive failure : disk drives have a finite lifespan and will eventually fail

Virus attacks : for the most part avoidable, a virus strike can cause data loss or corruption

These types of disasters can be resolved by a 'System Restore to the original hardware'. That is, you perform a full operating system restore to the original computer hardware. Many backup systems either do not have this capability at all, or require a separate option to be purchased to provide this capability. Moreover some products (like the built-in ntbackup) claim to have this capability but a quick Internet search will show that in fact ntbackup has a number of limitations in practice with regard to full system restores.

Hardware Independent System Restore

Hardware failure : system motherboard or processor

Computer theft

Fire or other disaster : resulting in the loss of the original server hardware

These types of disasters can be resolved by a 'Hardware Independent System Restore'. That is, where you perform a full operating system restore to different computer hardware. This capability is fairly recent, if your Backup System is pre-2007 then it is unlikely to have this feature.

Perform trial restores
It is important to perform trial restoration periodically to verify that your files were properly backed up. A test restore can uncover hardware problems that do not show up when you verify software.A test restore will also reveal which type of data restores your Backup System supports before you're in a "disaster" situation.

A Hardware Independent System Restore is the best test for two reasons. First, this capability means that you're well placed to cope with any "real life" data loss scenario. Second, being able to restore to a different hardware platform means that you can perform periodic test restores without the complication of needing to involve your live production system in the test restore process.

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Zero Effort Backups, PO Box 3200, Freemans Reach NSW 2756