Public Service Announcement: Don’t Trust Hard Drives

David Meego - Click for blog homepageA couple of weeks ago, a good friend of mine posted on his Facebook account that his 1TB external hard drive had failed and that it contained a lot of data that was not stored anywhere else. In particular, there was 10 years worth of digital photos. All now lost.

I did have a look at the drive to see if it was something that could be recovered, but the problem was definitely a hardware failure with the drive failing to initialize. It would spin up the platters, but would make some very nasty noises when trying to perform the initial head seek. If my friend wanted to spend the money, it would be possible for a hard drive recovery specialist to recover the data by replacing the drive head assembly. However, as far as I know he has resigned himself to losing the photo collection.

So why am I telling you this little story?

Simple. As a warning.

It is scary to count the number of horror stories I have heard over the years of people trusting hard drives with their valuable data, only to lose it all. Or people who have back up regimes that are inadequate or unreliable. Or people who lack common sense.

Here are a few stories from my past.

  1. A number of years ago, after a long hot summer in Perth, we had the first rains of winter. The electrical transmission lines from the main power station serving most of the south western part of Western Australia (including the capital of Perth) had a coating of dust  from the summer. That coating was now made wet by the rain and in the moist air the high voltage electricity did what it always wants to do and it jumped the lines. The resulting electrical short blew up a substation and placed most of the state the dark ages. It is amazing how much you rely on power. The Central Business District (CBD) shutdown and most people found their way home (some had a long walk down the stairs in the high rise buildings).
    Anyhow, the story that came out of this blackout, was that a successful drafting and graphic design company, which had been operating for about 5 years, had never backed up and their main computer was damaged when a spike hit it. They lost all their data and ended up going out of business. Whoever helped them get their computers set up should have mentioned the need to backup and the need for surge protection for their power.
    Moral: If you are reading this article, you are probably computer literate. As someone who knows more than a complete beginner, make sure you tell them to backup and protect their hardware.
    Footnote: Our power company now has helicopters with "mad men" who fly down the transmission lines with high pressure cleaners and stop the dust build up.
  2. This one is a Dynamics GP site (well Great Plains Dynamics back then) which had been operating for a number of years. They were backing up every night onto a tape drive. They even had tapes for each day running in a weekly rotation, and they also ran a verify on the tape backups to ensure that the data was written correctly. They were doing everything right.
    Then their IT manager queried why their backups were still taking only one tape each time, he felt that the data should be more than one tape's worth. So upon further investigation it was confirmed that the system was working perfectly to backup the DYNAMICS and TWO databases. The problem was that none of their live company databases were being backed up and had never been backed up. Luckily, they had never need a backup up to that point and the backup systems were updated to include their live companies. Suddenly the number of tapes needed increased.... funny that.
    Moral: Whenever adding a new company to a Dynamics GP system, make sure that it is added to the backup and maintenance procedures.
  3. Last one. This goes back to my life before I worked with Dynamics. I had a system I had developed in dBXL compiled with QuickSilver (similar but better to the dBase III and Clipper combination). It was a total office system that could run a Real Estate Conveyancing office (we call them Settlement Agents). When I set up the backup regime for the sites using this software, we backed up onto floppy discs with a set for each day and sometimes an AM and PM set as well. If anything went wrong we could go back to a backup which was half a day old or at the most a day old.
    So, I had this site where the user was fairly computer illiterate, he could use my system, but that was it. He had learnt the importance of backups and made sure he always did his backups. Anyhow, one of the database files on his system got corrupted and so it called me for support. He told me that once the system had reported problems, he had done what he always does at the end of the day, backup and shutdown.
    So when I went onsite to fix his system, I found out that he had not been using multiple backup sets in rotation, but was using the same set of discs each time AND he had backed up his damaged system over the top of the only good backup he had. I was able to recreate the damaged database, but with blank data for all the records.  Luckily, the particular database file contents could be re-entered manually from the paper file when the data was needed.
    Moral: Don't take shortcuts with your backup regimes and when something goes wrong STOP and don't do anything until someone who knows what they are doing arrives.

So now to the reason for this post. Most of us who use computers at work have good backup regimes that follow these guidelines:

  • Backup Often
  • Backup to external storage (tapes, hard drives)
  • Rotate Backup storage
  • Verify your Backups
  • Rotate a recent Backup off site
  • Backup all of your data
  • Backup your applications, if they are highly configured.

But, how many of you are doing the same for your home computers?

Your home computers has lots of important personal information much of which cannot be replaced easily. For example:

  • Media collections (photos, videos, music),
  • personal documents and data,
  • email, contacts and calendar info,
  • internet favorites,
  • saved games,
  • downloaded application install files, and
  • maybe even developed code.

The operating system and applications and utilities can usually be re-installed easily as long as you have the original discs or can download them again, but your personal data can never be replaced if lost.

This article is a reminder to set up a backup regime for your home computers.

What I have been recommending to my friends and family (for which I am the unofficial IT support person, see Nerd or Geek post) is the following:

  1. Identify a family member or good friend that lives nearby and has a computer.
  2. Purchase two of the same large external hard drives (1TB or bigger).
  3. Backup your data from your computers into a folder for each computer onto the drive.
  4. Backups should include all the data above, you might need to locate the files, but the C:\Users\<username>\ folder would be a good start.
  5. If your operating system supports backups or you have a backup application, you could also make a full backup.
  6. Swap the drive with your family member of friend (who has backed up their system).
  7. Backup again, so that both drives have backups of both sets of computers.
  8. Each month or so, both of you backup again and swap drives again.

Using this process, you will always have a current backup on site as well as a backup off site (in case of the worst case scenario), and can never lose more than a month's worth of changes.

My personal backup regime is a little more over zealous.

  • I have a Netgear NAS (Network Attached Storage) 2 x 2TB (Mirrored).
  • Each of my 4 computers has been backed up with Windows Backup to the NAS.
  • I have 3 folders on each computer which contain all my personal data.
  • These 3 folders are synchronized on each computer with the NAS using the great free tool Microsoft SyncToy (see whitepaper).
  • Each computer also has an external drive which it synchronizes the 3 folders to.
  • Finally, one of the external drives gets swapped (as above) with my in-laws.

This process means that all computers have the same media and documents on them and each computer has local backup of the same files and there is a network backup on the NAS AND there is a backup off site.  I admit that this is obsessive compulsive behaviour.... but hey... I have not lost anything for a long time, even with hard drive or machine failures.

One final point, another friend lost their smartphone recently and it had all their contacts and photos on it and they had not backed up anywhere.  So while this post has been talking about computers, don't forget your personal electronic devices such as smartphones, cameras and media players. Make sure that the contents of these devices are backed up to your computer and included in the backup regime of your computer.

Here Endeth the Lesson.


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