Backup Strategy

published: Mon, 18-Feb-2008   |   updated: Tue, 19-Feb-2008
Man with wrench

Ever since I built my Ultimate Developer Rig (UDR), I've been rethinking my backups: what to do, when to do them, which risks are acceptable and which are not, and so on. In an effort to help others, I thought I'd explain what I've decided on and why.

First, though, a bit of background is needed to set the scene. My wife and I have essentially three active PCs between us. First up is my UDR desktop with three internal hard drives (although in a few months, I'll probably merge two of them into a larger hard drive, say 750GB at least). One contains the operating system and installed programs (150GB), one is for data (250GB), and the last just contains my music files (80GB).

I also have a large (500GB) external USB drive plugged in to this desktop.

Second is my Dell XPS M1210 laptop with an 80GB drive. This and my UDR run (roughly) the same applications and need the same data. As an example, both have Outlook 2007 installed and therefore need access to the same Outlook pst file. The intent here is that I can, relatively quickly, take my laptop on business travel and have access to the same programs and data I use daily. Nothing would be more annoying that getting to my destination and finding that I don't have my latest email or that document I'd been spending a lot of time on in the past week.

Third is my wife's Dell XPS M1330 (with a 160GB drive). Like my UDR, this is a recent addition to our PC family, and replaces her old Dell Inspiron 700m. A bit of history here: for some reason she had some real problems with hard drives in this 700m and had two head crashes within the first year she owned it. For the second of these, her network administrator (that would be me, by the way) failed her completely and she had no up-to-date backup. I was able to restore most of her files from old backups, but her Money database backup was hopelessly out of date, so much so she abandoned it.

Back when I had a job which required me to go to the office, I used to keep an offsite backup there of our vital data on CD-Rs. Now that I work from home, I worry a bit about the lack of offsite backups. I could ask my wife to carry a backup case back and forth to her office, but it's really my job to think about these things and I don't want to burden her with other tasks when she has so many of her own.

Given all this, here's the backup strategy I decided on.

The external USB drive is the main backup drive. I've installed Acronis True Image Home on all three PCs. I've shared the external hard drive across our home network using a special user account, so that the two laptops can access it for backups.

First of all I did a full backup of all the internal drives from all the machines. True Image makes a snapshot image of the drive such that if you have a hard drive failure, you can restore the complete install image again. No OS or application installs need to be done. It's a wonderful thing.

Then I configured a daily incremental backup task in True Image for each PC. That way, if there's a hard drive failure I'll only lose at most a day's worth of data. I did consider making it more frequent, but this is one of those areas where I weighed the risks of daily updates versus the interruptions or decrease in performance of doing it more often. Besides which, I have a couple of aces up my sleeve.

That basically took care of the backups. The biggest risk, in my view, is if my backup external drive fails at the same time as one of my internal drives. This would pretty much be a disaster and would require me installing everything from scratch again. However, in mitigation, this is going to be a pretty remote occurrence; the probability is going to be very low.

Now I had to think about the offsite backup problem. The probability of our house, as is any house in our area in Colorado Springs, being completely destroyed from some major disaster (say, burning to the ground, flooding, being hit my a meteorite or plane) is pretty low. Suffering from burglary is remote: we live in a quiet development that's a cul-de-sac and of course, I'm working at home all day. Based on these assessments I decided that just storing our vital data offsite would be acceptable; after all, if the house was completely destroyed, the last thing I'd be worrying about for a while would be getting my PCs up and running again.

For this I decided to use JungleDisk and Amazon S3. JungleDisk transparently backs up my data to Amazon's servers every 6 hours (it's an incremental backup as well, and so is very quick). And by "my data" I not only mean boring things like my Outlook email and those inevitable Word docs, but really, really important things like our digital photos. If our household's network admin managed to lose a single digital photo, he would be toast, hung out to dry, and sleeping in the garage for the rest of his much-shortened life.

Finally, there's the issue of synchronizing my data between my desktop and laptop. Here I decided on FolderShare rather than using Windows' offline files feature, again because, once configured, it's automatic. In fact, it's even better than that bald statement would indicate: even when on the road, I'll be able to sync files across the Internet since FolderShare doesn't require your PCs to be on the same LAN, for example.

So all told, I'm feeling much better about my backup strategy than I have done for a while. My data is spread out across many machines (the proverbial digital photos, for example, are on two PCs, backed up on an external hard drive, and also encrypted on Amazon's servers). If a operating system hard drive died, I could completely recover onto a new drive with a minimal loss of data within a couple of hours. And, in the event of a catastrophe and all my PC equipment were destroyed or stolen, I would still have my data backed up offsite.

And the really nice thing about it all is that it's all done automatically and transparently. Now I've set it up, I don't have to initiate anything manually, which means I won't forget or I won't do it because I'm busy doing something else. Sweet!