This week I will add to your paranoia. It’s not enough that ignorance surrounding the ‘swine flu’ has everyone running scared (try washing your hands), but I’m going to use some good ol’ fashioned scare tactics to get you to take data loss more seriously. The fun part is that I don’t even have to bend the truth or mislead you in any way. Straight up truth will be enough to have you tossing and turning, thinking about your files.
It’s not a question of if your hard drive will fail, it’s a question of when. It is estimated that a computer hard drive fails every twelve seconds. Close to 50% of US computer users have experienced some manner of data loss due to a virus, hardware failure, or other malfunction. I believe that the other 50% just don’t realize that they’ve lost anything yet. I ask, plead, and tell customers constantly to back up their data. It’s sad just how few of them do. The only people who tend to backup regularly are the ones that have been badly burned before. Even in the business world, less than 40% of small businesses have any backup at all. Of those that do, the strong majority report that backups occur less than thrice per year.
My main work computer is a Mac laptop. It’s shiny. It’s just past a year old, which means the included warranty is up. Two weeks ago on a Saturday, my hard drive died. Completely. Full on, no recovery happening, DEAD. While this is annoying, I did not cry. Nary a tear or flushed cheek was to be seen. Why? I had a backup as of Friday afternoon. OSX has a nifty built in backup software element that backs things up every ten minutes to an external drive. At work, I have just such a drive that is always connected to my laptop. I didn’t have a drive available immediately, and I was leaving town anyway, so it wasn’t until Tuesday that I recovered to a fresh, new, and larger drive. Brand new mind you, still in the wrapper. And what happened on Friday following this complete and total recovery? Drive #2 failed. Not irrecoverably, but it failed. I sent it back and got a replacement, and I have yet to lose a single email (touch wood). Of course this was all an inconvenience, and the sad truth about the quality of even new hard drives is depressing, but knowing that my files were still there somewhere had me resting easy.
To be sure, the Mac OSX operating system makes it terrifically easy to back up and restore single files to complete systems. It is yet again a shining example of elegance and usefulness. That said, there are plenty of fine alternatives on the PC side of the aisle. One of our favorites by far is backup software by Acronis. It’s what we use when we clone a customer’s failing (not completely dead) drive, to restore to a new one. The consumer editions of their software are not free, but are by no means expensive when you compare the cost of trying to recover off from a complete failure. Increasingly, online backup storage has become more accepted and widespread. So long as you have a high speed connection to the internet, this becomes a viable alternative. A number of companies offer free and paid services for online backup of your information. The biggest advantage to online backup is that it is off site. So if the unthinkable happens and your home and office both go up in flames simultaneously, your data is still safe. With that in mind, having two places to store your data is one thing, but having those two sources in different locations is far better insurance.
One of the simplest things that you can do is to purchase an USB flash drive. They drop in price constantly, and a 4GB ‘stick’ is plenty to store pictures and documents for most home users. That way it travels with you, or maybe you lock it in the fire safe, or maybe you keep in in your sock drawer. Redundancy is key though, because a drive failure is dramatically closer to reality than a fire.
Just take a moment and think about the information on your computer. As they become more and more ubiquitous, and as constantly as they are a part of our lives, the data on them becomes more important. Is there data on there that if you lost would affect you financially, such as your Quickbooks files, stock portfolio tracking info, or your business plan that will surely change the world, if only you could get financing? Is there data on there that if lost would affect you emotionally such as your family photos, songs that you wrote about a mean girl, or that motivational note that you wrote to yourself to ‘keep going’? Is there data on there that you could stand to lose, but would be a total PITA to replace? Depending on your answers to these simple questions, you will likely find yourself in need of a proper backup scenario. Do it. I can’t tell you how much information I would have lost if I didn’t have that backup, but it saved me in a lot of ways.
So what happens if you don’t have a backup? What do you do when the computer is just done? We have a handful of nifty ways of recovering data, even on failed systems, and we’ve had excellent results and feel confident that we can recover quite a lot of information. A client came in with a laptop that had been stolen from him, and then dropped in the woods, left exposed to the elements for over a year. Caked with mud, and corroded inside and out, the harsh VT seasons did this computer no favors. All of our normal recovery attempts came up with nothing more than a sharp clicking sound when the drive itself was plugged in. With nothing left to lose, Tim Bayers, the mad scientist, put the drive in the freezer overnight. I won’t explain the science behind it, but the next day, we were able to get the drive spinning for long enough to pull the essential data with some advanced (pricey) software that we use for just such a situation. So all is not lost, even if it’s lost. In truth, the next step beyond our software not being able to recover info, is to send it out to a company that does hardware recovery. This is a horrible option, not because of its efficacy, but because of the cost. It generally costs $1500 and up for them to simply look at your drive. So unless that data is truly irreplaceable and of a real value, it’s not something you want to do.
With all that in mind, you can know for certain that buying an external drive or subscribing to an online service is cheaper than recovery. If you calculate downtime costs, and/or the cost of re-entering information manually, the numbers can become frightening in a hurry. At the very least, grab a blank CD and backup your ‘My Documents’ folder, that’s some cheap insurance right there, assuming that you actually organize your files properly in the ‘My Documents’ folder, which I’m sure that you all do.