Make Sure Your Backup Solution Works When You Need It

In this post, I would like to go through common misconceptions people have about backup solutions, such as  external drives, network storage, RAID, cloud storage, and drive image software and why these solutions fail when you need them.

External Drives

They come in types like desktop, mobile, and thumb drive. These drives may come with “basic” backup software. This means the software will backup files and folders you specify, but will not save your operating system or provide tools to recover your system and files during a system failure.

The reality is that most external drives are designed to act as extra storage and not as a backup solution. To avoid confusion, stop calling extra storage a backup, this way you won’t have to call the backup of your extra storage, a “backup of a backup.”

Extra storage is not a backup solution.

Network Attached Storage

This is a type of external storage that connects to your network and therefore is available to multiple devices at the same time — unlike USB drives which are only available to the device to which they are connected to.

This “Shared Storage” is the main advantage of a Network Attached Storage, or NAS for short. But shared storage is still not a backup solution.

Redundant Array of Independent Disks

Most servers use multiple hard drives to store data in a setup know as RAID or Redundant Array of Independent Disks. The “Redundant” part of RAID may be a source of confusion for some as it makes one think the system is maintaining multiple copies of your data automatically, but this is not always the case, and even when it is the case, it is not a backup solution.

RAID comes in multiple schemes, namely RAID 1 to 6, and each scheme focuses on improving the integrity of the data being stored and the performance of storing and retrieving data under diferent scenarios.

For scenarios where data redundancy is of utmost importance, the RAID 1 scheme is most common. This is because each hard drive has an exact copy of the master hard drive. If one hard drive fails, the others will take over, thus minimizing the chances of data loss due to hardware failure.

The reason why this is not a backup solution is because corrupted data can be stored and there is no way of going back to when the data was not corrupted.

Backup Images

Just like a word document can be saved in a file, an entire system can be saved in a file. A file which contains an entire system is called a system “image.” These images can then be saved in external drives and used as part of a backup solution.

But make sure you are able to restore your backup images. A special scenario is when restoring to dissimilar hardware. Say your motherboard is fried and you get a new computer. Then you try to restore, only to find that the system won’t boot.

A backup image is not a backup solution if it cannot be restored.

So what is a backup solution?

If your search the web you will most likely come across a definition similar to this:

The procedure for making extra copies of data in case the original is lost or damaged.
But, as we have learned, having a “copy” of data is simply not enough. We need the data to be “restorable,” meaning we can use the data as we were prior to the system failure. And we also need the data to be “versionable,” meaning we can track changes made to our data. Therefore, I opt for what I think is a better definition.
It is a combination of storage resources and technologies that make data accessible, restorable, and versionable.

Notifications Should Be Accessible During a System Failure

A great way to know if your backup ran is to receive email notifications. But these notifications should be available even if the device being backed up fails. Case and point, a user installs backup software to backup his system every week to an external drive, but does not setup notifications. A few years later, when disaster strikes, the user restores from the backup, only to find the backup is several weeks old. He wants to make sure he is restoring the latest, but to find out when the latest successful backup was done, the user needs the very system he is trying to restore to be working, because that is the only place where the log of successful backups was being saved.

The user is now confused and about to have a panic attack.

Most backup solutions nowadays come with email notifications (some even send text messages to your cellphone). Email notifications are a great way to keep a log of when the last successful backup of your system ran. If your system fails, then you can find when the last successful backup of your system ran by simply going to your email.

Since some users may be using POP emails, which by default, may be saving the emails in the system and deleting the online copy, make sure the email you use for notifications is also accessible during a system failure. Good alternatives are IMAP and Exchange.

Restore Dry-run

A backup solution is not a backup solution until it has been tested. Depending on the sensitivity to data loss, ask yourself and others how your backup solution might fail. Then run a dry-run test to make sure it passes your tests.

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