Common Backup Mistakes . . . And How to Avoid Them

Landmark Computer Labs has sold tape backup systems for most of our eighteen years in the personal computer business. We've seen people back up properly, and we've seen people back up in all kinds of wrong ways. We're no angels ourselves, having lost our share of data without proper backup. So we know whereof we speak.

Hard disk crashes and computer thieves are pretty unforgiving. When your files are gone, it's good to know you have a plan for data recovery. So . . . get a tape drive, get some tapes, and by all means avoid these few easy ways to lose data-even when you think you're properly backed up.

Mistake #1. Don't make backups on a regular schedule.

Everyone knows they should back up their data. They just don't realize how important it is--until after their data is gone.

Doing regular data backups is like brushing your teeth. It's not fun or exciting, but you must do it if you want to keep your data (or your teeth) safe.

The best way to make sure that backups are done regularly is to let the system do it automatically. Just set up your backup scheduler to run at a regular time every day. In most cases, it's best to schedule backups for a few hours after you've stopped using your system. (If you're working late, you can ask the scheduler to defer the backup for a little while.)

It's easy to establish a schedule of incremental backups each day, partial backups each week, and full system backups once a month. You can determine the schedule that best fits your needs. If your system is small, it may be easiest to just back up the full system each day.

Once you set up the proper commands, all you have to do is to make sure that the backup tape is loaded. You can even make the system remind you to load the tape. If you let the system do most of the work, you'll remove the drudgery from the important job of doing a backup.

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Mistake #2. Don't back up all your files.

Don't assume that the tape drive will catch all files on your computer. You may have more than one hard disk. You may be using a compression utility like Stacker, DoubleSpace, or DriveSpace, in which case there is a "host" drive separate from your C: drive. If you're running Windows 95 be sure to back up the Registry as a special case. If you fail to back up the entire system, what should be a speedy recovery could become a long and tedious process.

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Mistake #3. Don't keep your backup tapes in a secure place.

Your backup tapes are possibly more valuable than your computer itself. They should be locked up or stored in a secure location. Any common thief (maybe even a competitor) can steal a tape that is left lying near your computer, causing more damage than any computer virus or hacker.

Keep a copy of your important data in a separate location (or in a fire-proof safe or bank vault). If you don't, disaster could destroy your computer and all your backup data.

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Mistake #4. Don't rotate your backup tapes.

Some users always use the same tapes for each backup. They simply write the new backup data on top of the old data. It might save them a few bucks, but it can cost a lot more later.

Using the same tapes becomes a big problem if your system fails while doing a backup. In that case, you'll be left with a crashed system and no backup data. Don't think it can't happen; Murphy's law says it will. All it takes is a lightning strike, a power outage, or an accidental press of the reset button.

At the very minimum, you should have two sets of backup tapes. Call them Set A and Set B. Always alternate your backups between the sets. Write one backup to Set A, the next to Set B, and so on. Even if your system fails during a backup, you will still have a set of backup data that is good.

This advice is especially true for the new tapes that can hold several gigabytes of data. Some users think they can save money by using a single tape to hold all their daily backups: data from Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. is all written to one tape. Imagine the problems you would have if that single tape went bad.

Don't try to save money on tapes. Tapes are cheap, especially when compared to the cost of trying to re-create your data. Even the most expensive tapes are less than fifty bucks. Isn't your data worth more than that?

It's best to use several sets of tapes for backups. This gives you greater redundancy and also saves wear and tear on the tapes. Retire your old tapes before they wear out and become unreliable.

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Mistake #5. Don't create an Emergency Boot Disk.

It might seem obvious, but if your hard disk crashes, you need another way to boot the computer. Without an Emergency Boot Disk, you're going to find that difficult.

Fortunately, all Landmark PCs come with a customized EBD, including all drivers installed at time of sale. But over time users change operating systems, add new drivers, and even upgrade their floppy disk drives to new types.

It's important to keep your EBD current.

Oh sure, you've got Windows 95 right there on a CD-ROM. But what if you can't get the computer to recognize the CD drive? And once you get the software to load, it will require a serial number that you may have trouble locating. This is before you can even start to restore your files!

As you add device drivers to your system, be sure to update your EBD and keep it in a safe place. Make a spare copy of it while you're at it.

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Mistake #6. Don't keep a floppy copy of your properly configured tape backup software.

Many people forget to make a copy of their backup software when creating an Emergency Boot Disk. Without it you'll have to find the master disks, run the install program, and configure your tape drive. That may involve specifying interrupt and address values and other information--like what kind of controller card is in the system--that you don't know.

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Mistake #7. Don't verify your backup data.

Your backup data is useless unless it's correct. Consumer-grade tape drives do occasionally make bit errors when writing data to a tape. If an error occurs, your data could be lost without any kind of error message or warning.

Verifying your backup is the best way to make sure that the data is correct. It's easy to do--just make sure the "confirm" or "read after write" option is enabled. It takes twice as long to back up your system with full verification--but it's worth the extra time.

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Mistake #8. Don't keep a backup log.

Keeping a log saves time and trouble.

There are two kinds of logs you should keep: a file information log and an error log.

The file information log should contain a list of which files were backed up, the date of each file, and the label of the tape containing the files. If you need to restore a file, the file information log makes it much easier to find the proper tape.

You should also keep a log of the errors that may occur during the backup process. This is especially important if you run unattended backups.

Always read your log files to make sure that each backup was done successfully. Check each log for messages that might indicate a problem.

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Mistake #9. Don't label your backup tapes.

A pile of unlabeled tapes can cause a lot of confusion when you're trying to find the one you need. Some users set up a tape management system and keep a database containing the tape label and information about the archive.

Even if you have a tape management database, it's still a good idea to label each tape (in case the database crashes). You should probably label each tape with the date of the backup, the backup type (full, incremental, etc.), and any other important information.

It's also a good idea to write a descriptive label for each backup volume, like "Drive C: total backup Tuesday, 6-18-99 by Bud" rather than having the computer generate a generic volume label.

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Created 7-96. Last update 6-24-99.