The Perils of Lost Data

Adam Haeder, VP of Information Technology


An old saying in IT circles goes, “There are two types of people in the world: those that backup their data, and those that have not yet suffered a major data loss.” Having been through a number of major data loss scenarios myself, I can attest to the truth of this statement.


The amount of data each of us is creating is increasing daily. In the past, the things we considered important on our computers was relatively small: mostly documents, perhaps some presentations that we had been working on. Now, however, as the term “multimedia” can be used to describe just about everything we do, the kinds of data we are mostly worried about are photos and videos. The switch to this type of important data has one major implication: the sheer size of the data we want to save is increasing at an exponential rate. Even as little as ten years ago, it was not uncommon for people to consider USB flash drive to be the “backup” of their important documents. Now, even with the size of flash drives ever increasing, even the largest is unlikely to hold the photos and videos that we take in an average 6-month period. We need a better way to save our important data.


 The sad fact that most people realize too late is that hard drives fail. It is never a matter of if, only a matter of when. Each hard drive is rated with a number called a “Mean Time Between Failures” (MTBF), and most major hard drive manufacturers have MTBFs somewhere in the 4-6 year range. However, this is only a mean, not a guarantee. I can personally attest to situations where brand new hard drives failed after a matter of weeks instead of years. And even if your hard drive makes it to the mean, that still says that after about 5 years, the hard drive will fail. Like death and taxes, it is a thing you cannot avoid; anything that relies on moving parts will eventually fail.


New technologies in the last five years have started moving us away from moving parts in large computer storage, and towards solid-state memory. This is the same technology that is used in USB flash drives, in just a much larger format. At the moment, solid state drives are still much smaller than their moving-parts cousins, and much more expensive. Time will continue to improve upon both these variables, but the fact remains that these devices still have MTBFs as well. They may very well be longer than the MTBFs for existing hard drives, but they are there nonetheless. No matter what the technology, it seems, it will eventually fail.


So the answer to this is to replicate your data on multiple devices, to ensure that when one fails, you have a copy of your data on the other. There are different ways to approach this; we will discuss the most common ones here. The first option is to simply buy another hard drive and set up a synchronization process between your current hard drive and the new backup. External USB hard drive in the multi-terabyte range can be purchased for around $100, and software comes with the major operating systems that will allow you to create a backup schedule to replicate your data to this drive. This is the easiest method, and is something everyone should seriously consider if they have important data stored on a single device.


The second option attempts to handle situations where your data is spread out over multiple devices. Take photos and videos, for example. It’s not uncommon for one person to have photos and videos on a smartphone, a tablet and a laptop, all that need to be backed up. In order to keep data across multiple devices safe, many people are opting to use devices in their homes called “Network Attached Storage” (NAS). These devices are essentially hard drives on the network. If your device can connect to your local wireless (or wired) network, you can connect to this NAS and copy your data to it. The NAS itself then becomes a single point of failure (because it has hard drives in it), but you can purchase a NAS with multiple hard drives for redundancy, or a second NAS that can sync from your first one over your network.


Finally, if setting up this technology in your home is something that seems a little too daunting for you, you can take advantage of one of the many cloud-based backup services. Examples of these are Google Drive, Dropbox, Mozy, Carbonite, and Zmanda, just to name a few. These services work in a similar way to a NAS, except that you can access them from any network connected to the internet, and you pay a monthly fee for the service, usually based upon how much storage space you need. In general, these services are very good options for most people, assuming you are willing to pay the monthly fee. The important thing to consider when choosing a service like this is how much bandwidth you will be consuming when performing your backups. A few multi-gigabyte movie files can very quickly consume a monthly bandwidth limit if you are on an ISP plan that employs low bandwidth caps. Figure out how much storage you actually need, and how much changes every month so you can calculate bandwidth usage before deciding to pay for a service like this.


The most important thing to remember in having a backup plan is to have a backup plan. No matter how simple your plan is, it’s always better than no plan at all, and as soon as you have that first data loss, you’ll be glad that you took
the time to set one up.