No More Excuses: Back Up Your Data!

I remember spending $15,000 for 2GB worth of SCSI storage disks in a RAID5 configuration. For those of you who just went “huh?”, don’t feel bad. These are just acronyms that really are not that complicated to understand once they’ve been explained.

GB stands for gigabytes, which is just a measurement of the amount of data that can be stored on a computer’s hard-disk. SCSI (pronounced “skuzzy” as in “He’s a really skuzzy dude.”) stands for Small Computer System Interface, which describes the method by which a hard-disk is connected to the rest of a computer.

RAID stands for Redundant Array of Independent (or Inexpensive) Disks, which describes the use of multiple disks to create one large storage set. There are different levels of RAID configurations that denote how all the independent disks are arrayed (and some of these levels, such as 5, are definitely not “inexpensive”). Regardless of which RAID level is used, the concept is the same: if one of the disks goes bad you can replace it without having lost any data.

Now let’s get back to that $15,000 I spent for said 2GB of disk storage space. It was done so that the corporation I worked for at the time could not only backup their precious data, but have it restored fairly quickly should one of the hard-drives go bad.

Today, you can buy ten times that amount of disk storage space (20GB) for about $150. As with all other computer hardware, the cost keeps going down while the capabilities keep going up. The point of all this is that there really are no more excuses to not backup your data. Spending some money now could save you a lot of time (and perhaps money) later. Oh, and a lot of agony too.

And yet, most users (and businesses) continue to not backup their data. Consider John (not his real name), a big-shot attorney in Seattle who called me one morning because his computer wouldn’t boot up. “It’s making this funny grinding sound,” he told me over the phone. He held the phone down by the computer case so that I could hear the “funny” sound. There was nothing funny about it. His hard-drive had crashed. The sound was the read-write head grinding grooves into the otherwise smooth and shinny plane of the disk, carving away at John’s data and obliterating it.

John didn’t have a backup of his data. If had had backups of his data. If he had, it would have been a relatively short and painless process to get him up and running again. “Isn’t there something you can do?” he asked as the realization of the situation began to sink in. All of his trial briefs, notes, and other documents in progress had been on that hard-disk. Already under a heavy work-load, the loss of his data was a near-crushing event. I salvaged what data I could, which wasn’t much.

There are companies that specialized in data recovery. I offered that we could ship the hard-disk to one of these companies and have them take a look at it. Data recovery companies typically charge $500 just to examine a disk. You pay whether they can recover anything or not. I told John that because of the severity of the hard-disk crash there was probably not much that even a data recovery company could do. John let out a heavy sigh, told me to do what I could, then headed off for what would perhaps be a three-martini lunch. I felt bad for John as a human being. (Yes, all jokes aside, lawyers are human beings too.) But I spared no sympathy for him as a computer user. He should have been backing up his data.

If you are seated in front of your computer right now reading this column online, pause for a moment and think about the data that resides on your computer’s hard-disk. If your hard-disk crashed right now, at this very moment, can you safely say that everything is adequately backed up? If you are like most computer users, your answer to that question will be a resounding “No.”

You have many options for backing up your data. Let’s begin with the cheapest and most obvious: floppy disks. Personally, I hate floppy disks. They are notoriously unreliable. Sometimes they come bad right out of the box. Other times they go bad just because you decided to do something crazy like label them. Or the temperature changes. Or your 2-year-old uses them for Frisbees. They don’t hold much data either. If you wanted to backup a modest 100MB of data, you’d need to arm yourself with a stack of approximately 70 floppy disks.

But something is better than nothing. If you do nothing else in regards to data backup, you should at least copy your most precious files to floppy disks. If you want some guaranteed reliability, you’ll need to make at least two other duplicates of the same disks, which means that 70 floppy disks quickly becomes 210. But perhaps the biggest problem with backing up to floppy disks is that, well, it’s a pain in the ass. You’ll get tired of it. You’ll get complacent. The timeliness of your backups will be lacking.

A better data backup option is a Zip drive. A Zip drive is like a glorified floppy drive. The disks for one of these drives is about the size of a floppy, just a little bit thicker. But they hold up better and can store up to 250MB of data, the equivalent of 173.61 floppy disks. Zip drives currently cost about $140 and the disks for them are about $20.

If you are like my father and take approximately 100 pictures with a digital camera every time you step out of your house, your storage needs will be much greater. You can either get a second hard-drive for your computer, or a tape backup drive. Tape backup drives typically use DAT tapes that hold a minimum of 2GB. They are small, just a little bit larger than a microcassette tape, for those of you who remember such things.

Unlike the 2GB SCSI RAID5 storage unit that cost $15,000 in its prime, all the backup options I’ve mentioned are not terribly expensive. Think of them as insurance – something you need to have, but hope you’ll never have to use.