Protecting your data

Everyone either knows (or suspects) that they’re supposed to do backups, yet somehow they don’t always get done, or if they do, they are very spasmodic. Hopefully, after you’ve read this article, you’ll “get religious” about doing your backups. Some day you will be thankful you did!

DATA PROTECTION. Most computer consultants (including those in the business of selling antivirus programs) will tell you that the best data protection you can have is a good backup system. This article will describe this most important part of the data protection process: Backups. This is not to imply that you should not also be considering virus protection, firewalls, data encryption, and physical security for your computing systems. But it is to say that your first line of defense of your data is a good backup system.

BACKUPS. This article will describe what backups are, why to do them, how to do them, and when to do them, and will give a recommendation as to the backup program to use, and the media.

WHAT IS A BACKUP? Simply put, a backup is a copy of a computer program or data. This copy might be on the same hard disk drive that the original data is on, another hard disk drive either in another computer on a network, or on a removable hard disk drive, on zip disks, optical disks, CD-ROMs, DVDs, magnetic tapes, or “floppy” disks. In the “network” realm, there are even companies that (for a fee) will let you backup your data to their hard drives. For purposes of this article, we will refer to the class of all backup devices as “media.”

WHY SHOULD I DO BACKUPS AT ALL? Well first, let’s ask the obvious: Aren’t personal computers much more reliable now than they used to be? Well, yes, they are more reliable. But are they indestructible, invincible to such interruptions as power failures and less-than-perfect operating systems, impervious to fire and mischief (like viruses), foolproof to human tinkering? Of course not! So we do backups because there is a probability that at some point in time we will need to restore our irreplaceable data from a copy we have made (hopefully recently!)

WHAT DO I NEED TO BACKUP? Do you need to backup your programs? No. Anything that you have original copy of, and can restore from that source does not need to be backed up. So that leaves mainly the information that you add to the computer. This could include your medical billing information, of course. But it also might include letters you have written, notes you have made, in short, anything that you have put into the computer that would be difficult or too time-consuming for your to re-create, if you were to lose it. Another way of looking at it: If I were able to choose which data in the computer I would lose, and which I would keep, what could I least afford to lose? That’s (at least) what you should be backing up!

HOW OFTEN DO I BACKUP? The rule of thumb to use here, is to ask yourself the question: How many day’s worth of work am I willing to re-do? Our recommendation is that you do a backup at least daily.

“HOW DO I BACKUP?”—Our recommendation for a backup protocol: (But before we get to that, make sure you are backing up the correct data files. Yes, we know this sounds silly, but you’d be surprised how many times we’ve gone to help someone restore their data files, only to find out they had been backing up an old data set, instead of the current one, or just the program files, instead the crucial data files! So check and double-check your backup specifications to make sure you are getting your current data files.)

The protocol that we’ve found over the years to offer the most in covering all reasonable possibilities of data loss, without going to extremes is as follows: Let’s say for the sake of generality that your office is open 5 days a week. And let’s also say that the last day of your workweek is Friday, and the first day is Monday. We would recommend that you have six (6) backup media. Four (4) of the media we would label as a “daily” backup with the name of the day we will use it: Monday through Thursday. The other two media, which we will call rotating, we would label “Friday Full Set 1” and “Friday Full Set 2.” By “rotating,” we mean that we will not use the same media on this Friday that we used last Friday, but will alternate. All of the media we use will be reusable. By this we mean that as Monday rolls around, we will pull out the Monday media we used last week, and use it today. The same goes for Tuesday through Thursday media.

We start the backup process the first time we do a backup, by running the “Friday Full Set 1,” even if it’s Wednesday morning. The Friday sets are what we call “Full” backup types, meaning everything we select to be backed up will be backed up, regardless of whether anything has changed since the last time we ran a full backup. The other kind of backup type we recommend is a “Differential” backup. This means the backup will only backup files that have changed since the last time a full backup was done. We recommend using a backup program that is capable of doing both “Full” and “Differential” backups. Such programs will have the capability of “marking” all the files backed up in a Full backup session as having been backed up.

For each of the “daily” media we will backup using a “differential” backup mode.

Appending vs. Overwriting backup media: Most backup programs capable of doing Full and Differential backups are also capable of giving you the choice of “appending” one backup to other backups on a media, or “overwriting” the media with the new backup. “Appending” a backup is like the word implies: tacking a new backup at the end of the previous backup(s), while “overwriting” is replacing the existing backup on a media with the new backup. Whenever possible (given sufficient space on your media) we recommend “Appending” backups, for two very important reasons: (1) It maximizes the number of backups you can have at your disposal at any given time, and (2) you more fully utilize the backup media by writing over more of the surface, thus extending the life of your media. When you do an “appending” style of backup, sooner or later the media will become full. Your backup program will inform you of this, and ask you to insert a new media. At that point, you would cancel the backup, and re-start it this time choosing the “Overwrite” option. You would then have a mostly-empty media to which to begin again the appending process.

(If your office is open more than five days a week, you would adjust the above figures we give here by adding one media for each extra day you are open, and label them accordingly.)

SHOULD I USE AN AUTOMATIC SCHEDULING PROGRAM FOR DOING BACKUPS? Many backup programs give you the capability of backing up your data automatically at a certain time of day (usually late at night). All you need to do before you go home for the evening is insert the appropriate media for the day of the week. Sounds simple, and it is simple. However, our experience over the years with offices that have used the automatic scheduling is that more often than we care to remember, those automatic backups have not been as foolproof as a manual backup (i.e. one where you, the user inserts the media and starts the backup program). What often happens, is that the user becomes complacent, and doesn’t do the checking of the backup each morning, assuming that everything is running fine.

CAN I BACKUP TO THE SAME MEDIA OVER AND OVER? The answer is a cautious, “yes, but.” You can write to one media over and over, which is better than not backing up at all, but not much! Just as your hard disk drive is not invincible, any backup media you decide to use will likely be just as vulnerable, if not more so than your hard drive. Our recommendation is that you have a separate media for every day that your office is open for putting data into your computer, and one extra for the end of the week. And this includes weekends, if sometimes someone works on the weekends inputting or changing data.

SO WHAT “MEDIA” SHOULD I USE? Here’s our list in order of our preferences for most offices:

ZIP OR OPTICAL DISKS—Advantages: Relatively inexpensive, reliable, fast to use, and capable of being taken “off-site.” Also being essentially another “hard drive” on your computer, you can use any backup software to backup to them. Disadvantages: Somewhat limited in storage space (although the largest Zip Disk at 750MB is more than adequate to store most practice’s data, especially if you use the compression option offered by better backup software.)

HARD DISK DRIVES—Advantages: They are fast, have large capacity, and can use most backup software. Disadvantages: Relatively expensive (though not as much as tape systems), and not as portable as Zip Disks for taking off site.

MAGNETIC TAPES—Advantages: They can store huge quantities of data, and can be “linked” so if one gets full another can be loaded and continued to write to. The software that generally comes with a tape backup system tends to be robust, and full-featured. Disadvantages: Tape systems can be costly, as are the media, and the backup time is relatively slow compared other media.

CD-ROMS AND DVDS—Advantages: They are cheap and have large capacity. Disadvantages: They are relatively slow, and the software provided to do the backups is rather limited in capabilities. Also they are less reliable than either zip disks, optical disks, tapes, or hard drives. They are fine for archival purposes, but not for your first line of defense against data loss!

INTERNET BACKUP SERVICES—Advantages: They are off-site, meaning you are protected against natural and man-made disasters to your data. Disadvantages: Most impose monthly fees, and the backup times are not as fast as some other media—you are limited to the upload speed (and download if you need to restore) of your Internet connection. They are also out of your control. What happens if they are not available when you need them?

FLOPPY DISKS—Advantages: They are cheap. Disadvantages: They are limited by their small capacity (1.2MB), and hence are not suited to backing up today’s large volume of data. Also many new computers are coming without floppy disk drives. Their reliability has also become more and more suspect.

What about Backup Software? Many backup media systems come with their own backup software. And you are also able to use your own favorite backup software with many media, especially Zip Disks and Hard Disks. What you should be looking for as a minimum in your backup software is: 1) capability of doing full backups and marking the archive bits of the files it has backed up that way; 2) capability of doing Differential backups and not marking the archive bits; 3) capability of compressing data files while it backs them up.

Restoring your data from a backup: A backup program capable of doing Full and Differential backups will also be capable of doing a “Restore” of the data, when you need to do that.

When to restore: Whenever your current data is no longer accessible, or is not correctly accessible. In the first situation you might attempt to open a letter you have written, only to find out that either it’s not there, or you get an error message saying it can’t be opened. In another scenario (one we all hate to even contemplate) you lose your computer through theft or fire or some other natural disaster. In the latter situation, where the information is not correct: Let’s say you have been using your medical program, and when you go to retrieve some information that you know you’ve entered, you get an error, saying the information is not there. (There are other steps you would take here first, probably, like calling your computer-support personnel, to see if the information was recoverable. But for the sake of this article, we’ll assume that it was not, and you have decided it’s time to restore your data from a backup.)

HOW TO RESTORE: The general rule to follow here is:

(1) Restore with the latest Full backup you have first, and if you have been doing Differential backups, follow that Full backup by the latest Differential backup you have (that was dated after the Full backup you have restored). For example, let’s say it is Thursday, and you’ve decided to restore your data. The last full backup you did was the preceding Friday, so you restore that first. Then you restore yesterdays, or Wednesday’s Differential backup.
(2) Test to see if the problem is corrected.
(3) If it is not corrected, retreat to the next latest Differential backup. Check to see if the date of that backup is still later than the Full backup you have restored. If not, then retreat to the next Full backup you have, and restore any Differential backups you have that are newer than that, and that you have not already restored.

(4) Repeat this process until the problem is solved.
(5) Finally identify what data is missing from your restored data set, and begin the process of re-entering that information back into your data files. Hopefully, if everything goes well, you will have only part of a day, or a full day at the most to re-enter.