I’ve been thinking a lot about backups recently for a variety of reasons.

First, I’ve been involved in setting up a fund to honor the high school teacher who first taught me the importance of good backups. He hired me to help with the high school mini-computers and one of my major jobs was to backup the system every day to magnetic tape. When we lost a hard disk (lighting and computers just don’t mix well) we always could recover with a recent tape. I learned a lot of lessons from that first job and one that particularly stuck in my mind was the importance of regular backups and taking backups off-site. Because of that job, I can be a bit maniacal about backups and archives.

Second, I had to recreate a website we worked on a couple of years ago. We had archived the source when we decommissioned our source control server just a few months ago. But when we shut down the website, we’d not remembered to download a copy of the database. In my development work, however, I knew I’d had at least one copy of the database on my development machine while we were working on it, but I’d deleted it a year or two ago. However, I make it a practice to burn an archive DVD of my work at the end of each year before I clean off files that are no longer needed so I had a good feeling that I had some reasonable version of the database archived. I pulled out my archive from a couple of years ago and found the database pretty easily. With that and the source code, we were easily able to get the old website up and running.

Third, one of the websites I run reported some very odd behavior with a search feature I’d implemented. It wasn’t returning the right results so I looked into their database to see what was happening. Turned out a crucial data table was missing. The table was only used as a backup if the first search failed, but it was an important table to generate good results. I back up the database for that site on a daily basis and keep a permanently archived backup once each month. When I went back through the backups, it turned out that the table was emptied about 18 months ago! I haven’t figured out why or how yet (probably user error) but I definitely felt good knowing that I had the data in a backed-up copy of the database (I also had archived the data in its original format before it was put into the database, but it was simpler to have the database format).

Lastly, I’ve been asked to come up with a document for one of our customers on backing up one of their computers by hand. In general, we prefer an automated backup solution because it’s more likely to happen on schedule and it ensures that a copy is taken off-site. When I have that written up, I’ll link to those instructions here.

Good backups and good backup procedures are an essential part of keeping any computer in good health. I've seen too many instances of people losing an entire draft of a book, all their digital family pictures or critical files for their business. Make sure you are regularly backing up your important computer files to an off-site location. Check your backups regularly to make sure they are working and backing up what you need them to. How would you feel if you accidentally typed "Format C:" instead of "Format D:" on your desktop machine? What would happen if you dropped your laptop into a large puddle of water? Would you just lose some time getting your machine up and runnig again? Or would you also lose a large amount of irreplaceable information?