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Data Backups: What Are You Really Doing?

Over the past few months, several random events got me thinking a lot more about data backups — again. I know, I know — a boring topic that you already dealt with years ago. You are tempted to just move on. But for your own good, please read this.

by / July 10, 2016
credit: shutterstock

A few weeks ago, a friend’s laptop crashed. The hard drive was virtually useless, and even a high-priced hard drive restore company didn’t help much. Yes, these guys were experts and a level above the Geek Squad.

The troubling part is that this individual meticulously performs backups once a month. But as Murphy’s Law would have it, the last backup was more than three weeks before the crash. Worse than this, the restore process revealed that a good portion of his older backup data from the past year was not usable for a variety of reasons.

And this was an individual who takes backups very seriously and was, for the most part, doing the right things. His annual routine even includes restoring data from his backups and ensuring everything is fine on several PCs. I won’t go into all his lost files, time wasted and money lost, embarrassment with customers, etc. Needless to say, it ruined his short-term business (and vacation) plans and caused extensive trouble in unexpected ways.

But enough about my friend’s backup troubles.  

I started thinking about me — and you. With global ransomware emergencies spreading, the top action to help with ransomware problem resolution is a good, recent backup. Add in the simple reality that most people just neglect this topic altogether, I decided to circle back and re-examine my own processes, procedures and backups at home and work.

The sad truth is that the excellent quality and cheap availability of laptops and desktops over the past decade has lulled many of us to sleep on this backup issue. Many families buy new laptops for our children or personal use for a few hundred dollars every few years. The majority of people rarely experience a serious failure, and think “it won’t happen to me.”

Many who do take this matter seriously have an attitude of “been there, done that, got the T-shirt.”

In my own situation, I recently realized that my regular backups were lacking in several respects, and needed a serious rethink. Like wearing safety belts after a friend is in a car accident, I refreshed my approach. Yes — it took a few hours to get through all I needed to do, but the peace of mind at the end was well worth the effort.

At work, the data backup issues are even more serious. Most public- and private-sector employees have excellent teams to do the hard work for you. Nevertheless, it may be time to double-check that the right people, processes and technology are in place to restore your data in the event of data loss for any reason.  

So let’s start with this quick data checkup.

Fiction vs. Reality?

Pop Quiz: Don’t worry, just three questions.

1) When was the last time you backed up your home PC with your most important data? (Please double-check your answer with a genuine date and data.)

2) When was the last time your work laptop, desktop and/or smartphone had a usable backup? (Note: Are you sure it worked properly, and the data is available now?)

3) Pick a critical computer system at work that you know is backed up. When was the last time your network/infrastructure team did a full restore of data using the backup tapes/disks/data?

My congratulations, if you are smiling right now and feeling good about your backup situation. You are certainly in the minority.

For the rest of us, I challenge you to rethink about the ramifications of a desktop PC, laptop, smartphone or system failure. Take a moment to ponder what you would do if certain key files, data or databases became unavailable for a significant period of time. Making matters worse, what if the data was never available again?

Helpful Steps Regarding Data Backups

There are literally hundreds of great articles on how to best perform data backups on home systems and at the office — whether using the cloud or your own offline hardware storage. But regardless of whether you are concerned about home or work, the first step is to understand the importance of the topic and take action.

Rather than reinventing the wheel, I prefer to point you to several good articles like this comprehensive article on backups from PC Advisor in the UK. Here are a few other good “how to” articles that you can use for different situations:

At Home:


At Work:

  • Back when I was Michigan CTO, Michigan won awards for our approaches to backups and keeping critical systems available 24/7/365 — by following the Information Technology Infrastructure Library ITIL Model. Yes, many processes have been more recently updated, but following ITIL is still a global best practice. We ranked our systems and had a “red card” (or prioritized list of critical systems) approach to ensuring the restore times were met for mission-critical systems and data. This National Association of State CIOs (NASCIO) award write-up describes our ITIL approach in detail, and is still used as a best practice around our nation.

Final Thoughts

During my 17 years as an agency CIO and enterprise CISO, CTO and CSO in Michigan, the backup and restore functions were used thousands of times. I also saw the need to restore backups in the DoD in England and during my time at the National Security Agency (NSA). There were dozens of times we had major computer outages for various reasons — ranging from power outages to system failures to malware spreading to system tests gone bad to other causes.  

Every business experiences outage incidents for myriad reasons. The reality is that your ability to recover quickly is one important test of your team’s competency. It is essential to have good data backups that work at home, work and anywhere else that you store important data.

We all know to hope for the best and plan for the worst in life. But are you doing that with your data? Really?

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