What If Your Building Burns Down?

Opinion: Recent history is full of lessons for why off-site backup makes sense. Companies that don't have it can be ruined.

A good friend of mine used to be a business networking consultant in Philadelphia. One of the standard practices she defined for all of her clients was for backup, and especially for off-site backup. She would define the procedures and tell them what to do, not that they would necessarily do it.

One day, it must be 10 or 15 years ago now, a major office building in center city Philly, right next to City Hall, burned down.

My friend had three clients in that building. One of them had followed her advice, and the next day they were up and running on leased equipment in an alternate location.

The other two companies blew off her advice and were ruined as a result. All of their business records were gone. They didnt even really know who their customers were anymore.

Both 9/11 and Katrina underscore these concerns: What if the worst happens? The companies hit by those disasters that had effective off-site backup had a much easier time recovering.

No doubt many small companies were wiped out by those disasters even if their employees and principals survived them. (Incidentally, part of the advice—remember, this is the Netware era of the 1980s—was to keep software installation disks or copies of them off-site as well.)

A business of any real size that has multiple locations and a VPN between them can use that connection to back up critical files from any location to one or more of the others. In fact, cheap hard disk storage makes this all the more practical.

But off-site backup should be considered a requirement for individuals as well. About a year ago I talked about backup and disaster recovery, ignoring online backup.

My concern at the time was the limitations of backup methods, including online backup, which are prevented by practical considerations from performing a full system backup.

Basically, in an era when 250GB drives cost well under $100, I argued that the only effective backup device is another hard disk. Ill stand by those earlier arguments but add that you also need to back up off-site.

Ill focus here on home users, since businesses have many options here, an easier time spending money and a harder time justifying not spending it. Think of all the home user PCs ruined in Hurricane Katrina.

This subject came to mind when I read PCMags recent review of online backup services. It turns out that backing up many gigabytes of data is extremely affordable now, and one of the services (Mozy) gives 2GB of backup for free (and for receiving some minimal advertising--see the PCMag story for details).

These services are focused on backing up your data. Thats probably all you can do over the average broadband connection, and most users will never notice the overhead of backup over a broadband connection when only the data is being backed up.

Occasionally, for instance if you take whole mess of digital photos and rip the complete works of Pink Floyd to your hard disk then youll have a lot of uncompressible data that needs to be uploaded. But most of the time you wont notice it.

And you dont have to have a biblical flood or a war coming to make your hard disk inaccessible. You (or your teenager) could download some spyware to it that would make Windows unusable.

Its not uncommon for malware-infected computers to become so unusable that its easier and cheaper just to buy a new computer. Then youll thank your lucky stars that you have a backup of your data, even if you still have to reinstall all your software.

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If I have one complaint about services such as those reviewed by PCMag in the referenced story, its that they dont have an easy way to back up the system configuration.

This is what the Windows Backup program calls "System State" and consists mostly of the registry. If you create a new system and reinstall all your software there will still be a big, inconveniently missing chunk of data covering customizations, license keys, cached passwords, things like that.

Some of them have some level of user profile backup, such as Internet Explorer Favorites, but they could do better.

I wish it were easy for me to do effective off-site backup of my full system images, but its good to know that for little or no money I can have my critical data files safe even if the Martians or whoever attack my town. You never know what could happen.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. He can be reached at larryseltzer@ziffdavis.com.

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