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Best Practices for Backup

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Best Practices for Backup

All backup routines must balance expense and effort against risk. Few backup methods are 100-percent airtight — and those that are may be more trouble to implement than they're worth. That said, here are some rules of thumb to guide you in developing a solid backup strategy.

Plan your backup strategy: Develop a written backup plan that tells you:

  • What's being backed up

  • Where it's being backed up

  • How often backups will occur

  • Who's in charge of performing backups

  • Who's in charge of monitoring the success of these backups

All of this information should be included in the documentation.

Give highest priority to crucial data: Your database and accounting files are your most critical data assets. They should be backed up before and after any significant use. For most organizations, this means backing up these files daily. Nonprofits that do a lot of data entry should consider backing up their databases after each major data-entry session.
Core files: Back up your core documents (such as your Documents folders) and email files at least once a week, or even once a day. Each organization needs to decide how much work it is willing to risk losing and set its backup schedule accordingly.
Some data is easy to recreate: It is not usually necessary to back up the complete contents of each hard drive — most of that space is taken up by the operating system and program files, which you can easily reload from a CD if necessary. The only exception is if your organization has a dedicated file server; in this case, it's a good practice to conduct a full backup of your server before every major update so that you have a way to restore its entire hard drive. A proper file server should also be running a server-class operating system, with software or hardware RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks).

RAID (Wikipedia)

Test your backups before you need them. Make sure your backup software has full read-back verification. Design a recovery plan, and try restoring a few files to a different computer at a different location so you can test your plan before you actually need it.

Local Backup

If you use local backups, remember that storing data off-site is crucial. Natural or manmade, any disaster that impacts your computers is likely to impact an external backup drive in the same office.

We recommend rotating a set of backups off-site once a week. Ideally, you should store your backups in a safe deposit box. Another method is to follow is the 2x2x2 rule: two sets of backups held by two people at two different locations. Although it may sound overly cautious, you will be glad to have a system like this in place should disaster strike.

Keep Your Friends Close and Your Backups Distant
In the wake of Hurricane Ike, one organization we spoke with had displaced staff working remotely in four different cities. One staff person reminded us that if you’re storing your backups in the same city as your office computers, there’s a danger that one catastrophe will destroy both: “Consider your entire city a potential point of failure!” This advice can also apply to remote backup and web hosting services.

Choosing Backup Hardware

Choosing appropriate backup hardware is key to an effective local backup strategy. As with any technology, there are probably several "right" solutions for your organization. Here are some guidelines for choosing backup hardware that will work for you.

  • Determine how much data you need to back up. Take a look at the machines on your network — or at least a representative sample. How large is each user's Documents folder? How large is the email file? How much data is in your organization's primary shared folder? Add up the totals for all your machines, or multiply the average by the number of machines in your organization. Be sure to leave room to add a few new staffers, and to plan for growth — it's not impossible to add 1 GB of data per person per year.

  • Choose a backup device that uses media with a storage capacity of at least twice the total amount of data you need to back up. This will give you room for growth, and will also allow you to perform "incremental" backups on the same tape with a "full" backup. For many organizations, tape drives are a great choice, combining high reliability and reasonably fast speeds with large storage capacities. Tape drives have become the standard in backup media, and with the proper backup procedures in place they are a reliable alternative. For larger organizations with an IT infrastructure in place, tapes are a great choice.

  • Consider your drive's speed and how it interfaces with your computer. When you have a large amount of data to back up, a big storage device isn't much good if you can't write data to it quickly.

Internal Drives: IDE and SCSI are common internal-drive interfaces. All PCs have built-in IDE connections, and devices using these interfaces are usually less expensive. Keep in mind that there are also different standards for IDE. Older IDE drives are now called PATA (Parallel ATA) and the newer standard is called SATA (Serial ATA). Be sure to verify compatibility with existing hardware when making a purchase.

External Devices: Although ultra-wide SCSI is the fastest, you will also encounter devices that use USB and IEEE 1394 (Apple FireWire). Most PCs don't include built-in SCSI adapters, so you may need to add an SCSI card to use an SCSI device. Higher-end server-class hardware comes with a built-in SCSI or the newest standard SAS (Serial Attached SCSI).

Network Attached Storage (NAS) is a type of device that offers disk-based storage like a dedicated file or backup server, but in a small and efficient chassis. While specific features such as scheduled backup or FTP access depend on the model, all NAS implement some form of hardware RAID which makes them a reliable form of backup hardware.

RAID (Wikipedia)

Choosing Backup Software

Having cost-effective and reliable backup hardware is only half of the equation. Many backup devices come with backup software that works for most data-storage needs. The Professional Editions of Windows XP and Vista (but not Home Edition) come with their own backup software under Start > All Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Backup, which are adequate for individual users. For an organization-wide backup strategy, however, a dedicated program such as Symantec's Backup Exec or EMC's Retrospect is preferable. Consult the software documentation for details to determine specific needs. Microsoft offers an in-depth description of the most common types of backup — full, incremental, and differential.

Locating Files for Backup

Once you have the hardware and software in place, you need to know the location of the data you wish to back up. While most Windows users store data in their documents folder, there is also a tendency to keep files and folders on the Desktop, which you'll need to back up as well. Special database- or financial-software packages may store files in their program directories, so be sure to make copies of these, too. Finally, be sure to understand how your email is set up and where your messages (sent and received), calendar (if your email application has one), and contact information are stored.

Check with your email service provider — which may offer backup services — on its backup and restore policies. Email messages may also contain copies of sent attachments. Locally, mail data files should be backed up, and their locations vary by program. In Microsoft Outlook, mail data files are commonly located in:
C:\Documents and Settings\\Local Settings\Application Data\Microsoft\Outlook\*.pst

Additional Backup Tools

What about CDs, DVDs, flash drives, and external hard drives?

As organizations' content and data needs grow exponentially, data storage costs are also decreasing. CDs, DVDs, USB flash memory devices, and external hard drives are becoming increasingly affordable. With that in mind, should you use these devices as your primary means of backing up? Here are a few considerations.

  • Low cost aside, the main advantage to using these devices is their ubiquity and accessibility. If you made a direct copy of your files to a disc or flash memory device, for example, they can be easily be read by any modern operating system on another computer (Windows 2000 and above; Linux kernel 2.2.x and above; Mac OS X) with a DVD or CD drive or functioning USB port. This means you can "restore" your data, even without specialized backup hardware. Moreover, in the event of a disaster, you can often recover data more quickly from a CD, DVD, flash memory device, or external hard drive than from a specialized tape format or device.


  • External hard drives, though convenient and cost-effective, may not always be conducive to best backup practices, such as making routine off-site copies or conducting incremental backups.

  • Since it is easily readable, from a data-security point of view, direct copies of data stored on CDs, DVDs, flash memory devices, and external drives pose more of a problem in the event of loss or theft. Even with password encryption, this data is less secure than it would be in a harder-to-read backup archive.

Although discs have fewer compatibility issues overall, the data stored on them may not be readable on every workstation, especially if your nonprofit has older hardware or donated machines with varying specifications. With writable DVDs, for example, there are a plethora of standards (DVD-R, DVD+R, DVD-RW, DVD-RW, to name a few). For a guide to formats, read Webopedia's DVD Formats Explained.

DVD Formats Explained

Does that mean that CD, DVDs, and flash memory devices, and external hard drives are useless? Absolutely not! Here are some ways to use them:

  • Use CDs and DVDs to archive old data. Old information — such as audit records or historical data — may still be of value to your organization. CDs and DVDs are also appropriate for storing data that you won't need to modify, such as photos and finished printed materials. Both generally involve large files that you may need to refer to but aren't likely to go back and change. Archiving old data files to discs is also a great way to supplement your tape-based backup strategy, because it lets you save resources by backing up big chunks of files that won't change. Plus, disks make your archives portable — and it's easy to store a copy off-site.

  • Use flash memory devices for transferring files, or as a secondary backup. Flash memory devices are great for making quick, easy, redundant backups of super-critical files such as databases and accounting files.

Standardizing Practices Across Multiple Branches
Cincinnati’s Freestore Foodbank serves over 7000 individuals a month in the greater Cincinnati area, and those numbers double in November and December. Before undergoing a major overhaul of their tech infrastructure, the Foodbank’s multiple branches had a lot of trouble communicating and working together, both internally and externally. Johnna Higgins writes:

“Our growth was previously hampered by our inability to communicate and share information over multiple sites on a reliable network using standardized software. The servers were old, the software was ancient, and no one had the same version of word processing or spreadsheet software. It was difficult to share files between sites let alone between computers, as well as send things out to donors, board members, or anyone asking for information. Our mail was hosted externally for the upper staff and through POP mail from our internet provider for the remaining the staff. Without a common desktop platform, working together was difficult and cumbersome. There were no backups because the DAT tape drive that was being used had quit working, and there were no monies to replace it. Through the Microsoft donation program at TechSoup, we have been able to purchase software that we would not have been able to afford otherwise, make a multi-year plan for network and desktop standardization, formulate a reliable backup plan, and find a way to protect ourselves from potential disasters, bring e-mail in-house, and work towards bringing stability and security to our organization.

“We began with the implementation of updated server technology. A server was purchased for each site and new server operating software and licenses were purchased and loaded onto them. Having a common operating system helped to end some of the issues that were happening between sites which was a huge time savings for the 1.5 members of the IT staff. It allowed us to take advantage of Active Directory for the first time and control access to files, form policy groups, enforce policies, and helped us to secure some of the holes that were causing problems. From there, the standardization of the desktops began with the purchase of XP licenses and office licenses to bring us up to a level where we could share documents and not worry about what version or what program the document was created in. Productivity rose and fewer client files were delayed in reaching necessary desks as most of the paperwork is now available electronically. This is especially important now because we are seeing more than 200 clients daily.
“One of the most critical purchases that we made was the Data Protection Manager (DPM) software for doing shadow copy/replica backups of our files. It allowed us to take our data and save it off-site by having each site have its own DPM server located at the opposite site. It also allowed our user base to recover different versions of documents if they were accidentally overwritten or deleted. This advantage became especially important during the September 2008 windstorms when our Liberty Street location was without power for four days. We were still able to be partially operational because the site’s data was protected at another location and was restorable to another server.”
Read the rest of Johnna’s story at TechSoup’s Show Your Impact.

Raising the Bar: Serving Hunger and Poverty in Cincinnati
TechSoup Stock: Data Protection Manager

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