The Importance Of Proper Backups...
And How To Make Them
I had originally planned on writing about the importance of file names. But in the light of a couple client disasters this past month, I've decided to change to this one.
The very first thing I have to say is, if your backup program reports a successful backup, don't you believe it! There are a number of ways the backup process can go wrong.
3 Horror Stories
* As I worked with one client to recover their files, I found they were backing up the shortcut to their solution. [That would be an alias to you Mac users.] A shortcut is a 2k file that points to the original file and has no data in it. Needless to say, they were hurting.
* A very sophisticated client had a professional network consultant set up their backup routine. The process copied various Documents folders. But FileMaker Server needs the FileMaker files to be in its own application folder. Fortunately they discovered the error before they got into a corner.
*Another client found that the main files had been damaged during a thunderstorm one evening. The machines came back on and the backup faithfully backed up the damaged file. Since they weren't making sequential backups, they couldn't go back to the previous night's backup. I had a CD I had burned when I visited their office two weeks earlier, but they lost two weeks of data. What if I hadn't stopped by to see them?
In each case the backup program reported a successful backup. Wrong!
The only way to tell if your backups are successful is to try to bring back a file from the backup software. WARNING: There is a proper procedure to run this test so you don't overwrite your good data. Contact me when you're ready to try it.
Why Back Up?
Power fluctuations or outages, hard drive mechanisms that go bad, and computer system conflicts can all spell trouble for your data, and let’s not even mention fire, flood, and tornado. Stuff happens, and it will most likely happen to your data. Nearly every client I have has had some kind of data loss. I would say there are only two types of clients; those who have lost data and those who will lose data. If you haven't yet, you will.
Because of the nature of digital information, making backups of a company’s entire set of records is a simple procedure. Now you can make backups on media about one-quarter the size of a paperback book so they can easily be stored in multiple locations for added security. So what’s the problem?
Backing up is usually everybody’s last thought when leaving the office after a long day.
Then there’s the cost of the extra hardware. Many people strain their budget to get their computer. Then they go over budget to get some software. Now someone tells them they have to buy another machine to make backups. Forget it!
I personally know of a state agency that decided not to buy a backup system because it cost $2,000. (This was a few years ago.) Their computer tech kept warning them they were skating on thin ice. His favorite phrase was, “There are two kinds of hard drives: those that have lost data and those that will lose data.”
Well, the day finally came and their only hard drive bit the dust. They sent it off to hard drive recovery specialists to the tune of $500, only to learn the data was unrecoverable. They lost the equivalent of eight people entering data, 40 hours a week for one year, or about $250,000 of employee pay and benefits. The little $2,000 backup device looked pretty cheap by comparison. That’s why you need to make backups. Any questions?
FileMaker Pro Server Backup Features
FileMaker Pro Server has the ability to automatically save copies of files while multiple users are sharing those files. You can save to different backup devices on any schedule you choose. This is an extremely convenient feature considering that from within the standard version of FileMaker Pro using peer-to-peer sharing you need to have all users disconnect before you can make backups. You can read the documentation or call me for the details.
Using Commercial Backup Applications
There are some good products on the market for both Macintosh and Windows machines that will take care of scheduled backups for you. Retrospect for the Macintosh and PC Backup for Windows come to mind. You can also program AppleScript to perform backups on the Macintosh. In Windows NT, you can use NT Scheduler.
You can perform any of these backups while your FileMaker files are up and running, and even while they’re being shared by other users (see the following Caution). That’s something you can’t do from within FileMaker itself, unless you’re using the Server version.
Although you can back up while FileMaker is running, it is not the recommended procedure. Even FileMaker Pro Server pauses the database before performing its own backup. That gives it a chance to empty the cache for all users to the hard drive. Files that are backed up while they are active run the risk of corruption. The best solution is to close all files before running the backup (unless you’re using FileMaker Pro Server). It’s a pain, but you’ll feel a much greater pain if you can’t use your files any more. Keep in mind that file corruption may not show up for quite some time after you begin using a backup.
I highly recommend that you perform your backups to a removable medium or a portable hard drive. Don’t forget to remove it from the mechanism after backing up. A non-removable backup hard drive that’s attached to your system is not a good choice, because it’s subject to damage from power surges and lightning. You want something you can disconnect and drop into a briefcase and take off premises.
Problems with Tape
In the past year or so, I’ve had five different clients tell me they couldn’t restore their data from tape backups. I suspect it’s because they didn’t replace the tapes in the required time. You should retire tapes after six to eight weeks of daily use or about 45 backups. Contrast that with CD-RW disks that can be rewritten 10,000 times. The problem with tape is that when it touches the heads, tiny amounts of the oxide material wear off.
The suggested backup routine discussed shortly recommends that any given media only be used once every two weeks. Besides, there are plenty of removable alternatives to tape, including Zip, CD-R, CD-RW, DVD, and Syquest. It wasn't too long ago that tape was the most economical solution. But now that a blank CD costs as little as 20 cents, it seems that tape will fall by the wayside. And don't forget that hard drives are very inexpensive these days. I have five that I plug in at the end of the day just for backup rather than use any other medium.
Whatever medium you choose, date each backup and move it off the premises. You might try to get into the habit of taking the most recent backup home with you when you leave for the day. Don’t do anything with it. Just take it and bring it back. It’s also a good idea to keep a copy on-site, as well. When you have a failure, you don’t want to have to run home after your only backup in order to get the business up and running again. And what about those days when you can’t come into the office? If you were the only person to have a backup when it was needed, your co-workers would be stuck.
Another off-site backup method would be to use one of the Internet disks that are now available such as the iDisk portion of Apple’s iTools. This method of storage provides users with a low-cost, off-site, easily accessible, backed-up hard drive. Of course, using such a system would depend on how secure you feel about the possibility of your files being intercepted while traveling across the Internet or sitting on someone else’s servers. You’ll want a fast Internet connection to take advantage of this option.
There are a number of backup approaches I’ve seen recommended over the years. The one I use seems to be a good compromise between the different methods I’ve seen described. I run a backup of all my files at least once a day for two weeks, using a new removable (and rewritable) medium each day. Assuming a five-day workweek, I archive the copies at the end of days five and ten. At the beginning of the third week, I reuse the medium I used on the first day. I do the same until day 15 at the end of that week. Since I don’t want to touch the archived copy, I bring in a new blank medium. I follow the same procedure of reusing media and archiving the last weekday copy. (If you're using non-rewritable CDs, just save them all. They don't take up much space.)
After another month goes by, you can begin reusing your archived copies, but always keep at least one archive for each month. If you insist on using tape, put a mark on the label each time you use it. After 45 uses, discard it. With any other medium, put a date on it for the day it went into service. I’d start to question the reliability of media that gets to be five years old. Maybe I’m obsessive, but my computer can’t read a lot of those floppies I relied on just a few years ago. When I take this approach, my blood pressure stays just fine. I've had Zip disks that went bad in less than a year, and hard drives that went bad in as little time.
Whatever your method, the worst thing in the world is to set up a backup schedule and not test out the backups until the day they’re needed. It could be tragic to discover that you weren’t backing up “properly” after a disaster had hit. Every so often you should try to reconstruct the files from the backups to see if they work. Be warned: Some backup software has settings that overwrite the original file. Make sure you change that setting before you attempt the recovery test.
While You Work
Depending on how much data you can live without, you may want to run a backup more than once a day. I have some customers who back up their main data files every couple of hours. When I work on files, I backup every time I take a break. Backing up only takes a few seconds. Trying to recreate your work takes way longer. Using FMP Server, you can create automatically scheduled backups that you're hardly aware of.
Using Your Backups
When things go wrong, and they eventually will, you’ll need to know how to use the backups you’ve created to get up and running again. The steps you'll need to take will depend on what disaster has occurred. That's more than I can cover here. Providing you've got good backups, I can get you the rest of the way.
Of course, the main purpose of this newsletter is to remind you that I'm here to serve your FileMaker needs - development, support, and training.
If you can think of anyone you might refer me to, I offer a 5% "Thank You!" for the first 2 years of billing on referrals.