The California fires: Why backup and recovery should be your top priority now

  • Analyst Opinion - One of the things we simply do not think enough about is backup and recovery.   We can put much of our lives on a disk that can easily fit in our pocket but I’m willing to bet there are a lot of people in California who are wishing they had done backups right now as their memories are mostly lost forever.

    For some who have posted pictures on Windows Live, or Facebook, or MySpace or any one of a number of photo sites at least those pictures are safe but the rest of their stuff - tax forms, marriage licenses, birth certificates, documents that have defined their lives, family pictures, are lost and it is time for the rest of us to realize that next time they could be us.  Even the documents they will need to get settlements from their insurance companies for what has been burned are likely lost to the fire.  

    This week I’d like to talk about backing up your stuff, it is vastly easier now than it ever has been before and, given the cost of the loss, there is no longer any real excuse for not protecting yourself against a catastrophic event or hard drive failure.

    Converting paper to data

    Scanners are cheap, you can get a good one for under $100 and you can get an all-in-one scanner, printer, and fax machines for under $200.   While scanning your pictures and documents can take time it is time you will get back if you think through naming and indexing.   Thinking through not just the process of scanning, but the process of organizing what you’ve scanned is what will eventually give you the benefit of having this stuff organized in a way that you can actually find it again.  

    The good news here is that advanced search capabilities from Google and Microsoft coupled with some plug-ins like OmniPage Search Indexer (which can look in scanned documents) can make the indexing problem largely go away. To help, and make searches go more quickly, you should come up with a naming system that says what the scanned document is and is unique for the file.  Suggest you lead with the date of the document, then the description, and you can even add a dollar amount of it has to do with financial information. So, for a picture of Billy, playing ball, on December 22, 2007 the file would be named “20071222_Billy_Playing_Ball”.  Use folders to put similar things together and you can probably scan most of what you’ll want to protect in a few days (in fact, if you think about it, there are probably a few hundred pictures and a few dozen documents you need saved in this way so we are talking hours and not days for the things that are very important to you).  

    Digital cameras are cheap as well and pictures of things that might be stolen or lost to a disaster coupled with sales receipts can go a long way to making sure you get what you should from your insurance company.   (There is a neat little product, which is free, called Home Inventory that is provided by the Insurance Information Institute that is very useful when doing a home inventory).   

    The clear advantage in doing this is, once you’re done, you can not only find things you likely wouldn’t have been able to find but you’ll discover things during this process that you’d likely forgotten you had.   Now if you want to share something with someone it is a matter of a few minutes to find and forward it rather than the hours it otherwise would likely take you to go through your physical files.  

    And after a disaster, when you probably won’t be very focused, having all of this done and together will not only substantially reduce the stress. It will make you the hero of your family.   

    But the big advantage to scanning your documents, and this brings us back to the California fires, is you can better protect a digital file from a disaster than you can a physical object.  


    Often, only during disasters we suddenly become aware that we should have been doing backups.   Hard drives do fail, they don’t like heat and operate under very high temperatures and only have an expected service life of around three years of heavy use.  One of the common calls I get is “my computer won’t work, my stuff was all in it and everything is irreplaceable, and the PC is making a clicking sound”, which is code for the hard drive being toast.   This actually is a far too common problem; but you can (while it isn’t cheap) contract with a disk recovery service to get the data back. But, trust me, it is vastly better to have done a backup.  

    Now there are local backup products like the Seagate FreeAgent Pro which not only has a lot of capacity, it is good looking, and reasonably priced, I picked up mine at Fry’s and got 750 Gigabytes for under $220 on-sale.  The current generation supports very high speed data transfers (depending on how it is configured) on USB 2.0, Firewire, and eSATA so your backups take less time and it comes with a good basic backup product.  

    I’ve just started using one of the Windows Home Server products and it allows you to configure backups for all of the PCs in your home and centralize them on the server.   In a disaster, you could simply grab the server and you’d have all of the critical files from every PC in your home.  If used properly, your critical files go on the home server so you can access them from any PC anyplace in the world.  That way, if you lose a drive or a single PC (like your laptop gets stolen), your critical stuff is safe at home.  

    However, in the case of a disaster, you would still have to grab the drive or the server which suggests having a secondary on-line backup solution would be advisable.  For the folks who weren’t allowed back to their homes (and given disasters often happen while we are not at home) having an on-line backup solution would have been a god send.   There are a number of on-line backup services. To my knowledge, one of the best is Mozy by Berkeley Data Systems.  

    These services typically charge for the amount of data you back up so don’t go crazy. You can replace your operating system and applications and, if you back those up, you’ll likely spend more money doing that than either are actually worth.   Just back up the stuff online that you can’t replace, use a local backup solution for doing a full system image (that is where you back up the entire system and, in case of a hard drive failure, can then bring the whole thing back).   

    There is a product called Jungle Disk that will tie a Home server back into the Amazon S3 online storage service and this may turn out to be the best solution for those that are a little more technically inclined.   I got to see this a few weeks ago and was impressed with the experience, it isn’t final yet but it creates a solution that is vastly more robust than any other home solution I have yet seen.  

    Wrapping Up

    A disaster is a good time to remember that something like this could happen to you.  Floods, fires, theft, and earthquakes can be incredibly traumatic and you want to be focused on getting your family to safety not in trying to find and save documents or pictures.  

    Having your stuff digitally archived and backed up both locally and remotely can ensure you can both get to your stuff quickly and that you have stuff to get to.  You can rebuild a home, buy new jewelry and furniture, but pictures of your kids growing up, pets you’ve loved and lost, and images of events fondly remembered can’t be replaced.   Keep them safe so you can focus on keeping your family safe and avoid the regret that is striking many in California today who have now lost what they cannot longer recover.    

    Or, put another way, the reason backup and recovery should be your top priority now is so your family can be your top priority during a disaster, because that’s when they will need you most.   

    Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts.  Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them.  Currently he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies.