October, 2006

Online Backup


Having written a couple of articles that stressed the importance of backing up data, I finally thought I ought to start practicing what I preach. Previously working in a large corporate law department, backups were regularly and automatically performed by the IT Department. Now as a solo practitioner, I have to focus my attention on this critical function.

At the end of last year, I took my first step. On acquiring a new primary computer, I had it configured with two-200 gigabyte hard drives.

The purpose was not to make 400 gigabytes of storage available. That is way beyond my current needs. The system is setup so that every time I save a file, a copy of the file is saved on the second drive (this is referred to as mirrored drives). I can’t accidentally or intentionally copy files to the “backup” drive because the backup drive is not separately addressable. I am sure a real computer tech can do so, but I don’t’ think it is can be done by a layman (certainly not easily).

This gave me a degree of comfort. After all, if either of the drives fails, I am still in business. If the primary drive fails, the backup drive automatically starts working as the primary drive. The system will advise me that a drive has failed so that I can immediately arrange for the failed drive to be replaced and have all the data copied to it. How likely is it to have both drives fail at the same time? Did this meet my backup requirement? No way!

Why not? While it is very unlikely for both drives to fail at the same time, it is possible to have the whole system fried by an electrical surge from a lightening strike (which did destroy a computer I had about 10 years ago) or other cause. The surge that destroyed my old computer came through telephone lines. In those days, I had a dial up connection so a telephone wire was directly connected to the internal modem in the computer. Another step I took that helps make the remote surge possibility more remote is setting up a wireless network. I have no wire connecting the DSL modem to the computer, so a surge through the phone lines will not touch the computer. It will probably take out the DSL modem and the wireless router connected to it, but the computer with its hard drives will be safe. So are my backup needs satisfied?

Of course not! An electrical surge can obviously come through the electric line that is connected to the computer.

So it seems that the best thing to do is have a duplicate copy of the data stored outside the computer. I could use a tape drive or a DVD recorder to store the data. I have too much data to back up to make the use of CDs feasible. A CD hold less than 1 gigabyte, a standard DVD hold about 4.7 gigabytes and tape can hold enormous amounts of data Tape has the disadvantage of not having random access to files like a CD or DVD. The read head of a CD of DVD can instantly move to any place on the surface of the disc, but a tape must wind to the appropriate place.

First, I determined how much storage I really need. I focused on my data. There is no need to copy my program applications. If they are lost, I can re-install them from the original CDs or DVDs that they came on. I do have a couple of applications that I originally downloaded from the software company’s site rather than obtaining a CD or DVD. But as long as I retain serial numbers, I can always download the applications again. I keep a Word document with all my serial numbers and activation codes, and that is one document that will obviously be backed up. I keep that document password protected.

I made a rough determination of my needs by simply checking the size of the My Documents folder. I have been very consistent in keeping all of my documents and other date stored in the My Documents folder. However, there are certain applications that store their data in other locations. One is Outlook and another is Quicken. I might have had the opportunity to change the location upon installing those applications, but I have also been very consistent in accepting the default locations. My reasons for that are that it is easier and a long time ago I had numerous problems when I elected to select my own location for an application.

After checking the size of size of the My Documents folder and the Outlook and Quicken data, I figured I had about 6 gigabytes of data to backup. That only requires 2 DVDs for each backup. I already had a DVD writer in my computer so why go out and buy a tape drive?

I planned to backup my files once a week. I did that for a few weeks, but then I always seemed to have a reason not to take the time to perform the backups. It didn’t take too long, but time seemed to be needed to get other things done. At best I was backing up once a month. Even with that insufficient frequency, my DVDs began to pile up. I have backup software that permits me to schedule automatic backup, but I must remember to put a blank DVD in my DVD writer, and since my data requires 2 DVDs there is a need to change DVDs. In addition, all of those backups were at risk if my office is destroyed by fire or other casualty. I considered storing the backups in a different location

Not being content without true automatic backup and with having my backup DVDs at risk since they are all located in the same place, I thought I would try what appears to be the perfect solution. Online backup over the Internet.

I noticed that Quicken was offering this service to not only backup Quicken’s financial data but any other data. I also did a search on Google for online backup and found quite a number of providers. I noticed one called Iron Mountain. I knew they had extensive experience in providing storage for paper documents. The specifications for their service appeared to be as good as any of the others that I reviewed (there are many others I did not have a chance to review).

Quicken’s write up of its service did not touch upon one feature that Iron Mountain offered – that is multiple storage sites. Shortly after your data is stored on Iron Mountain’s computer at one of its locations, the data is stored again at another physical location that is said to be at least 100 miles away form the first data center. As it turns out, it appears that Iron Mountain may actually be the provider of the service for Quicken, since I noticed that the Iron Mountain help files have a special section for Quicken users.

Iron Mountain offers a free 30-day trial period (others provide this as well). Their monthly fee after the free trial period depends on the maximum amount of data that can be stored. I signed up for a maximum of 10 gigabytes of storage and the fees is $24.95 per month. Two gigabytes of storage is $14.95 per month and 30 gigs is $74.95, with several price points in between. Iron Mountain points out that you pay for the number of gigabytes the backed up files take on the user’s hard drive. This is important because the files are compressed and take up less space on their system.

When you sign up for the service, you download their software which allows you to schedule your backups at intervals of your choice. I decided I would have my selected files automatically backed up every morning about 4:00 am.

With my data being transmitted over the Internet, of course there is the concern for security and confidentiality, especially for a lawyer. Before sending the data over the Internet all files are encrypted by Iron Mountain’s software on my computer. The data remains encrypted at their storage site. Iron Mountain claims that no other service provides the same degree of protection

After downloading the software and setting my preferences, I started the initial backup. I did not realize it at the time but my computer had a very slow DSL connection at hat particular moment. This happens every so often and can usually be quickly corrected by restarting the computer or the DSL modem and the wireless router. However, I was reluctant to interrupt the process and figured another hour or two would be ok. After the whole process was completed, I tested my upload rate and found out it was almost as slow as a dial up connection. As a result, it took more than 50 hours to backup between 6 and 7 gigabytes. My normal upload rate is approximately 10 times faster. The upload rate for a DSL connection is significantly slower that the download rate, at least if you have the common ADSL (the “A” sounds for “asynchronous”)

Fortunately, the backup takes place in the background and you can use the computer for any other purpose while the backup is in process. However, the backup speed really concerned me. Before cancelling the service, I thought I should give it a chance to se how the daily backups fare. I am pleased to report that the daily backups have worked flawlessly. Each day only new files or files that have been modified are backed up. The system maintains a log that shows how many files are backed up on each occasion, and you can also elect to see the names of each file backed up. The log also reposts the beginning and ending times of the backups, the average backup time has been about 5.5 minutes. Those made me decide to keep the system.

One more event occurred that made more of a believer out of me. Last week, for the first time in many years, a critical file that I frequently use could not be located on my computer. This was actually great timing for the purpose of writing this article, but I did not view it with that positive attitude at the time. I needed to get something out quick and that was not possible without the lost file.

There was no need to panic. I opened up Iron Mountain’s application, clicked on the Retrieve Files tab, and I was presented with the standard Windows tree directory of folders. I clicked the folder I knew stored the file, and a list of files stored by Iron Mountain in that folder was displayed. I selected my one critical file. Without the need to read any instructions or help files, my lost file was completely restored within a couple of minutes. When I was in the large corporate law department, I remember having to wait several days before I could receive a backed up file.

While going through the retrieval process, I noticed that another benefit of the system is that it retains the last few versions of each document. When it backs up a file that has been modified, it does not replace the prior version. When retrieving files, you have the option to view the available files with or without viewing the various versions of the same document. The system shows the date of each version. I do not think the multiple copies count against the maximum storage space, since that is to be determined by the amount of space the files use on your own hard drive.

I will definitely continue to use this online backup system. I have only been using the system for a couple of weeks. I will report on any problems I encounter in the future.

The readers should not take this article as an endorsement for Iron Mountain over other providers. As mentioned above, I made a hasty judgment in selecting Iron Mountain after quickly perusing the results of a Google search of “on online data backup”. Some of the other names that were listed on the search results are IBackup, EVault, U.S.DataTrust, and Geek Squad. My primary purpose was to find out if online backup could be done easily at a reasonable cost. I have not compared providers in any meaningful way.

One thing I did find out is that Iron Mountain is the actual provider for services branded under other names. One of them is Quicken. It is interesting to note that for the same 10 gigs of storage Quicken charges about $10 less a month. However, I could not find any details for the specifications of Quicken’s service to determine if it offers all the features of Iron Mountain’s service. I have made an inquiry with Iron Mountain. Their representative appeared to be very helpful, but she has not yet gotten back to me on this issue.


Gerald J. Hoenig