October 23, 2012

How to Back Up Your PCs and Macs: An Obsessive's Guide for the Small Law Firm

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October/November 2007 Issue | Volume 33 Number 7 | Page 25


How to Back Up Your PCs and Macs: An Obsessive's Guide for the Small Law Firm

A step-by-step plan for keeping your data safe without spending a bundle.

It should go without saying that you have to plan for backing up and restoring your data. If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, then it can translate into a fortune when you’re talking precious data in a law office.

I have lost no data (knock on wood) since October 2002. And in that case, I went out and purchased  a 15-year-old Macintosh to restore the one legacy file that I lost. I have five Windows computers and three Macintosh computers, and all of them are backed up—twice.

I admit that I’m a backup and restore junkie, but as the owner of a small law practice, it’s nice going to sleep at night knowing that I haven’t lost data in five years. Does that sound appealing to you? Then I’ll share my plan here, including how much my backup obsession costs.

Keep Change Logs on All Computers

For starters, whenever you make changes to software files, it is good programming practice to note those changes in the headers of the files (or in README files), something I’ve been doing for years.

Similarly, I have a plain-text file in the root directory of each computer, named changelog-computername.txt, in which I manually log all hardware and software changes to each computer. Keeping a changelog is not as hard as it sounds. I configure each admin account to automatically open the changelog file when I log on, which reminds me to update the changelog when I make changes to the computer’s hardware or software.

Here’s the reason for this practice. In an earlier life, I did quality assurance on both hardware and software (at BBN, if you’re curious). Whenever the hardware engineers changed the hardware and broke the system, they suspected bad software. Whenever the software engineers changed the software and broke the system, they suspected bad hardware. The reality: Software engineers broke software, hardware engineers broke hardware. Essentially, I learned that if you broke a system that was working before you touched it, then whatever got changed last is what caused the system to break.

And that is where your changelog file comes in: If you are having a problem with a computer, check the changelog. Whatever you changed last (hardware or software) most likely caused your problem. You will be amazed at how much debugging time a simple changelog file will save.

Here’s a snippet from my changelog for the computer on which I’m currently writing:

#2007-07-07 - EJH - Upgraded OpenOffice from 2.2 to 2.2.1

#2007-07-06 - EJH - Upgraded  RealVNC from 4.0 to 4.1.2

Use Local Live Backup

If you have a few computers on your network, then consider purchasing a network-attached storage (NAS) device so that you can have a live backup of each computer on your network. Basically a NAS device is a special purpose appliance with a hard disk and a network connection,  providing a less-expensive alternative to setting up a separate computer as a file server.

While you have multiple choices, I use the Snap Server and it works great for this purpose. My 250 GB Snap Server includes backups of 100 percent of the hard drives for three computers.

On the software side, I use Power-Quest DataKeeper for PC backup and PsyncX for Macintosh.

Have Offsite Backup As Well

To ensure that the bases are covered, I do more than back up my three main computers with the Snap Server. I also use Mozy on all of my Macs and PCs to back up all of my user data off site. Although I was initially critical of Mozy, its new offsite backup service has definitely been improving. As the price of broadband Internet connections and storage space decreases, offsite backup becomes both more technically feasible and affordable, so it’s a good time to check into which remote backup service will meet your particular needs.

On every single Windows computer, I back up the “Documents and Settings” directory, which contains all of my user data. I have about 35 GB of PC data backed up off site with Mozy (about 7 GB per PC). Mozy’s restore feature is integrated with Windows Explorer, so you can right-click in any directory to restore accidentally deleted files to that directory.

On every single Macintosh computer, I back up the “Users” directory, which contains all of my user data on those machines. I have about 75 GB of Macintosh data backed up with Mozy (about 25 GB per Mac). All of my personal media (MP3s, movies, photos and the like) is stored on the Macintosh, which is why each Macintosh stores more data, on average, than each PC.

For both Mac and PC versions of Mozy, I use a private encryption key, which means that my data is encrypted on Mozy’s servers with a key that only I know. Mozy can be configured to back up when your computer is idle or at a specified time.

Lastly, since I believe in a belt-and-suspenders approach, the computer that contains all of my client files is also backed up with Connected.com.

Note, though, that I do not apply this same advice to application (non-user) data. I don’t back up the Windows “Program Files” or the Macintosh “Applications” directories remotely. In my experience, if you need to restore part of an application, then you are better off reinstalling that application. As such, I store all installers, licensing and documentation for each software program with my user data (i.e., somewhere in the “Users” directory for Macs and in the “Documents and Settings” folder for PCs), so my software installers are all backed up locally.

Regularly Test Restore Procedures: The Other Half of Backup

Speaking of restores, it does you no good to have a backup plan if you don’t periodically test it to ensure that your backup systems work properly and you can really restore your files. Fortunately, I manage to accidentally delete a file about once per quarter, so several times a year I get to find out if my obsessive backup plan is still working. I am pleased to report that I can always restore the file I am looking for, either from the local Snap Server or from my remote Mozy and Connected.com accounts.

Calculating the Bottom Line: The Cost of Backing Up—Or Not

So how much does my backup plan cost?

  • A 250 GB Snap Server 110 costs $850. If the Snap Server lasts five years (a pretty safe assumption), it will cost $170 per year.
  • Each Windows Mozy account costs $4 per month, plus $25 per month for 50 GB of storage. Note that I purchased 10 GB per PC but am only using 7 GB per PC. That’s $540 per year for five PCs.
  • Each Macintosh Mozy account costs $5 per month for unlimited storage. That’s another $180 per year for three Macs.
  • Finally, my “extra” Connected.com account costs $75 per month for 30 GB of storage. That’s another $900 per year for one PC.
  • The grand total is $1,790 per year for 330 GB of storage for eight computers. That’s $223.75 per computer per year for a redundant backup plan.

Now let’s balance those costs against this: How much does your time cost? How much time and hassle will it take to replace data that you’ve accidentally deleted? How much time will you save by properly backing up your data? How valuable is your client data? And your personal data, such as photos, music and so on? You get the point.

Three things in life are certain: death, taxes and computer failures. Have no doubt about it, computers are machines that will eventually break. The components that break first are likely to be those with moving parts, such as fans and hard disks. A good backup plan is not inexpensive, but it is less costly than the alternative.

About the Author

Erik J. Heels is the principal of Clock Tower Law Group, a patent and trademark firm in Maynard, MA. He provides news and commentary on the intersection of law and technology at www.lawlawlaw.com.