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Backing Up Your Data

Tools and strategies for protecting your organization against data loss

By: ONE/Northwest and Kevin Lo

January 18, 2007

How effective would your nonprofit be if your email, word-processing documents, and contact databases were wiped out completely? How many hours would it take to rebuild the lost information from scratch?

Regular backups are vital insurance against a data-loss catastrophe. Unfortunately, this is a lesson that most people learn only from bitter experience. Developing a solid backup plan requires an investment of time and money, but the cost is far less than the often-impossible task of recreating data for which no backup exists.

Best Backup Practices

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.

  1. Develop a written backup plan that tells you:
    • What's being backed up.
    • Where it's being backed up to.
    • How often backups will occur.
    • Who's in charge of performing backups.
    • Who's in charge of monitoring the success of these backups.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Store a copy of your backups off-site to insure against a site-specific disaster such as a fire, break-in, or flood. Ideally, you should store your backups in a safety-deposit box. We recommend rotating a set of backups off-site once a week. Another rule 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Remember to back up data on your laptops and handheld devices as well, which, depending on how you use them, may contain pertinent information. In some ways, a Palm or Windows Mobile handheld device is already like a backup of your contacts; still, refer to your device's manual for specific data-transfer instructions.
  7. 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.

Choosing Backup Hardware

  1. Choosing appropriate backup hardware is key to an effective 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. If you are interested in learning more about online backup solutions, read Remote Backup for Your Organization
  2. 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 big is each user's documents folder? How big 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).

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. Windows comes with its own backup software under Start > All Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Backup, and is adequate for individual users. For an organization-wide backup strategy, however, a dedicated program such as Symantec's Backup Exec or EMC's Retrospect should be used. 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\<username>\Local Settings\Application Data\Microsoft\Outlook\*.pst

If you have an extensive bookmark collection in your browser, be sure to back that up as well. You may choose to periodically export your bookmark file from within the program, or point to the bookmark file itself in your backup software. Check the application's Help tool or consult the Web for details.

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.
  • CDs only hold about 650 MB of data per disc, while DVDs store about 4.7 GB for a single-layer single-side disc. That's plenty of space to back up your database, or a single employee's documents and email, but it may not be enough to store every file at an organization with five or more staff members. Flash memory devices are also impractical for the same reason. Moreover, 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 these 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.

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.