Oregon State Bar Bulletin — APRIL 2011

Managing Your Practice

Backing Up:
Your Most Important Office System
By Dee Crocker

If there is one important task computer users regularly ignore, it’s backing up their data. Neglecting this critical aspect of your office systems can carry a high price tag. Things go wrong sometimes: Computers get viruses, hard drives fail, and former employees destroy data, leaving you in a bind.

One of the biggest reasons people don’t back up is lack of information: They don’t know where to start, what tools to use or how to go about it. Although I can’t come to your office every day and back up your systems for you, I can explain your options to help you choose. The process is relatively simple these days and often completely automated, with products in every price range, so there really is no excuse not to back up.

Network Attached Storage (NAS)
NAS devices, or Network Attached Storage, are self-reliant storage devices that sit on a network outside your PC but are connected via your Wi-Fi or wired network. Until fairly recently, this technology was primarily a tool of larger businesses, but it’s becoming more prevalent for personal use as the number of small office PCs and file-sharing networks has increased.

In many ways, your computer treats an NAS device like any other hard drive. It will show up as a separate disk in “My Computer” or as an icon on your desktop, and you’ll be able to access the files just as you would on any drive (external or otherwise). Since it’s not directly attached to a PC, it can be easily accessed by several computers at once for sharing files. Even better, consumer-oriented NAS boxes often come packed with additional features that make them an incredibly attractive choice for data storage, such as the ability to automatically back up your data on a regular schedule (usually every night) and remote access to your files over the Internet. And since an NAS device sits on a network separate from your PC, it should still be safe even if you somehow manage to destroy your entire computer.

NAS is considered the best and most versatile method for data storage and backups, but the boxes themselves are pricier and a little more difficult to set up than a USB hard drive. A basic 500-gigabyte (GB) NAS box costs about $130. Buffalo and Netgear make excellent NAS boxes for great value, while HP’s SmartMedia Server uses the Windows Home Server platform that’s very easy to set up, assuming you’re using Windows. Most have USB ports for adding extra drives as needed, so the amount of storage available to you with these devices is limited only by your budget.

External Hard Drives with Backup Software
The most common method for backing up your data is an external drive, like those from LaCie and Seagate, which come prepackaged with software for easily duplicating your files. Many drives come with a one-click solution, meaning that all you need to do is press a button on the front of the drive or your desktop to begin an automatic backup. Of course, you can use any backup software you choose, such as Acronis True Image, Time Machine or the built-in Windows backup tools. As a bonus, some models, such as the Seagate FreeAgent Pro series, have a web interface for accessing your files even when you’re away from your PC.

External USB hard drive storage has become much less expensive recently. Huge 2-terabyte (TB) external desktop hard drives now routinely go on sale for well under than $150, with 1-TB models often less than $100. A recent search revealed the Seagate FreeAgent Desk 2-TB drive at $124.99, with the 1-TB model at $84.99. Comparable prices can be found at all major office supply superstores and big-box electronics retailers. Drives of this type are excellent for backup storage or to hold large video, music or image collections. At these prices, it makes sense to buy two drives and use software to mirror or sync their contents to provide the security of redundant backups. Two or more of these drives can be used in a system to rotate a backup drive off site each night so there is always a recent backup available in the event of a fire or flood at the office.

For off-site rotation, portable rather than desktop external drives make more sense because they are smaller and lighter. There has been a similar drop in portable external hard drive prices. Another search revealed the Seagate FreeAgent Go portable external drive series on sale for $54.99 (250 GB), $69.99 (320 GB), $74.99 (500 GB—a good size for backups), $104.99 (750 GB), and $124.99 (1 TB). What makes the Seagate FreeAgent Go series particularly nice for a multiple-drive off-site rotation scheme is the availability of a docking station on sale for just $9.99. Just drop the drive into the station—no USB cables to plug and unplug.

Online Options
Online file storage solutions are becoming increasingly popular and are an excellent option, especially if you want to share files among several PCs. Some Internet storage solutions work without your ever leaving your web browser, while others add themselves to My Computer as if they’re just another hard drive. Still others install small applications that work in your computer’s background, syncing your data to the web without your ever having to do a thing.

Depending on the scale of your backup plans, you can use either Mozy or Dropbox for your online storage needs. If you’re only backing up small amounts of important data, then Dropbox’s free 2 GB of storage can’t be beat. While it won’t let you back up your music collection, it’s more than enough space for most office documents and a few hundred photos. Dropbox has downloadable clients for Linux, Windows and Mac that will sync anything you put in your Dropbox folder with an unlimited number of PCs, and you can even access files from your iPhone. Dropbox does offer a premium plan that allows you to sync 50 GB of data for $9.99, but if you need that much storage, go with Mozy or Carbonite.

MozyHome offers a similar free 2-GB plan for Windows and Mac only, without any web or iPhone access. What sets Mozy apart is its unlimited data plan for $4.95 a month. Carbonite offers an unlimited data plan for a flat annual fee of $54.95. Both plans are very reasonable.

Whatever option you choose, the online method of backing up your data will keep everything safe, even if your office burns to the ground.

USB Flash Drives
By now, you probably know that flash drives are great for carrying around your data everywhere you go. They’re also great for saving all your important files (like that presentation you just spent 16 hours creating) in a place where they’re safe from hard drive failure, viruses, hackers or just plain bad luck. Sandisk has an Ultra Backup line of flash drives that come with software similar to that found on large external hard disks for quickly and automatically backing up your data. Once it’s set up, all you have to do is plug in an Ultra Backup drive, hit the “Backup” button on it, all your data will be copied automatically. Of course, if you have a lot of music, photos and video on your PC, you’ll probably want some of the previously mentioned bigger-capacity solutions to back up your whole system.

Windows Backup/Restore
Windows XP has two different built-in backup solutions: System Restore, which is automated and intended to rescue your PC after a catastrophic failure or infection, and Backup, which must be run manually and is found in the Start menu under Accessories | System Tools. Backup will launch a wizard to walk you through the process of saving all or part of the data on your PC, but in the end it is still a vastly inferior solution to most other options on this list.

Windows Vista has an improved Backup and Restore Center accessible from the Control Panel that can automatically copy your files and perform complete system backups and restorations. Unfortunately, this feature only comes with the Business or Ultimate editions of Vista. It’s better than nothing in case of disaster but obviously not a good long-term plan.

Backup and Restore is improved in Windows 7 and creates safety copies of your most important files, so if you lose something, it won’t be lost forever. You can either let Windows choose what to back up or select individual folders, libraries or drives. Windows can back up files on whatever schedule you choose. You can back up files to another drive, your network or a DVD. The Backup and Restore feature for your personal PC and attached DVD or external hard drives comes with all editions of Windows 7. If, however, you want to back up to a network location — for example, on a central server, Network Attached Storage, or another computer on your network — you’ll need Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate.

Time Machine (for the Mac)
Mac users have an excellent built-in backup program called Time Machine. After backing up some or all of your files, you can restore them with equal versatility to a previous saved point or just rescue a version of a single file from several months ago. Time Machine, which is in your dock by default and can also be found in the applications menu, can also work in conjunction with the Apple branded Time Capsule NAS devices or with any standard USB or Firewire external hard drive. As a bonus, Time Machine is loaded with eye candy like fancy animations and three-dimensional effects for browsing through past versions of files.

Blank CDs and DVDs are a quick and inexpensive way to create extra copies of important files, but they fall short in other areas. For one, rewritable discs are not very common, so if you’re using write-once media like CD-R, you’ll have to burn a new disc every time you back up. Second, backing up to optical media is time consuming and difficult if not impossible to automate, so you’ll have to remember to make time to perform this function yourself. And with the largest DVDs topping out at 8.5 GB — around 2,200 songs or the size of the smaller capacity iPod Nano — they’re not ideal for backing up large data collections. It would take more than 100 DVDs just to equal the storage of a 1-TB external drive.

Blu-ray media and drives are dropping in price, making them increasingly viable options for storing data. Burners have dropped under the $200 mark and write-once discs cost less than $10. Their 25-GB capacity makes them a better option than DVDs or CDs for backing up client data or collections of audio, video or photos. Their size also makes them a decent option if you don’t want to buy a new hard drive every time you run out of storage on your PC. They hold about 7,000 songs or a couple of hours of HD video, but they still suffer from many of the same limitations as other optical media.

The easiest set-and-forget method is one that many consumers are just beginning to hear about — RAID. RAID stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks and comes in different versions. RAID 0 and RAID 1 are the most common and are supported by most modern desktop PCs. Though RAID arrays can be contained in an external box, they are more commonly built into a PC. RAID 1 uses two identically sized disks to make two copies of all your data, or “mirror” it. By writing everything on your PC to both disks at the same time, a RAID array ensures that even if one of your hard drives dies, your computer will operate normally as long as the other still functions.

However, there are two downsides to RAID: First, it will not save your PC in the event of a serious virus infection, since both drives share the same exact data. Second, unless your computer came with a RAID installed, it may be difficult to set up. The process is often complicated and not for the average customer. Some NAS boxes come configured as a RAID array, using it to make a backup of your backup. As with aluminum foil hats, the NAS and RAID combination is a great option for the truly paranoid.

Of course, you have to remember to regularly run a test restore to be certain that the backup is actually working and that the latest backup is available offsite. It is this human maintenance requirement where most law firm backup systems fail. While these tasks can be delegated to a highly trusted staff member, the firm owner has the most at stake and may want to be the one to ensure that this critical job gets done — even if that means doing it himself or herself.

Whatever option or options you choose to back up your data is a matter of personal preference and comfort level. Using one (or preferably more) manual systems, combined with a wholly automatic online backup service, is a great way to protect the data and documents that are vital to your law firm’s existence.

Dee Crocker is a practice management adviser for the Professional Liability Fund. Reach her at (503) 639-6911 or by e-mail at deec@osbplf.org.

© 2011 Dee Crocker

return to top
return to Table of Contents