What's your Contingency Plan? 5 Data Backup Scenarios you Should Plan For - ITS Tactical

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What’s your Contingency Plan? 5 Data Backup Scenarios you Should Plan For

By Bryan Black

BackupMainWe talk a lot on ITS about security in the digital age, but what about the security that comes from knowing that in the event of a total loss to your home or business, your data will be protected?

I’m of course talking about backups, whether you use your computer for photos, important documents, financial records or all of these; you need to have a solid backup plan.

Today we’re going to discuss the options out there to not only have access to your important data whenever you need it, but also how to get everything back if something catastrophic happens.

Why Backup?

Without making this article too long or geeky, I’m simply going to talk about what’s working for ITS. I may jump off a bit to suggest some other options, but suffice to say this will be largely focused around what we use.

Hopefully you don’t need a good reason on why you should backup your data and you already have at least some weekly protocol in place for backups. For the rest of you that are simply “hoping” your computer doesn’t crash, let me war game things a bit for you.

I personally like to war game backup plans and come up with scenarios of what could potentially happen to our data. Some things I’ve come up with are rare, yes, but nevertheless it’s always good to have a plan. I live by the 7 P’s “Proper Previous Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.” That and the little word called redundancy.


Here are the scenarios that I’ve come up with, below we’ll discuss the backup methods we use here at ITS to counter them.

  1. Accidental Deletion – This is the most realistic scenario and whether it’s caused by your own screw up or someone else’s, it spells trouble for your data.
  2. Hard Drive Crash/Virus – I hope you’ve never had the pleasure of recovering from a hard drive crash, but I have and it’s no fun. This only happened to me one time where I lost data. It’s happened again, but due to the plan we had in place not a single file was lost.
  3. Theft – What happens if someone takes your computer, and that nice looking backup drive that’s attached to it?
  4. Fire – Fire spells total loss to pretty much everything in your home; will your data survive?
  5. Water Damage/Flooding – Between water and fire I’m not sure what’s more likely to happen, but around here we get hail and definitely have the potential for flooding; in fact I posted a video on our Facebook page a few months ago with flooding strong enough to carry a refrigerator down the street!

Our Backup Plan

First of all, I can’t stress how much being organized on a computer will help with your overall backup plan. Properly labeled folders and hierarchy go a long way when it comes to figuring out what you absolutely must backup and what’s not as important.

We all work on Macs here at ITS, but I know a few of our contributors still haven’t crossed over to the dark side yet, hopefully this article might sway some of them! Being on Macs and running OSX we get to take advantage of a great built-in backup utility called Time Machine.

Time Machine creates incremental backups of the most recent state of your data on a hard drive. It saves hourly backups for the past 24 hours, daily backups for the past month, and weekly backups for everything older than a month. The great thing is that it’s completely seamless and automatic, you just specify the internal or external hard drive you want to use and the rest is history.

If for some reason you have to utilize Time Machine to restore your files, it can restore the whole system, multiple files or even a single file. What’s also great is the UI (User Interface) that comes with Time Machine. It’s a bit over the top, but it lets you view your incremental backups as “images” rather than a big list of data. This make searching for what you’re after to backup that much easier.

The important thing to take away from this utility is “incremental backups, seamless and automatic” this is what you should look for in this first layer of backup utility software. You don’t want to simply buy a hard drive for backups and manually drag everything over that you want backed up. For one it’s incredibly inefficient; two, you’re bound to forget to do it consistently and three, you’ll fill up that drive in no time.

Incremental and Bootable Backups

Incremental backups are definitely not new technology, but something you should be taking advantage of. Incremental backups work by backing up only the files that have changed since the last backup, thus creating a smaller and faster backup since you probably don’t update every one of your thousands of files each day.

If you don’t have access to something like Time Machine, you should really look into saving yourself the headache of manually backing up!

As a complement to the easy to use Time Machine, we also use SuperDuper, our second layer of backup software that creates a bootable backup of our hard drives. While Time Machine is great, here’s what you have to go through in a catastrophic failure of your main hard drive: Put a new drive in, find your OSX install disc, install the operating system then restore your entire system from Time Machine. While this is completely possible and effective, you’re stuck waiting for all that while you lose productivity.

With SuperDuper, you automatically schedule what days and weeks you want your hard drive “cloned” and enjoy the peace of mind that comes from having a bootable backup you can even use on a totally different computer in a pinch.

Another option to look into is RAID 1 (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) mirroring, where data is written identically to multiple disks, thus providing a continuously operating hard drive as long as one drive in the set is working properly.

Accidental Deletion and Hard Drive Crash

At this point, we’ve covered our number 1 and 2 issues that could arise during the daily activities on your computer. We’ve got two backup levels in place that cover immediate retrieval of deleted files and whole system backup with Time Machine, as well as immediate system retrieval to get back to work faster with SuperDuper.

So now how do we ensure our data is safe from a home theft, fire or flooding?

Theft, Fire and Flooding

First let’s talk theft. I’m not talking about someone compromising your firewall and accessing your data, I’m talking about someone kicking in your door and stealing your computer while your not home, or walking off with your laptop while you order coffee and stupidly left it on the table.

While you may have an external backup drive that you take with you when leaving the house, there again is a manual operation. That’s still something you have to plug in when you’re at your computer and remember to take with you when you leave.

How about Fire? There’s always a fireproof safe and I’m sure you could also find one that’s waterproof too, but would you 100% trust that safe in the event of a fire or flooding? I’ve considered this options as well and it never sat well with me. One thing is for sure, get your computer away from windows (not Microsoft Windows, but hopefully you’re not using that either!) where a leak or broken window could cause water damage. Also look at where it’s located in relationship to your water heater.

The third layer of our backup plan is online backups in the cloud with Carbonite.

Carbonite and the Cloud

Online Backup has been around for some time and I’m here to tell you that all online backup companies are not created equal. We started off using Mozy and grew tired of paying for online backups per GB. I’ve since switched us to Carbonite and for $55 a year we have unlimited online backups that are automatic and seamless.

Carbonite also uses the incremental backups I mentioned, but it actively monitors what you tell it to keep backed up for any changes. Those changes then get uploaded incrementally and automatically. Don’t get discouraged by the fact that this backup is based on your upload speed. I use this at my house as well and our internet upload speed is incredibly slow and Carbonite works just fine.

When you first start using Carbonite with a computer (each computer will need it’s own $55 account and works with Macs and PCs), there will obviously be a long upload time in the beginning to get all your initial files uploaded. This was about a week and a half for one of our home computers with a lot of data, but with Carbonite running in the background it’s hardly noticeable.

Of course, Carbonite is dependent on an internet connection to function and may not be the best thing for everyone, especially those on the go. Suffice to say it’s working great for us here, and there’s even a Carbonite iPhone app to access any file you’ve backed up at any time (provided the file is viewable on your iPhone).

In addition to online backup, you also may want to look into Google Docs, which requires a Gmail account. Google Apps is a collection of programs similar to the Microsoft Office suite that includes the ability to create documents, spreadsheets, presentations and even forms. What’s great is that these programs run “in the cloud” so there’s nothing to install on your computer. You’ll also be able to store these files you create right in your Google Docs account for immediate access from any computer with an internet connection.

We also use Dropbox here at ITS to share documents back and forth internally. The files in Dropbox are also stored in the cloud and can be accessed anywhere just like Google Docs.

Data Security

What we haven’t touched on in this article is data security and how your data could be compromised while uploading to an online backup utility or stored in the cloud.

Is this a possible scenario? Absolutely.What’s important to consider about online backup is that with Carbonite you can specifically tell it what to backup and what to exclude. Now of course you’d want your most important documents to get backed up, but if you’re more concerned about your data being compromised than you are about losing everything, online backup may not be for you.

When I talk to people about things like online backup, some immediately start in with how unsafe that is and how data can be compromised. Carbonite states that “backups are transmitted using secure socket layer (SSL) security technology and stored at a state-of-the-art data center on highly reliable, redundant disk arrays.”

Is SSL foolproof? Of course not, but in my opinion the positives far outweigh the negatives in terms of what online backup provides. We have some of our past articles linked below that get into data security and best practices if you’re interested in delving into how you can secure your data.


I hope this gave you a glimpse into what’s working for us in terms of data backup and what to look for in your own contingency plan. As I mentioned this isn’t the best for everyone and obviously geared around Macs, but give these principles a shot and try to develop your own data backup plan.

You’ll hopefully only make the data loss mistake once before you get serious about backups; pay attention to this article and you may not have to make that mistake at all.

So what’s your Data Backup Plan? What utilities do you use?

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  • Eric

    good points. Also, remote storage is so cheap these days. Having an external HD is no longer optional, but in my mind mandatory. Also, back-up frequency is a question that some people do not think about. If it is valuable data, nightly is a must.

    • A. Nguyen

      Good point about back-up frequency. The frequency of back-ups, pretty much, depends on how much you can afford to lose.

  • BlackhawkCY

    I use lenovo’s “ThinkPad USB Secure Hard Drive” due to 128-bit AES encryption at the disk level hence even if the hdd was removed from the casing it would take a while to decrypt. Ironkey for more security on sensitive data (FIPS 140-2 Level 3 Certified) which is AES256-bit hardware encryption both have hardware encryption hence no need for software.

    That has not stoped me from encrypting at software levels as well using 7-zip (similar to winzip) which allows for a AES-256-bit encryption at software level when zippong files.

    for efortless backups dropbox allows you to sync between your pc and online storage along with the ability to recover deleted files but i cannot guarantee any security on those files though they can be accessed from any pc with the correct login info

  • BlackhawkCY

    forgot to say that its a good idea to store your hardrive at a location different from wher your pc is for safety reasons ie theft in a waterproof case

    • Eric

      Good Point Blackhawk. Dropbox is another great software option. And, they now have it for PCs, Iphone, and BB – you have a lot of options there.

  • Andrew

    I’m lovin’ the Windows bashing 😉

    but I can’t say apple is a viable alternative — too expensive.
    Linux is the way to go.

    Linux has numerous backup methods, though I haven’t used any one enough to recommend it (or not).

    • Linux is the way to go. Way cheaper, and more customizable.

      apple’s server environment sucks
      microsoft’s server is to expensive

      I run my entire office off linux. (except the workstations)

    • BlackhawkCY

      linux only minimizes the virus risk due to the fact that the linux user does not have as many “rights” as the windows user. Also the market is quite smaller hence less viruses. 7-zip does exist for some linux distributions. The reason I prefer hardware encryption rather than software is this a hardware encrypted fat32 formated hardrive can work on any operating system without the need of software to be installed. Furthermore hardware hacking facilities are not accessible to everyone like password cracking programs. The IronKey is also great since it has a self destruct mechanism when tamperred with

    • Steve

      I’d have to agree with Andrew. While Windows is ‘mainstream’ and has a cornered business audience, Linux (for my money and experience) is the best overall platform for functionality, flexibility and reliability. I like Macs (Apple), but its simply too expensive.

  • I keep all my data on a RAID (raid 50 to be specific) I have about 6TB of storage space.

    I keep an incremental backup on a separate drive of the same size. (also RAID) I use a separate computer for the backup.

    In addition to this I also make bootable backups of the OS that hosts all the drives every couple of months.
    I also make copies of the data on the main file server every 6 months and store a copy not on the property the rest of the computer is on.

    since i set this up i have had no data loss that i could not deal with and restore the lost data easily and quickly.

  • Peter

    I’m quite pleased with GFI Backup Business Edition… We simply purchased some web hosting with 200GB storage & bandwidth, and set up GFI to do automatic incremental compressed AES-256-bit encrypted backups to our relatively-secure FTP server. It was cheaper than most of the backup services out there, which was cool since we didn’t need the extra bells and whistles they offered.
    We still do the occasional backup to DVD media (stored in a firesafe), as well, because… well… We bought 300 blank DVDs, and heck, we’re gonna use ’em!

  • SWAT Medic

    Both MacBook Pro and Mac Pro get a mirror via Carbon Copy Cloner (free) once a day to drive of equal size a performance (CCC makes a bootable copy so down time is the time it takes to switch cables). Each evening the drive (difference) is put into the cloud via Arq into Amazon S3 storage. Once a month the family pictures are put onto a drive that is encrypted and put in the lock box at bank. We are photo bugs!!

    Your backup intervals should be equal to the minimum amount of loss you are willing to tolerate. My father’s medical office does a backup every four hours. They pay for the capacity given the potential loss both in content and in manpower. They do not want to lose more than a half-day of work so they backup to that level. How much are you willing to lose?

    Another issue that most people do not consider is the need to virtualize their systems. I have taken each of my machines (PC & Mac) and virtualized them so that given a hardware failure I can bring them up on another system that is independent of the original. I have seen many people stuck with a hardware failure that is device specific and not able to find parts or parts quickly and lose significant up time. If you are going to backup, why not consider virtual environments to insulate yourself from both data and hardware failure. Losing data is a PITA, but reloading an entire system and then putting the data back, as if it never happened, is a REAL PITA. There are some very good options for both Mac and PC.

  • Pyro

    As an extra layer to my backups I have my insurance on my data.

    It is a rider on my home owners policy. this is the final layer in case my backups are corrupted and non recoverable, or data is lost in between backups

  • Vince

    Safecopy backup is a good software for backup because it is so compatible with both Mac and Windows,

  • excellent post…one caveat though – Mozy’s service for home is unlimited now, like Carbonite.

    also, totally agree on the Safecopy comment – excellent company and software.

    • Roger, thanks for the tip on Mozy’s home service, but here’s a caveat that everyone should consider about Mozy. They have an excessive use policy that doesn’t go into much detail about what they consider “excessive use.” Carbonite has nothing I can see in their terms like this.

      Excessive Use Policy from https://mozy.com/terms

      In order to protect the experience of all users of the Service, Decho (Mozy) prohibits excessive use of the Service, which means usage over a given period far exceeds the average level of usage by users of the Service generally. If Decho determines that you have engaged in any excessive use, Decho may offer you an alternative pricing plan or another Decho product that will permit you to continue to use Decho’s services without interruption. If you fail to respond to any such offer, Decho may take remedial action, which may include, but is not limited to, establishing limits on available storage and network capacity and suspension or termination of your account. In its sole discretion, Decho may or may not notify you in advance of any such action.

  • I’d recommend a Drobo in addition to an online backup service and an IronKey USB solution.

    The Drobo is similar to RAID – only better. Google them and thank me later.

  • Anon

    Mac’s Time Machine only solves one of your 5 possible data loss scenarios: accidental deletion. That’s okay though, mac users are probably more likely to wreck their computer and not know what they did wrong. Another reason why “Macs just work!” for the technologically unsavvy

    • Actually Anon, it solves the first two. I’m not sure if you’re just trying to bash Macs, which is totally fine LOL. However, there are plenty of technologically savvy and unsavvy people using both PCs and Macs. I happen to know how to build a PC from scratch and used to do so. I got tired of drivers, crashes and Windows in general. I like the fact that as you say “Macs just work.” 🙂

    • Brian Roberts

      I must say though Bryan, I believe the reasons “Mac’s just work” is because you can only use overpriced proprietor y Apple approved components and software. I too am a PC builder and I just wanted to join in the Apple vs. PC war. While it is true that Apple and Mac stuff is definitely for people who don’t want any modularity or diversity or complexities, ( as in everything is laid out in the easiest possible configuration for mind numbingly simple end user abilities 😛 ) I cannot comment on their user base. I am willing to bash the product, but that doesn’t make its end users moronic and computer illiterate. Maybe just misinformed? Thanks for letting me butt in, I love the digital security articles, gets the geek in me all excited.


  • Earthlark

    Thanks for the good info!

    Just curious if this seems like another viable option for a Vista machine: I plan on using Paragon Drive Backup 9 Pro to image my system partition and CrashPlan (similar to Carbonite with good reviews) to backup my files partition and the image that Paragon created. Both will be stored on an external hard drive and on CrashPlan’s servers.

    Also, I was wondering if anyone uses any sort of software such as Paragon (which is capable of backing up files and images) and backs up using online file storage (not one of the primary file backup sites). I couldn’t really find any info about this so I’m curious if people do it.

  • GeorgeB

    I made it about halfway through this guide, then I stopped reading, got in my car and went a bought a 500gb Lacie Rugged harddrive and now I’m busy backing up all my files from my 3 computers to this, knowing that I’ll at least have a backup of all my data with me at all times.

    Thanks ITS tactical!


  • Jay

    One other consideration is Data security post EM Pulse, All my critical data is also backed up on Achievable DVD Media and placed in a Fireproof safe in my home. If a strong EMP was used it would wipe out all data the only way to plan for that is to achieve on DVD or Bluray.

  • John

    6. Law enforcement confiscation ; )

  • CAUTION: Threat your backups as unsecured data. Unless you verify it is encrypted your data is at its most vulnerable (in transit not native environment). I use iDrive, encrypted USB and Time Machine to cover my butt.
    Online services are great if you can access them via local connection or the service itself is functional. I’m still not totally sold on their backup process and the protection of my data. But due care dictates I use them at this point.
    USB encryption is a pain, smaller capacity and is a manual operation but it is reliable. For critical records and files, this is a must.
    Time Machine is not encrypted but holds lots of data. It is mainly used for restoring deleted or compromised files. It is also a good tool for migrating user accounts to other Macs.

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