Backup, backup, backup

I was sick at home for a couple of days last week, and while pottering about the house blowing my nose, found some old floppy disks. I decided to move all their data onto CD, and in the process found some old articles I wrote in 1997 for an abortive gig as a columnist for a US-based magazine. Some of them are still relevant, so I’ll re-post them here every Monday for the next few weeks.


In the computing world, stories abound of people losing large chunks of work. This never used to happen, because people used to use far more reliable, but arguably less productive, methods of working. Like paper. Okay, so if all your work was on paper, you could lose large chunks of it, but this tended to be because of something disasterous – an enormous fire, perhaps – and in that situation, life and limb is going to be the first priority, not your work.

Modern technology however, has brought with it a multitude new and exciting ways of losing all your work. Hard disks can crash, or develop errors. They can be accidentally formatted. Your files can be moved, deleted, corrupted, overwritten. This is why you need to take very good care of your files. Back them up regularly, or the day may come when your work is lost and you don’t have any way of recovering it.

A few years ago, I was working writing software for a big company. My colleagues and I had performed a true miracle of coding, and had delivered a piece of software that would change for the better the lives of hundreds of people working in that particular bit of the company. Okay, so it wasn’t going to solve third world hunger or bring world peace, but we were very pleased with it.

One Friday afternoon, I was looking on our shared network drive at the files that made up our masterpiece, when I noticed something odd. Some of the files and directories that I expected to be there, weren’t. I looked again. More were missing. They were disappearing before my very eyes.

I, not to put too finer point on it, panicked. I sent a system broadcast message asking anybody who might be listening “Why are the files on N: disappearing?” I looked again. The files stopped disappearing, but most were already gone. The phone rang. I answered it.

“Uh oh”, said the quavering voice of the LAN Administrator on the other end of the phone. He had been given the task of clearing up one of the file servers. He had used a utility’s PRUNE command to do it. A flawless plan. Just one small snag. Wrong server.

No problem, right? Go to the backups, right? Wrong. It just so happens that the LAN people at this place had been a little lax in the backups department. For about 3 months. Yes, THREE months. It was when we realised this that we decided to call this day “Black Friday”, and we spent most of the rest of the afternoon moping around the office looking miserable. You can bet that if there had been supplies of alcohol available, they would have been consumed quite rapidly.

As it happens, there was a consolation. I had copied many of our more important files onto my hard drive, a mere three weeks before Black Friday, “just in case”. Three weeks’ work lost wasn’t exactly a cause for celebration, but it was better than three months’.

I didn’t feel vengeance towards Mr Pruner. Mistakes happen. What wasn’t forgivable, in my book, was the conduct of his boss, whose responsibility it was to ensure that the backups happened, so that when mistakes like that happen, the files are recoverable. It’s just as well that he’s substantially bigger than me, otherwise murder might have been committed that day.

The moral of the story is this: Make sure your files are backed up. Frequently. Double-check that it’s actually being done. Triple check, even. If someone else does it, make a spare set yourself occasionally. If you don’t, then make sure there’s plenty of alcohol in the office fridge. Because when Black Friday hits you, it might be the only help available.

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2 thoughts on “Backup, backup, backup

  1. Noel Goddard

    Bugger the office – what about the home-office?

    How many times have you seen ads on TV or in magazines and newspapers for the latest, new, whizz-bang, all-singing, all-dancing computer systems? They always have the fastest processors, the fastest and largest capacity hard drives – and NO backup devices!!!!! Most of them are even sold with only one hard drive!! Not even a second spindle to provide some measure of safety, albeit miniscule.

    Oh what? DVD burners? No capacity when you have 160GB hard drives! (Remember when we had 100MB HDD’s and 1.44MB floppy drives for “backup”?)

    How about external and/or removable hard drives? As far as I can see they’re the best bet but are still a little too expensive for the home user.

    So when are the designers and marketers going to come up with a viable and affordable and STANDARD backup device for modern computers?

    Hmmmm?

  2. Josh

    A story from my Dad’s era: One of the guys he was working with one day decided it would be a good to tidy his desk: clear off papers, weed out interoffice memos, tidy up the stacks of paper. Thing is, he left his program listing sitting in a tray balanced precariously on top of his desk’s rubbish bin… and went home. Came in the next day, and there was no more listing. 4000 punch cards – gone, thanks to the cleaner. I believe tears ensued.

    No backup, naturally.

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