Back Your Business Data Up. You Can’t Afford Not To.

If you're ever bored, a surefire way to entertain yourself is to wander up to someone who works in the IT field and say, "Is it okay if I store all of my business's data on my laptop?" Make sure that there's something sturdy nearby that you can duck behind, because techies have been known to burst into flames when confronted with questions like these. At the very least, their heart rate won't drop below 100 BPM for a few minutes.

This seeming over-reaction may seem a bit unnecessary, but in reality, it's completely justified. There are millions of businesses that don't take proper care when backing up their data. There have been literally thousands of businesses that have been forced into immediate bankruptcy because they suffered a catastrophic loss of data.

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Data loss can happen to any company, big or small. Even Pixar.

While data mismanagement occurs most commonly with small businesses on limited budgets, companies of all sizes have suffered catastrophic data loss. If you don’t believe that, then clearly you’ve never heard the story of how Pixar completely deleted Toy Story 2 shortly before it was completed, and nearly cost itself millions.

One day in 1998, well into the production of Toy Story 2, Pixar’s systems support manager received a call from one of the film’s technical director’s, telling him to unplug the master server (basically, a big computer) used to store data for the movie. Now, this is not something you typically do to a computer, unless you want to do very bad things to it. So logically, the support manager inquired as to why it was necessary to unplug the machine.

The response was a screaming voice, pleading, “Please, God, just pull it out as fast as you can.”

As it turned out, somebody who had been working on the server storing the entirety of the film’s files accidentally entered a command telling the server to delete all of the files on the server. And when you tell a computer to permanently delete files, there are no takesie-backsies. The computer will gleefully send all of the data right through the wood-chipper while you watch. But when you’re deleting a lot of files, it’ll take a while for it to do the job. The only way to stop the computer from destroying everything? Pull the plug.

Unfortunately, by the time that the systems support guy got the hint and pulled the plug, 90% of the data was wiped out. Completely toast. But, the staff at Pixar were smart enough to prepare for such eventualities. They had a backup system that ran regularly, periodically copying files over to another server. Because it only ran every few hours, they would lose about half a day’s work, but that would be a big improvement over losing 90% of several years of work.

Unfortunately, reality often features plot twists that are more ridiculous than anything that could be found in fiction. When the techs checked the backup system, they discovered that it had completely failed. There was no backup copy. The situation was very, very bad. Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull stated that, “To reassemble the film would have taken thirty people a solid year.”

Now remember, Pixar wasn’t the behemoth then that it is now. At that time, they only had two films under their belts, Toy Story, and the just-released A Bug’s Life. As it was, Toy Story 2 had suffered from a difficult development process. It had originally been commissioned as a direct-to-video sequel, only for Pixar to completely scrap it and start from scratch. Now, after millions of dollars and years of time, the movie was gone.

But, there was another, even more over-the-top plot twist. As it turned out, one of the movie’s technical directors had recently given birth to her second child. She was spending most of her time at home, but was too much of a workaholic to completely set her work aside. So, every week she had been taking her laptop to work, loading all of the updated movie files onto her computer, and then returning home to work on the film there.

The only existing copy of a multi-million dollar film was on the hard drive of a laptop sitting on someone’s couch.

With the amount of caution and care that would typically be reserved for handling a live nuke, the technical director went home, wrapped her computer in blankets, set it in the car, and drove very, very carefully back to work. At Pixar, they copied her files over to the main server, and found that only about a week’s worth of work had been lost.

If not for the lucky timing of one woman’s child, a movie that went on to make $485 million in theaters ($692 million when adjusted for inflation) might instead have been lost, and perhaps even destroyed a company that ended up being sold to Disney in 2006 for $7.4 billion (tack on another $1.5 billion to account for inflation).

So, the moral of the story is: Backup your data. And make sure you have multiple backups.

Now, making a backup doesn’t mean copying something from one folder on your computer to another folder. Data is not backed up unless it has been copied to something that is physically separate from the computer that it originated on. It can be copied onto another computer, burned to a DVD, saved to a thumb drive that is put somewhere safe–these are all backups. Many IT professionals advocate what has become known as the “Rule of 3” for backups, or the “3-2-1 Rule”:

  • Keep three copies of anything important. You need to have important files saved to three different computers/drives/disks/whatever.
  • Use at least two formats. As Pixar discovered, hard drives can fail. Don’t just keep files on computers. Your backups need to be distributed between computers and thumb drives, or thumb drives and DVDs, or Dropbox and computers. But always use at least 2 formats for your backups.
  • Always have at least one offsite backup. If you have backups on your computer, a thumb drive, and an extra hard drive, but they all happen to be sitting in your living room when your house burns down, then it doesn’t matter. You always want to have a copy of your data somewhere in another physical location. If you usually work in an office, keep a backup at home. If you work from home, stash a copy at the home of someone you trust, or in a safe deposit box. Services like Dropbox make it VERY easy to keep offsite backups.

The other lesson from Pixar’s near-disaster: Regularly update your backups, and check your backups.

Even if you rarely update your data–which is probably not the case if you run a business–you need to keep a close eye on your backups. That thumb drive you stashed in your basement a year ago may not work the next time you plug it into your computer. Regularly check the data on your backups to make sure that it is intact. Don’t just look in the folder; open the files up to make sure they load correctly. You may be able to see the icon for your Excel document, but you may click on it, only to find that it’s corrupted.

An easy way to make sure everything is working fine is to copy all of your current data to your backups at least once a week. If there’s the slightest hint that something is wrong with one of your backups–the hard drive is acting funny, the thumb drive gets a bit finicky–trash it, buy another one, and put a fresh backup on it.

Also, while cloud-based backups like Dropbox or Apple’s iCloud are convenient and indispensable, don’t put your full trust in them. Apple iCloud is especially notorious for losing customer’s data from time to time. Cloud services are the most convenient offsite backup to have, but they shouldn’t be your only offsite backup. Do the old school thing every once in a while and make a fresh copy of your data on that thumb drive that you stash at your mother’s house.

(Lastly, if you are storing sensitive data, such as credit card numbers, personally identifiable information, etc., then your data needs to be encrypted. That means that even if somebody has your computer on their desk or your thumb drive in their hand, they can’t access the data without entering the password needed to decrypt the files. And Dropbox probably isn’t going to be a wise choice for you in this case. It’s actually a crime to store sensitive customer data without properly encrypting it, and you can be held responsible for the fraud that ensues if somebody gains access to that information. If you handle sensitive data, consult with a data security professional in order to find out what steps you need to take in your particular situation.)

So, today’s lesson, in short: Keep backups, check your backups, and update your backups!

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