Hurricane-Strength Backup

With a massive category 5 hurricane heading straight for us, the decision to evacuate was easy.

New to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, this was our first hurricane. Despite all our research and discussion with friends and neighbors, we really didn't know what to expect. But we knew we didn't want to be around for the show.

We brought anything that could blow away in the high winds lawn furniture, charcoal grill, lawn ornaments inside our house and garage. We stuffed gallon water bottles into our freezer and turned the temperature to the lowest setting. The frozen water bottles would help keep the freezer cold after we lost power and, once melted, would be emergency drinking water.

I pulled the removable hard drives from their docking bays on my desktop computers, disconnected my network hard drive and placed them in a back pack with my Macintosh Power Book laptop computer. Over the years I'd struggled to develop a simple and reliable system to back up critical computer files. Katrina would be a harsh test of my efforts.

We packed a few clothes and personal items and loaded the car with our bags, Harriet the bird and Star the cat. We evacuated east to Florida, wondering what we'd come home to ...

Backing up

Backing up personal computer files is a lot like proper tire inflation. Both are easy to do, yet easy to forget. Each is key to personal safety and information security. Neglect your tires and you could end up in an accident. Neglect your computer backup and you could face the loss of crucial information in a virus attack or hard drive crash.

I'm always on the lookout for easier ways to back up my files. In the mid 1980s, backing up data meant manually copying files to slow floppy disks. By the early 1990s, specialty software, tape drives and CD burners helped automate the drudgery.

The arrival of consumer DVD burners in the late 90s was another improvement. But I still had to manually feed disks into a drive. And managing the growing pile of backup DVDs for four computers quickly became a pain. I wanted something better.

Three years ago, I complained about my dissatisfaction to a friend who did hush-hush work for a government lab. "Why don't you use removable hard drives, Meatball?" he suggested. "We use them on our high-security systems at work. That way the drives can be removed from the computers and placed in a vault for safekeeping. I use removable drive bays to back up data on my home computer, too."

Both Lian Li Industrial (http://www.lian-li.comwww.lian-li.com) and StorCase Technology () manufacture reasonably priced, removable drive racks. They work by installing a receiving bay in one of the computer's 5.25-inch drive bays. The hard drive is installed in a removable carrier that plugs into the receiving bay and locks into place.

I installed Lian Li mobile racks on my desktop computers and dedicated two extra removable drives to backup data. I rotated my backup hard drives monthly, keeping the latest backup in a safe place.

The removable hard drives simplified my backup procedures. Without having to feed CDs or DVDs into a drive, automated backup software finally was useful. I just set the time for the weekly backup and let the software handle the rest. Removable drives seemed like the ideal solution.

Network Attached Storage

Then I stumbled upon an even more versatile backup solution networked attached storage (NAS). NAS is a fancy name for a hard drive that plugs into an Ethernet router, making the drive accessible to all computers on the network.

While NAS has been around for years, the drives were priced too high for the typical small office/home office application. But the price of all things electronic falls with time, and last February I bought a 250-gigabyte Buffalo Link Station (www.buffalotech.com/products/storage.php).

About the size of a large paperback book, the link station includes two USB ports. Connect a printer to one USB port and the link station does dual duty as a print server. An external hard drive can be plugged into the second USB port, adding the drive to the network.

The link station is a snap to set up. Microsoft Windows users simply run the Windows installation application to get things up and running. Macintosh and Linux use a Web browser to manually set up the link station.

I bought the link station as a file server for video production and my burgeoning iTunes music collection. Available on my network 24/7, the link station quickly became a convenient backup drive for all my computers Linux, Macintosh and Windows.

Hurricane-Tested Backup

The Link Station really showed its worth when we came home after Katrina left the Gulf Coast in shambles.

We were luckier than most. Many people along the coast came home to concrete slabs and debris where homes once stood. While our house looked fine from the outside, Katrina had flooded our new home with water from the nearby Jourdan River. The floodwaters trashed nearly everything we had furniture, appliances, books, photo albums, piano and my desktop computers with their removable drive bays.

Without a computer to mate to, data on my removable drives was inaccessible. Fortunately, the Link Station came to my rescue. Once we had power I simply plugged the Link Station into my wireless router, turned everything on and immediately had access to all my saved documents.

While the Link Station came through in the clutch, it has a glaring weakness. The National Weather Service gave us 48 hours advance notice that Katrina was headed our way. Since the Link Station sits on my home network, it's vulnerable to an event, like a fire or a tornado, which strikes without warning.

I know I need to maintain a secure backup at a remote location. One option is to keep a backup copy in a secure place, like a bank safety deposit box. Another is to subscribe to an Internet-based backup service. We'll explore the good, the bad and the ugly of each choice in the next "Computers."

Contributing Editor Michael Blotzer, MS, CIH, CSP, is an occupational hygiene and safety professional, writer and computer enthusiast mourning the destruction of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He can be reached by mail addressed to Occupational Hazards or by electronic mail at [email protected]

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