Time to Back Up Like You Mean It

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Local, external drives, a single drive NAS, and even the Cloud may not be enough for today’s data-hungry consumer.

I believe in backup. Not so much in backup software, which I find annoying and tedious, but I believe in the concept of making one or more duplicates of critical files in a safe and secure place (or places). This is how I ended up with my own Network Attached Storage Device (NAS). It’s also how I learned that a single drive, whether in a PC or in a NAS, is not an effective backup strategy.

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Let me, ahem, back up.

I know, NAS and its affiliated technologies are not primarily considered backup solutions. Many people, like me, use them that way, but it’s the accompanying software that really turns them into backup destinations. I’m constantly trying backup software solutions, but most fail me. So I still back up the old-fashioned way—manual drag and drops when I need to.

For years, I used a variety of connected external storage options to save files from old PCs, critical files, email backups and overly large files (video) outside my regular PC. Some of these files counted as true backup and others were space-saving measures for my primary computer’s typically limited hard drive. I’ve used everything from an array of 3.5-inch floppies to Zip and JAZ drives to small, USB-based external drives with hundreds of Gigs of space. Early backup strategies on obsolete media failed for obvious reasons; either I no longer had the drives to read them, or operating systems changed so much that the drives became unreadable.

The problem was soon compounded by the fact that my home expanded from a single computer to three (or more). Soon everyone was collecting image and data files, and all of them needed backup. I finally realized that the only smart way to handle this was a NAS. Iomega’s Home Media Network Hard Drive looked like a good, easy-to-implement solution. A couple of years ago, it cost around $200 for a half terabyte of storage. I hooked it up to the router in my basement, did a little set-up, and then backed up most of our media and data files to the drive. On occasion, I would add a new batch of photos or video, and I also used it as a media server so I could play all of our music through a variety of network-attached devices.

The drive never shuts off and hums quietly in my basement. Any one of us on our Windows 7 Homegroup network can access it at will. One day, however, I couldn’t access it at all. I went to the basement and noticed that the white and blue activity lights on the drive were dark. The drive was still running (I could hear the fan), but the NAS was dead to the network. I unplugged the device and plugged it back in again to reboot it. I even tried connecting it directly to my main PC. Nothing worked, and I started to panic a little.

Most of what existed on the NAS also existed on my main PC, but not everything. Each time we bought a new computer and discarded an old one, I’d take all the system’s old files and archive them on the NAS. Plus, most of the HD video I captured was too big for my main PC’s hard drive, so they only lived on this network drive. I feared the worst—hard drive corruption and loss of data.

It occurred to me that this was a position I thought I’d never be in with an NAS. Such devices seem more hardcore and invincible than standard in-your-PC hard drives. This was a stupid notion. The number one rule of computing is: Hard Drives fail (Okay, it’s not number one, but it’s certainly in the top 5).

I enlisted the help of Iomega. The company graciously agreed to look at my NAS and found that the hard drive was, in fact, okay, but something had gone haywire with the operating system. Fortunately, the OS and my data were in two separate partitions and most, if not all of it, seemed to have survived the malfunction.

This knowledge and the recovery of my data gave me some comfort, but it also revealed the glaring error in my own backup strategy. A NAS, which is little more than a single drive with some wicked networking skills, is not enough. And this, my friends, is a lesson for us all.

What We Need

A few years ago Microsoft and HP tried to interest consumers in the concept of home servers. Consumers never warmed up to the idea, and HP and Microsoft have largely given up on pushing the it. That is a shame, because I think consumers need home servers and backup education today more than ever. You see, my problem is not unique. Having too many computers, system turnover, overly large files, and a need for central access to media data are all problems that could be fixed with a home server and, more importantly, one that features copious amounts of networked attached storage.

The problem, though, is that consumers like me (and anyone who’s concerned about protecting their local data, really) actually need more than this. We need RAID storage. RAID or Redundant Array of Independent Disks is, essentially, an expansion of NAS technology. So you get networking, and instead of one drive, you get a series of two or more drives that can be set up to either duplicate each other (mirroring) or spread the data across the drives—most RAIDs are set up in the former way. With some RAID systems, adding a new drive of any size and configuration is as easy as opening a door and sliding the drive into an open bay. If you’re confused about the various “levels” of RAID, you’re not alone; for a primer, check out Samara Lynn’s RAID Levels Explained.

It’s a great technology. The problem, though, is that it’s typically reserved for business, and companies like D-Link, Linksys, Synology, and Iomega usually target small, medium, and home-based businesses for their RAID products. (There are some poorly marketed consumer-focused products). That has to change. I believe RAID-capable storage devices/NAS are about to become a necessity for the home. They offer affordable, local, scalable storage and enough redundancy to protect most users from data loss. In my situation, having a RAID-based system would mean that I could pull the bad drive where my data resides and add a new drive in its place. Many systems can automatically re-create the RAID array with little user interference, thereby restoring the data that was on the failed drive.

Realistically, consumers are still uncomfortable with the idea of Home NASes, and a basement RAID may seem a bridge too far. RAIDs are considerably more expensive than typical external storage drives or even NASes. Consumers still don’t understand the need and most of the companies in the space are doing little marketing or advertising to help them understand. Plus, the industry appears to have decided that the best solution for consumer data protection and backup is the cloud. Perhaps that’s true, but existing solutions are far from bulletproof. I doubt the cloud is ready to handle all of our data protection needs. It can take hours to backup to the cloud, and once you do, you are forever tied to that service. If you decide to switch for a cheaper deal elsewhere, you’ll likely have to download and migrate all that data, which sounds like a nightmare to me.

For the time being, I still believe local storage is the best solution. Now it’s time to upgrade that from a bunch of disparate storage solutions to an extensible, local storage plan that reflects the reality of our data creation and consumption needs.