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SmallLaw: The Ultimate Backup Regimen for Law Firms

By Ross Kodner | Monday, December 15, 2008


Originally published on December 8, 2008 in our free SmallLaw newsletter.

I am a veteran of many a late night restoring data from the failed systems of my clients over the years. Since 1985 when I started consulting with law practices full time, I've made backup system/process recommendations to thousands of law practices of all sizes. I've had to sit and restore systems from backup media — often pulling all-nighters at client offices to nurse their systems back from the brink. I've seen it all.

From cassette tapes in the wild, wooly frontier days of the early 80's to floppies to the earliest backup tapes, through the Pre-Dark Ages (called the Colorado Memory Systems era) to the true Dark Ages (the "Travan Nightmare"), to Bernoulli disks, to Zip drives and their "Click of Death", to Magneto-Optical drives, to DAT, DLT, LTO and VXA tape, to tape libraries, to external hard drives, to modern D2D SATA systems, through the complete evolution of online options.

It's enough to put you to sleep. And it does. At many small firms, dangerous ignorance, rampant tempting of the fates and taunting "nah, nah, nah, nah, nahs" to Mr. Murphy and his famous law still seem to be the order of the day.

But while nothing is as tedious and boring to talk about as backups, it's the one technology that will one day save your law practice and your entire ability to make a living from utter apocalyptic destruction. Hence my:

Great Truths of Small Firm Data Backup

1. Why We Do It. It's not about backing up, it's about restoring.

2. Tape Is So 1990's. No one should backup to tape media anymore. "Disk to disk" or "D2D" backup is the sensible approach for primary daily backups.

3. Don't Tempt the Fates — Spread Out Your Protection. Your backup approach should have several layers of protection — never put all your backup "eggs" in one basket.

4. Bad Things Happen to Good Lawyers. Expect and prepare for the worst and be pleasantly surprised if it never happens.

5. Primary Backup. A full nightly automated backup of your primary server/system. That means everything, not just your view of "data" and never ever an incremental backup under any circumstances. Why? Because trying to stitch someone's system back together from a patchwork of miscellaneous incremental backups spread across multiple media is a nightmare that I never want to live through again. Full backups take the longest and require the most storage space, but they're also the fastest to restore and that's consistent with rule number 1 above.

For the best written explanation of full backups versus incremental versus differential backups, read this TechRepublic article.

6. Primary Backup Part Two. Use actual data backup software suitable for either an individual PC or a network server. When backing up networks, you'll need backup "agents" to backup open files, Microsoft's Exchange Server, and provide you with a disaster recovery function to rapidly restore a repaired system post-crash. Never use any backup software that comes built into any version of Windows. For networks using the popular Microsoft Windows 2003 Small Business Server my favorite is Symantec's Backup Exec for Small Business Server. For individual PCs, I recommend Acronis TrueImage Home.

7. Alternate Media Each Day. Alternating daily between at least five (or more) disks makes sense and minimizes the risk of having bad backup media. More is better. For example, using a 10 disk set provides two weeks of restorable "snapshots" plus you can add an 11th rotating "monthly" cartridge. An annual cartridge that never gets shelved after being backed up to on 12/31 each year is best.

8. Store the Media Out of the Office. Store it in a different building as far from the office as is practical each day. It does you no good if the backup media melts in the office fire.

9. Secondary Backup Offsite. If ethically permissible in your jurisdiction, conduct data-only backups, automated in real-time or after-hours to either Mozy or MozyPro (I like the interface for restoring and pricing) or alternatively CoreVault.

10. Image Backup to Protect Against OS Blowups on Workstations. Use Acronis TrueImage or Symantec Ghost to keep an "image" backup of each class of PC setup so you can quickly restore a blown-up Windows system (or quickly setup a nearly-identical new PC).

11. Test! The most important point — exercise your backup systems. Do a "mini test restore" from your primary backup media at least weekly. Randomly pick a couple of documents, restore them (move the originals to a safe place first). It's amazing how many people I know who backup but have absolutely no idea whatsoever how to restore files (see item number one above).

12. Dispose of Old Backup Media Intelligently. When you dump your antiquated and unreliable tape-based system, either keep the media forever or physically destroy the media to prevent unintended/unauthorized recovery of your confidential client and firm information.

13. Be Redundant! Look for other ways to protect your data or reduce the chances of expensive downtime. In servers, use a "RAID Array" of hard drives (stands for "Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drives"). RAID Level 1 at least for mirroring of functions between a pair of drives. RAID Level 5 adds smart error correction and rebuilding capabilities to reduce downtime if a network drive fails. Use heavy-duty SAS (f/k/a SCSI), server-intended hard drives in your server, not workstation-intended cheaper, lighter duty SATA drives.

14. Think About Spot Backup. What about critical stuff you can't afford to lose in between your multiple backup layers of protection? The Great American Trial Brief. A chapter of your long-awaited book. The greatest trust agreement in the history of the universe.

Use your word processor's emergency backup function. I set mine to auto-backup every five minutes in both Word and WordPerfect in case the software crashes. Know how to recover those .BKx files when you need to (before the disaster happens, eating your document in a puff of digital smoke). Consider emailing in-process documents to yourself at your Webmail account for "spot offsite backup" purposes. Think about keeping a hefty 4, 8 or even 16 GB flash drive plugged in and get used to double-saving key documents and emails to the flash drive as well as their regular folders. So think "spot."

I Kid You Not

I'm sure I could come up with more rules if I really thought about it but this list should keep you out of trouble. Failure to follow these field proven, hard-fought, University of Hard Knocks-learned lessons puts your entire practice in abject peril. That's no exaggeration. That's reality. I beg you to backup. Your practice depends on it.

Written by Ross Kodner of MicroLaw.

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Topics: Backup/Media/Storage | SmallLaw
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