Digital Disaster Preparation

by Bradford Benn

In these days of digital, audio professionals need to be prepared for a “digital disaster”.  Bradford Benn lists some things to consider.

I have found a few things out over the past few weeks that can be thought of as a cautionary tale. I have had a logic controller failure on my laptop which meant that I was sans laptop for approximately ten days. The day after I received it, less than twelve hours later, the cable modem at my house failed. Between not having my personal laptop and then Internet access being a car ride away, I discovered some items along the way. The key things I learned are:

  • Backing up Data is important, but one also needs access to the data
  • Not having the right software can be a hindrance

The reason to be aware of these challenges for the audio world is the amount of time we are traveling with a laptop. Unfortunately laptops can easily become damaged, stolen, or lost while traveling. Having a recovery plan ahead of time can save much time and many headaches. I know that when I travel I keep a thumb drive on my person, not my briefcase, that has critical items on it.

In this post I will be using the terms backup, online storage, and offline storage, coupled with the modifiers onsite and offsite. While these seem very similar there are some idiosyncratic differences that change their functionality and how they should be used. These terms are interpreted by each person a little differently so in this context, here is how I am using them:

  • Backup – A file or collections of files that contain incremental updates of data. It does not indicate that the data is directly accessible; it means that the data can be restored from the backup to be accessible. Depending on the configuration it may require the restoration of the entire data set or it could be just a single file.
  • Block Copy – This approach for data backup uses the approach of looking at blocks of data not individual files. If the block of data is unique it will be written to the disk, and its value written into an index for future reference. If the block is not unique a pointer is simply placed to the data from the index. This approach results in storage compression, less data transfer, and ultimately less bandwidth and storage needed. The downside is that files within the data set are not individually accessible without a restoration.
  • File Copy – This method is the most common approach to backing up data, it is simply making a copy of a source file. It does not look at anything for similarities; it simply copies the file from one media to another media. It is basically “drag copying” within operating systems.
  • Offline Storage – Storage that is not connected to a computer. To get access to the data that is on offline storage a user must physically connect it. Typically these are CD or DVD or could be an entirely separate hard drive not connected to the computer. The data stored on it can typically be accessed on a file by file basis.
  • Online Storage – Storage that is connected to a computer. The data stored on it can be accessed on a file by file basis. Typically these are CD, DVD, USB Flash drives or an entirely separate hard drive connected to the computer. No user intervention is required, the data is just a click away.
  • Offsite – Storage that is not physically at the same location as the user. For online storage this approach is seen with consolidated data centers or for personal users with applications that allow a networked computer to have access to the data in real time. Offsite can also be offline where the media is not accessible without a user making a connection first. It could be as basic as shipping a hard drive or other media to another office or to a relative.
  • Onsite – Storage that is physically at the same location as the user. This term does not mean that it must be in same room but it is physically close enough that if a disaster happens it could be damaged as well. Often times people will place things into fire rated safes for Onsite Offline Storage.

My data wrangling solutions insured that none of my data was in jeopardy, however using that data was the challenge. I have been using an offsite backup solution. It works very well for me, but has some limitations and trade-offs along with it that I was not fully aware of when I made choices. Using a block copy approach I could reduce the amount of bandwidth and storage space I use, however this does not come without its trade-offs. By making this choice I would be unable to browse the files online, I would have to restore the content using the client software. At the time I did not think that it was a big deal as I figured I could always just install the client on another computer and get all the data back.

A key item here is that it is my offsite backup, since I did not have my laptop I did not have access to my onsite storage either. Too many people think that just having an onsite backup is sufficient. It is not as there are other things to consider than just a hard drive or computer failure. One has to think of other ways that data can be destroyed. To quote Joliet Jake Blues, “Someone stole my car! There was an earthquake! A terrible flood! Locusts!!” Having the data offsite makes it much less likely that data will be lost. Unfortunately one has to think about the worst case of theft or natural disaster. If you have your computer and the backup in the same room and there is a fire or theft there is a good chance that both items will be lost or damage. In the case of a flood, hurricane, or tornado there is a chance that damage will happen to the whole structure not just a small portion once again losing the onsite backup.

I could have just installed the client on another computer and gotten all the data back that still was not going to solve all my issues. I did not have the applications I needed to be able to access the data. I did not want to go through the process of reinstalling all the applications as it was going to be an onerous process with licensing and it was only going to be a few days. I also made a decision to use non typical applications for some data. I decided that rather than keep all the data in the very common Microsoft Office format I used Apple iWork. This meant that even if I could download the data files I would need to find a Mac with iWork on it. If I had the data in another format such as either Microsoft Office or Portable Document Format I would have been able to access it easily.

The result of that situation is that I am starting think about how many different niche software packages I use. Within the audio community almost every piece of software we use is niche; you cannot just run out to the local superstore and purchase a new copy. For some items it might be a good idea when archiving a project to include the software installers for the programs needed to maintain the system. While the manufacturers typically have copies of the previous software available, it might not be available when you need it. I also personally like that I don’t have to go to multiple websites to get all the installers; I have them all in one location. These could be done very well as an offline solution, DVD or CD with the information on them. When I create a DVD or CD with the installer on it, I also include a PDF or text file with the serial number and registration codes that I need to reinstall it.

As a result of not being able to browse the contents of the backup files easily, I changed my approach yet again. Some items are backed up using block copy, other items will be backed up using file copy to a second media, and still other items will be backed up to an Internet cloud storage location. You might wonder what data would go to what place and how to keep it all organized, well that is actually fairly easy as long as I make the right decisions when starting. Just by putting files into different locations on my computer they will be backed up in different ways. Various directories are backed up to various services. In my case I have my documents directory backed up to the offsite backup (items are not browsable easily), I have a share directory that has items copied to the cloud storage as well as keeping a local copy in the background. So these run automatically. The online storage of files allows me to quickly find the data I need without having to restore everything. It also typically allows for access from any location that is attached to the Internet through a web browser.

The key to this approach is to make sure that a file is stored in one location and only one location for live data. Problems are encountered when two files have the same name, but different time stamps or on different computers, so how does one know which one is current. By having each file in one location and automatically mirrored/backed up to the cloud this issue happens much less frequently. I still do backups to DVD and secondary hard drives every so often as not everything is worth paying for storage on the cloud for or I want fast access to it in case of hardware failure. For these items I use a synchronization program to keep a “mirror” directory in sync I then know that my local content has a mirror copy on a second media. I do not browse the second media, I only use the primary media and let the sync program mirror as needed.

Previously I mentioned the critical path items that I keep on the thumb drive when traveling. On that thumb drive is the software that I need to accomplish my goals during the trip. It could be the control software installer, it could be measurement software, it could simply be the VPN client so I can access the data on my work network. I just want to make sure that if I have to start from scratch with a brand new computer I do not need to spend hours finding all the software I need to reinstall on the jobsite. Each person’s list will be a little different, Some of the applications I carry are:

This list is by no means going to work for everyone. A key thing is that whenever possible I keep both the installer and the portable version. The portable version allows me to run the application directly from the thumb drive without needing to install it. This little feature has allowed me to work on a borrowed laptop very easily.

There is a final step I recommend to do before fully relying on these approaches. Try a failure/disaster recovery to make sure that things work as you expect. I know I learned some things from my ten plus days without a computer.

There are other solutions and approaches that can be used, the key is to implement and test one before it is needed.