Data Centers

The Los Alamos lesson: IT must own backups

Enough is enough. Whether you're talking about nuclear secrets or mail merge lists, there's no excuse for failing to make backups in any organization. Let the IT responsibility revolution start today.


I'm fuming over the story of the missing hard drives at Los Alamos—the drives that apparently contained nuclear secrets. Although it bothers me that someone may have sold secure information, I'm more upset that there weren't backups readily available.

I've heard a hundred news reports on this subject, and in none of them has anyone said, "No worries, mates. If those drives had never turned up, we had a fresh backup set in the vault." My fear is that, had someone not returned the drives, it would have been impossible to re-create the lost documentation of our research.

I think the lesson for everyone in IT support is clear: If every bit of data in your organization isn't being backed up sometime, it's time to jump on the backup revolution. Implement a policy of zero tolerance for lost files.

Someone in IT must take responsibility
I know that a nuclear research facility isn't your typical IT-supported environment. Only a tiny number of people had access to the secure area at Los Alamos. And one would expect that the scientists and other people documenting the classified information would have the common sense to maintain backup sets. No matter how important or sensitive a file is, it isn't worth much if it isn't backed up.

In theory, it should be easy to protect our corporate data from accidental losses. Store your data on a network system, guard access to the applications like a hawk, and, anticipating emergencies, maintain a redundant system with plenty of backups. Data on a properly maintained network should be invulnerable except perhaps to hardware failure and negligent system operators.

Problems arise when end users are responsible for their own backups. Many IT employees shrug their shoulders and say, "The users are on their own." But that attitude is counterproductive. Every time a user loses a single document file, the whole company suffers from the lost productivity.

There's no excuse to lose a file. We have applications that perform background saves; we have ridiculously large drive capacities. Yet we don't bother to teach our users what it means to press [Ctrl]S.

Someone's got to take responsibility
I believe the IT department has a core responsibility for backing up all corporate data. From level-one support all the way to the CIO, it's our job. We must either create the backup sets ourselves—using every trick we have up our cybersleeves—or we have to nag at our users until we convince them to make their own backups on a consistent basis.

If necessary, we should periodically go out with CD burner or tape backup in hand and perform on-site backups of end-user systems. Even if the only backup set you could produce was a month old, it would be better than nothing in an emergency.

Here's a trick we can use when we set up machines for new employees. Put on the desktop a shortcut to a batch file that copies the Windows 9x My Documents folder or the NT user's personal folder to a backup folder on the local drive or on a network drive. Then you can tell the new user, "Just double-click on that shortcut once or twice a day, or immediately after you finish working on an important file."

Tell them to make backups. Tell them you told them—and then tell 'em again.

Back me up on this one
If, heaven forbid, your hard drives crashed (or were stolen) right now, could you restore your system with a fresh backup? To share your ideal backup strategy, please post a comment below or by dropping us a note.
Each Tuesday, Jeff Davis tells it like he sees it from the trenches of the IT battle. And you can get his report from the frontlines delivered straight to your e-mail front door. Subscribe to Jeff's View from Ground Zero TechMail, and you'll get a bonus of Jeff's picks for the best Web stuff—exclusively for our TechMail subscribers.

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