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Of fear and data

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Are you one of those computer users who cower in fear when the lightning comes? Then you need a few more back-up options, writes Arthur Goldstuck.

It was a time of storms. Thunderclouds rolled like destroyers into battle. Lightning ripped the curtain of the sky. And then came the rain. The endless rain, falling, no, swarming, to earth.

Down on the ground, men huddled in fear.

One phrase was repeated over and over again, like a mantra, a verbal amulet of protection.

‚The data. The data. What about the data?‚

For it was also a time of devastation of data. Wherever data was stored, the keepers of the data cowered in terror from the lightning. Had they done enough to protect the computer? Had they backed up in time? Would they be the next victims of data loss? Would they be able to recover from the loss?

When the storms come in Gauteng, computer owners and network managers become nervous. The most nervous? Those whose computers are connected to the Internet through a modem linked to the telephone network. One strike on a telephone line, and hundreds of modems are lost, often taking down with them the data stored on the computers they link to the world.

The electricity charge from the lightning runs through a phone line into a modem, and literally burns a hole into the modem card. If it is an internal modem, of the kind often installed inside computers rather than connected on the outside, there is a good chance the charge will also fry the magnetic surface of the hard drive. And when that happens, in most cases, there is no way of recovering the data.

The lucky few may find that data recovery specialists are able to fish out some or all their data by using specialised equipment and software. But it has to be done fast, since the damage is often at the magnetic level, where delays can result in further deterioration of the data that survived the initial strike. Data recovery is not only expensive in terms of direct cost, but also in the delay it causes in getting up and running again.

When you find yourself in this situation, it usually means you didn’t take the steps required to protect your stored information. You didn’t back up your data, you didn’t store copies well away from the computer you were working on, and you didn’t take adequate steps to prevent the lightning from getting into your machine in the first place.

No wonder you cower in fear from each storm.

And when the rain subsides and the skies clear and your data has once again survived intact, you breathe a silent prayer of thanks. And then assume five minutes later, as always, that it can never happen to you. And when it does, you wonder why you never backed up. There are many reasons. The single most common one is just that attitude that it can never happen to you. The second is that backing up is far more complex than the glib warnings would have us believe.

If you run a large network, data tends to be backed up routinely onto computers designed for the task, or even onto tape stream or online back-up systems that allow for storage away from the network or even away from the site. But individuals and small businesses tend to rely on copying data onto disk. Gone are the days, however, when a few floppy disks would ensure the afterlife of a damaged computer.

There was a time, more recently, when having a CD Writer in your computer ‚ a fairly standard accessory nowadays ‚ was the simplest route. Just copy all your files onto the blank CD, label it clearly, and stick it in a cupboard where the lightning doesn’t know to look.

But a CD only carries 600 megabytes of data. And now that the smallest hard drives are 20 gigabytes in size, we have all become promiscuous in the kind of data we store ‚ from vast research documents to e-mailed photos and cartoons ‚ and 600 megabytes makes for a pitifully small storeroom.

If you’re organised enough, you can break up your data into 600 megabyte chunks. But what happens when you want to back up your mailbox? That is, if you know in the first place where your mailbox is among the complex file structures of Windows. If you treat e-mail as documentation that must be preserved, it won’t take long for the mailbox to pass the 600 megabyte mark, and then a CD Writer is useless.

The next step up, DVD Writers, which can transfer data onto blank DVDs that carry around 6 gigabytes of data, are still too expensive to make them the logical option.

There is also the online solution, storing your data via the Internet through South African sites like www.backuponline.com, aimed at businesses, or international equivalents like Xdrive, aimed at consumers who also happen to have high-speed connections to the Internet. Neither is entirely appropriate for the ordinary South African dial-up user.

The answer to their prayers lies in back-up devices that do not cost more than the computer itself. The choice of device depends partly on how much backing up you want to do, how much you are willing to spend, and how easy it is to back up regularly.

There are a few standard criteria, however: ¬∑tthe device must be removable, i.e. you should only have to plug it in to your computer, not install it inside: ¬∑tit must be portable, i.e. you must be able to store it in a cupboard or carry it around in a briefcase: ¬∑tit must be drag-and-drop, i.e. you need only copy files from one drive to another, and not have to use special software to allow you to process and prioritise and, as a consequence, procrastinate. Additional software for managing the process is fine, but it must not get in the way of the process: ¬∑tit must be a USB device, which stands for Universal Serial Bus, and means that the device can be plugged into a computer’s USB port and be recognised immediately without having to install additional software or change any settings. It simply appears as an additional drive under the My Computer folder of the computer, enabling you to drag or copy files across without a fuss.

The most commonly used devices that match these criteria include:

Custom-built portable hard drives: A normal hard drive is fitted into a casing, which is in turn fitted with a USB plug. This more than doubles the price of the hard drive, and doesn’t come with a manufacturer’s guarantee or instructions.

Iomega ZIP Drives: It used to be the only game in town before CD Writers became commonplace. The problem here is that the typical ZIP drive uses disks that don’t carry much more data than a CD (750 megabytes is their current standard), and the blank disks cost many multiples of blank CDs. A heavyweight version from Iomega, the 30Gb Portable Firewire, costs about the same as a DVD writer, and requires some technical expertise.

Fujitsu-Siemens StorageBird: Costs less than either of the above options, looks sleek and elegant, and the dimensions are a very portable and storable 8cm x 13.5cm x 2.5cm.You drag the icon for a file or program from a desktop folder to the folder for the external drive, and it copies across in seconds. As simple as that. You quickly forget that it’s not built into your computer, until you need to unplug it. Comes in 20 gigabyte and 30 gigabyte flavours. Both are delicious.

So are you ready to laugh at lightning yet?

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