This entry will probably be the most geeky blog entry you will ever see from me on this blog. I used to do stuff like this over on my technical blog, but I’ve pretty much abandoned that site—it’s hard enough to find time to blog in one place, let alone two. But just because this is a geeky entry, doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile for everyone to read. If you have a computer, you need a backup strategy. I thought I had one… until the incident.
A few weeks ago, I noticed a little, red, blinking light on the front of my HP EX490 MediaSmart Windows Home Server. This is usually an indication that one of my laptops has been turned off so long, that a backup hasn’t run in a month, or the virus definitions are out of date. No big deal.
But seeing as this red light followed so closely on the heels of getting hacked, I worried that this wasn’t the case this time. I tried to log on to the server from the client app running on my main PC to check the message list, but I got no response. Ruh-roh. I tried to remote desktop onto the server, and also received no response. Gulp. I tried rebooting. No worky. I tried restoring the OS. Nothing. Oh crap. I pulled all the drives from the box, popped in a brand new 1 TB drive, and tried rebuilding the OS. Notta. Son of a…. This puppy was toast and that meant I was toast.
See, my Windows Home Server wasn’t just where all my PC’s were backed up (which it did really well, and in a super-easy way). It was also the file server where I stored my entire music collection—the hundreds of CD’s I ripped a couple of years ago so I could box up my CD collection to make room in my office… for books. My wife and I stored the backups of our iTunes folders there. Those files were not backed up anywhere, because I worked under the theory that I could always go back to the CDs or to Amazon or iTunes and re-rip them if I needed to.
However, when suddenly faced with spending weeks of my life ripping CDs again, and then trying to figure out what songs we had bought from iTunes or Amazon in the last two years, I decided I wasn’t quite ready to give up on the Home Server. Life saving surgery was needed—a brain transplant of sorts.
Luckily, I stumbled across this article, which describes how to rescue data from a failed Windows Home Server. I suggest you follow it, step by step, if your WHS Server fails. It’s not as simple as just popping the saved hard drives into a drive enclosure, but it is doable. I bought a Rosewill Drive Enclosure, and mounted the drives (one by one) onto my main PC, and began the restore process. It took a couple of days (mainly unattended), but I got all of the data back. Pfhew! I’m not going to go into the mechanics of how to recover the data here, since that article already does that.
But I will tell you how my habits have changed since going through this mess. I didn’t realize how close I had been to losing a lot more than just the music. I had almost lost all the photos and videos of my kids as well. Well, not “almost lost” them, but just about as bad. I found out that I hadn’t been backing them up anywhere. And this is where the story gets interesting (for you non-geeks out there, at least).
You see, a couple of years ago, I installed Mozy on my PC’s and began backing up my critical data (i.e. important personal documents, my writing, etc.). At one time, our family pictures had been in those folders being backed up. But a year or so ago, after I migrated to a new PC, I moved all of the pictures and videos to a USB drive, and that drive was not backed up anywhere. Not on the Windows Home Server. Not on Mozy. Nowhere. Somehow, this fact had escaped me as life roared along. If I lost that drive, we would have lost a heck of a lot of very important memories. So saying I nearly lost everything, isn’t that much of a stretch. If you don’t back something up, you’re nearly losing it every day.
So I spent the better part of a two weekends correcting these oversights. Here is how I now organize my digital life. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than where I was a few weeks ago. I’ll give credit where credit is due. Scott Hanselman’s blog on A basic non-cloud based personal backup strategy gave me many of the ideas I used here to help create a more secure and thorough strategy. I highly recommend reading it.
- My PC’s all have Mozy running on them, backing up the User folders. This includes all my writing and key personal documents that I would need to access should something destroy my home. I debated going to a different service (like CrashPlan or KeepVault or one of the many other backup providers out there), but since I was already up and running on Mozy, it was easier to stick with them, for now. Remember, at this point, I needed to get things backed up before something else crashed.
- I now include my Pictures folder (from my USB rive) in my Mozy backup. I can live without the few videos I’ve taken in my life, but losing all the pictures would be devastating. Adding pictures also doesn’t break the bank on remote storage like videos do.
- I set up a spare USB drive (with the new hard drive I bought to try to fix my Home Server) and the Rosewill Case, and attached it to my main PC. I tried to hook it up via eSata, but my Windows 7 PC kept hanging and I got tired of that, so I converted it back to USB. Seems to work fine that way. I call this drive BackupA.
- I copied all of our music / videos over to my existing USB drive, and organized that drive so it is very obvious where everything goes. I also showed my wife how it is set up, so she can find everything she needs and can add things in the right places when she has new pictures or videos.
- I installed SyncBack on my PC with the USB drives, and every night, the entire USB drive is copied to BackupA, as sort of a delayed mirror. If the primary USB drive fails, no problem. I just swap in Backup A. If I accidentally delete a folder on the USB drive, I have until 1 AM to recover it from Backup A.
- I turned on the feature that allows me to dupe the Mozy backup to my BackupA drive. If my PC fails, I can just grab that drive, switch PC’s and be good to go in seconds.
- I don’t currently bother backing up the OS / Program folders on my PCs because I don’t install a lot of software that I couldn’t get back within a few hours. It’s not that I don’t believe it would be good to back up the OS, I just know that I would never test the backup by doing a full system restore. An untested restore is no better than not having one to begin with.
- I installed DropBox on my PCs to allow me to copy over the really important documents to all my PCs and my mobile device for quick access. I used to use Windows Live Mesh, but Microsoft keeps changing the name of that product, and I never got a good feeling as to whether or not they believed it had a future. It also, (as far as I know) didn’t have an iPhone client. DropBox works really well for what I need it to do.
- I plan on getting another USB Drive enclosure (call it BackupB), and will swap the two drives out on a regular basis and store one of them offsite, just in case.
- I need to set up encryption on all my drives to prevent someone from waking off with my life should they rob the place. Since I run WIndows 7 Home Premium, I don’t get BitLocker by default. I do encryption really sensitive individual documents, but I know there is more room for improvement there.
- We plan to upgrade to Windows 8 after it comes out, as I understand it has some even better file sharing techniques that may simplify our backups strategies, but I still need to study that a bit longer.
Is this solution perfect? No, probably not. But it is definitely better than it was a few weeks ago, when I didn’t even know I had these issues. The Windows Home Server is now just an empty shell, sitting on my office floor. At some point, I’ll recycle it. I’m disappointed it didn’t last more than a couple of years, but stuff like that happens. At least I was able to recover from this near disaster, only losing my time, and not all the memories of my digital life.
I would appreciate feedback from folks on what I might have missed. Do I need to back up my email (I use Outlook)? This blog? Should I scan all my documents/receipts into a OneNote document as part of my backup strategy? Getting better at this sort of thing is an incremental process for me. I need it to not be burdensome. It needs to be as automatic as possible, and to make me feel, at the end of the day, that I am doing everything I need to be doing to protect what needs to be protected.
Sometimes it takes a wakeup call to show you where the gaps are. Learn from my experience. Audit your backup strategy every few months. It takes a little bit of time, but it is absolutely worth it.