Although most of us know the importance of a good backup solution to prevent data loss, not all of our backups are reliable. Sure, we set it up at some point. The problem is that “set it and forget it” approach often leads to data loss. But a little planning and testing can help you identify backup problems before it’s already too late.
1. Passwords and Protected Backups Locked Forever
A backup is another copy of your data by definition. To keep that data safe, especially when it’s online, you need a password. Preferably that password is unique so you’re protected when databases get hacked. You might even have two-factor authentication (2FA) enabled (I have it set up on mine).
When you go to restore your data though, will you remember that password? If you set it up long ago and didn’t record it, your backup won’t do you much good. A good example of this problem is Apple’s Time Machine backup. If your hard drive is encrypted, your Time Machine is probably encrypted. Apple stores all these passwords in your keychain. If your hard drive dies, you’ll lose that keychain. Then when you try to get to your backup data, you’ll need that password you relied on your Mac to remember. Lots of third party software works the same way.
Wait! If it’s an online backup, all you need to do is tell them you forgot your password and they’ll email you the link, right? That will work, unless you changed your email address since you set it up. I see this all the time. That old email address could have been with an employer, school or ISP. With all the email hacks, you might even have been locked out of that address. Guess what? You’re locked out of your backups as well.
Keep your backup password and account information up to date. Store your password in a safe place, sometimes literally. I keep mine in a fireproof safe. If it’s an online backup, log in and make sure your information is current. While you’re in there, check to see if they offer 2FA and enable it.
2. Your Backup Account Expired
When you set up your backup, everything was working great. You wrote down your password, so you dodged that gotcha above. You might have even tested it to make sure it worked—at least that first time.
Fast forward to today, and you didn’t realize that bundled software was a limited trial. Oops. That backup stopped working months or years ago. The application might have given you a notification in the system tray. You promised yourself you’d get to it, but you never did.
Or, let’s say it’s an online backup service, and you had it set for automatic renewal on your credit card. But then your credit card expired and you forgot to update it with the backup company. Does anyone proactively update this stuff? The online company probably emailed you many times. It either ended up in your spam filter or it got missed along with all the marketing emails (this is why I prefer paper billing). This happened to me recently. I was looking for an email and noticed I had been warned about an expiring credit card. I missed it. While I didn’t have a data loss during the gap period, others aren’t as lucky
If you’ve installed backup software, read the terms carefully. Sometimes the software is just a limited trial. If it’s a trial either buy the software or don’t install it. Commit to a backup solution and stick with it. If you’re using an online backup service, that’s the account to update when you get a new card. I’d also put a reminder when it’s set for renewal. That’s when I start looking for deals on renewals too. Put it on your calendar or use an app like Bobby to help remind you.
3. You Aren’t Backing Up The Right Stuff
Your backups aren’t going to expire and you can get into them, but those are not the only settings to consider. To save space and bandwidth, your backup solution may not handle everything. For example, it might exclude large files or external drives.
A great example of this problem is Quickbooks’ tendency to store its data files in the Public folder on a PC. The typical backup software backs up the user folder and misses the public areas. Another example is program preferences. They’re stored either in the system directory or the application directly—both are often skipped by the default settings of backup programs.
If you’re using cloning software on a PC or Mac, you’re probably fine. This problem presents more often with online backup solutions. Even if you try to mark these folders, some online services just won’t do it. That’s one reason to have both a local cloned backup and an online backup.
Go into your backup software’s settings and review what it’s backing up. Review what’s in the folders it isn’t backing up and see if anything’s in there of importance. Don’t make this a one-time thing either. Consistently audit what your online or local backups include. We’ll talk about testing later, but part of testing is seeing if your software changed something. When my online software updated and I did a reinstall, my settings were reset. I didn’t realize until my testing that it was excluding .iso and .dmg files. For most people that isn’t a problem. I have a vast archived software library for testing, so I need these files. They’re the hardest to find should disaster occur. You’d be surprised how hard it is to find Windows for Workgroups 3.11.
4. You Don’t Realize The Limits of Your Backup Solution
The goal of a backup program is to protect your stuff. Your stuff is the stuff you create. Unless you work for Microsoft or Apple, you didn’t create your operating system. But in many cases, you’ll want that operating system backed up, too. Or, you’ll at least want to have the ability to legally install your operating system and all your applications again. In a disaster, you’ll either get a new computer or reinstall your operating system.
Most people address this issue by using a cloned backup system. A full cloned backup includes the operating system and all your installed programs. Most other solutions just back up your data—the stuff you made. Things like pictures and documents.
But even if you have a cloned solution, programs might detect changes to your operating system or hardware and ask for a serial number or password. That verification is a form of copy protection. What would stop you from cloning your expensive software installation to multiple computers? If your hard drive dies, you’ll either get a new one or a new computer. Either scenario could trigger a verification.
Backing up installers and programs adds to the size of your backup set, which raises another backup limitation: how long it takes to restore your data. One problem with online solutions is the time it takes to download a full restore. First the online company has to prep your restore. The more data, the more time it takes. Recently I did some testing (see below about testing), and my 100 gb file took about 6 hours for them to spin up. Then it took a day or so to download it. If I needed that stuff to get up and running, that would be an unacceptable delay. Some companies, like Backblaze and CrashPlan, will overnight you the data at a hefty price.
First, keep track of the serial numbers of all your programs. I keep mine in 1Password, but even a simple spreadsheet would suffice. That spreadsheet can be in your data folder with your backup solution. In either case, record the location of the software. Sometimes you’ll need to reinstall it. If the software is located online you’ll need, wait for it, your passwords. If you forget those passwords, you might be in the same dilemma as the first problem. Password resets work only if you can remember, and have access to, your old email accounts. I keep .iso and .dmg images of all my installers. In the folder or comments for the file is the serial number to reinstall it. Those folders then get backed up, unless I miss the defaults like the previous example I gave.
If you aren’t cloning your drive, make sure you have installers for all your software. You’ll need either physical copies or electronic images. Along with those are some way of reinstalling your operating system. We’ve covered ways of downloading an image of Windows 10 and older version of Windows as well as macOS.
If you’re using an online backup system, consider a local cloned backup on occasion. Then you’ll only have to download the changed files.
5. The Unforgivable Mistake: Not Testing Your Backups
All these examples lead to the importance of testing. If you test your backups regularly, you’ll avoid all these problems. You’ll know what’s backing up and how to get to it. You’ll catch all the problems with passwords, defaults, and limitations when you do a test. I like to do testing when the clocks change. You check your smoke detectors at that time. Smoke detectors protect your house from burning to the ground. Backups prevent your data from burning down to the ground, or at the very least, disappearing.
Create a checklist of your most important stuff. That’s the stuff you’d pay data recovery companies thousands of dollars to get back. For me, that would be my pictures and my Quickbooks file. I can’t test restoring all my pictures, but I can do a random sample of pictures. I usually pick a few dozen and restore them. My thoughts are that if it got some of my pictures, the backup got them all. This testing is the time I make a complete cloned image of my drive too. That way in a disaster I’m up-and-running. I check my 1Password and make sure my software serial numbers and links to download software in there. Total time: 15 minutes.
Isn’t 15 minutes worth saving the years or decades worth of data? You might be losing an hour for daylight savings time. That’s a pain. Imagine all the time you’ll lose without a reliable backup.
Got a backup strategy horror story? Share it in the comments and help others avoid the same mistake!