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No.33 Winter 2007
Do You Really Want to Upgrade?
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Implementing Document Management
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Backup Issues

With the options available for backing up your data changing rapidly with new technology, this is a good time to rethink backup issues.

As any litigator knows, in order to get the right answers, you have to ask the right questions. So the first question to ask is, what level of security do you want a backup procedure to give you and what are you willing to spend to ensure it?

  •  Do you want to be able restore your entire server in the event of disaster or just your documents, databases, etc.?
  •  How important is off-site storage to you?
  •  How far back do you want to keep backups?
  •  In the event of a disaster, how long can you afford to be unable to work? A related question is: how much data can you reasonably reconstruct in the event of a disaster: a day, a week, a month?
  • Comments: The first option protects you in the event your server disintegrates, is hit by lightning, etc. The second option also protects you in the event your office burns down.

    The question of how far back you want to go is particularly relevant in the case of data corruption in a database (e.g., your case management, time & billing, accounting software). It frequently happens that a database gets "slightly" corrupted but can still function. By the time it crashes, your most recent backup may also be corrupted.

    The issue of how long you can be unable to work and how much data you are willing to reconstruct has a direct impact on the cost of the backup system you implement.

    Backups are your "insurance policy" for the heart of your legal practice: your data. Even very large firms frequently skimp on backup and disaster recovery. For example a number of years ago, a major New York firm was unable to work for over 3 days as the result of mainframe crashes during a power outage on Wall Street. The firm had refused to install a power backup system for its mainframes because it was "too expensive." But what was the cost to the firm of several hundred lawyers unable to do any work for 3 days?

    The following will not address issues faced by very large firms, as they are generally beyond the needs and pocketbooks of smaller firms (for example, parallel data centers at least 5 miles from the main office).

    Traditional Backup Strategy. Traditional backup strategies rely on tape backups. A frequent model has daily backups for M T W Th F and a weekly backup on each Saturday for a month. Thus at any given point in time, the firm has daily backups for the last week, and weekly backups for the last month. This strategy requires a certain amount of administration (somebody has to change the tape every day) and cost (backup tapes are not inexpensive). This strategy typically backs up the entire server so that it can be restored to a new machine in the event of failure. The weekly tapes may be sent off-site to ensure off-site recovery capability.

    A main issue here is that in order to restore the tape you need a copy of the backup program. So that if there is physical destruction of a server, you need to reinstall the backup program and purchase another tape drive in order to restore your data. Firms should purchase two identical tape drives and keep one of them off site for this reason (uh-huh).

    With the dramatic increase of Electronic Data Discovery (EDD), backups that go back a significant amount of time can put the firm at risk in the event of a law suit. For example, a firm that allows users to keep 6 months worth of emails before they are deleted, actually has email data going back 6 + 1 month if they keep a month’s worth of backups. This data is theoretically discoverable.

    Internet Backups. An option that has become very popular lately is Internet backups. In this scenario, every night changes to your data are backed up over the internet to a remote provider. Depending on the terms of your agreement, you can also keep several versions of files (for the example of data corruption above).

    There are three potential issues with this system.

    First, is the integrity of the Internet backup provider. The main providers offer fairly good guarantees at this point (and may be more expensive). I would be cautious about local small providers with very little law firm experience.

    Second, is the amount of data you are backing up. If you have very large databases, this can be considerable, even though the providers say they are only backing up what data has changed.

    Third, I am still somewhat skeptical about backing up changes to database information (not to mention keeping several versions back). There may be data integrity issues here, which could render your backup worthless.

    Hard Drive Backups. With the dramatic drop in the cost of hard drives, and the availability of inexpensive external hard drives, this is a new option. You can purchase an 80GB Maxtor or Iomega external hard drive for about $169. You could purchase two of them and swap them out on a weekly or twice-weekly basis.

    The external hard drives run on a USB (or firewire) port, but still require a power supply. A new generation of USB drives are available that do not require power supplies. You simply connect the drive to a USB port and you have a new hard drive. These drives are quite small (about 3/4 of an inch thick and the size of a 4x6 photograph) and can easily be ported off site. The Iomega 40 GB portable hard drive is about $135.

    Thumb drive backups. With the advent of significant amounts of storage available on thumb drives, you could store up to 4GB of data on a thumb drive (again, you just plug it in to the USB port and copy your data). The secure feeling you have to be taking your data home with you every night is compensated only by the ease with which thumb drives (and with it all your data!) can be lost or misplaced.


    Tape drive technology still provides the most thorough backup strategy. It is also the most expensive - but in the event of a disaster, the cost of not doing so will be many times greater than the cost of a backup system.

    However, many smaller firms could reasonably adopt some variety of external/portable backup strategy that gives them greater flexibility and easier off-site storage strategy.

    John Heckman
    March 2005


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