Best practices for restorable data

The drive on my Toshiba Portege died last Friday. The good news is that I recently picked up a 400Gb external and most everything was backed up. As a replacement I bought the 7200RPM 80Gb Hitachi; the 60Gb version reviewed well and so far it's definitely a fast quiet unit. While most everything on the old drive was backed up, there are a few things I'll do different in the future.

First, it's not enough to back up Outlook PST files. It's worth exporting Outlook Settings, Mail Filtering Rules and Contact Lists from time to time.

Keep a file (preferably encrypted or in a secure place offline) which contains credentials for everywhere you need to go. The day of the crash I was about to update the SharePoint User Group site, but the credentials were in an Outlook folder. Bringing back Outlook wasn't my first priority, so that task waited until today (and after learning it would also work better for the presenter, I finally pushed the meeting to next week). While I'm sure I have an FTP configuration file somewhere in the backup for the dozen or so places I access, dropping these credentials into something I can take with me would be a big plus. PGP is still a great way to encrypt text files like this, after the initial setup of a keychain you can have it recreated on a new machine in a few minutes.

Next, it's worth it to create parallel folder structures on every machine you use. I've been in the habit for a few years now and it really paid off during the rebuild. In my case I always set up folders at the root for: audio, dev, install, pub, video, and vms.

Audio contains my music. Dev contains folders for css, data, namespaces, samples, utils, and webs. Install contains folders for each vendor (e.g. Macromedia, Microsoft, RedGate, Toshiba, etc.) plus general folders for organizing drivers, internet apps, .net components, tablet utilities, etc. I prefix these general folders with a period (e.g. ".tablet") so they sort first. Pub is short for "Public" and it's both a replacement and enhancement for Documents and Settings. I keep Documents there, not settings so they don't get in the way when moving to/from backup devices. Pub folders correspond to companies I work with, people who use my machine (including me), or the company that produced the files (e.g. K2 and Microsoft). I also keep an images folder under pub with personal photos organized by year, IM icons, and all the rest. Video is where I drop the great clips that float around the net, and VMs contains Virtual PC images.

I can easily recreate any piece of this structure on any given machine depending on what I'm doing. Fom there I can copy to a USB drive and easily propagate the data back to my other machines. During the restore, my biggest complaint was that Windows Commander doesn't let me set synchronization rules like "all files under 50Mb" or "all files except those with a .vhd extension," or "all files with a date in the last 3 years." Let me know if you have a synch app (or alternative strategy) that handles these cases.

Another solid lesson is to be able to rebuild your machine without connecting to the internet. For me that means installing XP, XP Service Pack 2, a virus scanner, essential drivers, the .NET framework, and a handful of utilities like Windows Commander and TextPad before going online. If you don't know by now: you can assume that any machine without a firewall will be hacked in a matter of minutes. If you want to become a server for foreign porn and cut your surfing speed in half, go right ahead. I'd rather not. This time I invested Norton Ghost to save me a bunch of time whenever this Hitachi drive goes bezerk. One day, all drives will die. I just pray that it isn't the same day (note: if it is, we'll have bigger problems to solve).

Briefly back to this external drive I picked up. The whole time I've been down, I was able to keep on working by plugging this external drive into any given system. So sure it took from Friday to Wednesday to be back typing this on the laptop, but in the meantime the priorities (i.e. those things that provide me with a means to live) were covered. I even took a pen and paper into a meeting yesterday. Sure I got agitated when I couldn't drag my diagrams around on the page, but I overcame and got the job done.

So there you have it. The summary: backup your documents, structure your data to make it easy, backup the settings you care about, and have plans to both recover it all as fast and safe as possible, and to keep working in the meantime.

Do you have some great tips for personal disaster recovery? Let's hear!

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