The Best Laid Schemes of Backups and Redundancy…

CC-BY-NC-SA by Paul Garland via flickr
CC-BY-NC-SA by Paul Garland via flickr

Data loss: while we can use the arsenal of technology at our command to guard against it, sometimes the fortresses we have built are not as failsafe as we believe them to be. Sometimes when data loss happens, we kick ourselves for not being prepared, not taking the extra time to update backups or install more failsafes. Other times, we think we are doing everything right, but then the unanticipated occurs. What happens when the data protection measures we’ve taken just aren’t enough?

Tracy had been working on a chemistry dataset for the past six months. At her computer work station, she kept meticulous metadata records and followed her data management plan to the letter. Like her colleagues, she had heard too many horror stories of data loss and the grief it caused, and she was not willing to take a chance on losing her own work.

Early in her analyses, she made provisions for backing up her data. Using an external hard drive, she locked away over 5 gigabytes in secured folders, hoping never to need them. But on the off chance that something would fail, Tracy made a point of regularly updating her backup data.

When the day came that her computer started acting up, Tracy remained calm. She would talk to IT, explain that her data was safe in another location, and leave the computer and attached instrumentation in their capable hands. To her surprise, the computer manager was not content with relying on the backup files she had created and wanted to back up her entire hard drive to the university’s commercial external drive. He considered redundant backups essential since the recovery process could result in partial data loss. Thinking that you could never be too careful when it came to data protection, Tracy agreed and the backup process was completed yet again.

After working on the system and patching up the issues, the computer manager turned the machine back over to its owner. Relieved at the computer’s apparent return to normal, Tracy set about connecting to the external hard drive and retrieving the saved data. But as the machine began unpacking the data, it became clear that something was wrong. Only a fraction of the data reappeared – about 30% of the information she had spent months organizing and analyzing.

It was then that Tracy started to panic. She had backed it up, she knew she had! With two extra versions, how could anything go so terribly wrong? Tracy and her team consulted IT, but it was not clear what had happened. They talked with friends in other departments with experience in hardware and software failures, but there was no solution to be found. The only thing they could determine was that the software used to back up the data was not compatible with the recovery process.

The data loss haunted Tracy. She thought she had done everything in her power to preserve the work. As it turned out, creating backups was not enough to completely guard against tragedy; the only way to make sure those backups could serve their purpose in the event of an emergency was to check them regularly and ensure the data they contained were recoverable. By not performing this final, crucial step, Tracy had unknowingly put her work at great risk. While it’s impossible to anticipate all potential problems, there are certainly many steps we can take to minimize those risks. But by not regularly and thoroughly testing the strength of those safety nets, all the effort and time poured into data collection, storage, and protection can be suddenly and irrevocably lost.

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