Backup or Perish
by Lloyd Borrett
Today's Computers, PC Australia, April 1985
Just how safe is your business? If, like many other small
businessmen, you have moved key business functions on to a
computer, your business may be seriously at risk. Have you
sat down and thought about what you would do if your
computer was stolen, damaged, or the data on it corrupted?
Put not your faith in the computer Murphy's Law should be
engraved in big, bold letters on all computers — because
mismanaged computers can, and do, cause businesses to go
The real problem is that no matter how much you read
items stressing the importance of security precautions and
data backups, you are unlikely to do much about it, and will
in time become yet another victim of computer complacency.
Several events that highlighted the problems with computer
security have happened to me recently. In the first case I
was both the cause and the victim.
Yes, after years of experience and many hours spent
lecturing people on the risks of not doing backups, I, yet
again, fell victim to that computer-age problem of no
backup. It was to be such a simple job, installing a memory
card with an additional 256K of memory into my home
computer. This computer has a 10 megabyte hard disk, and
normally runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as the PC
Connection bulletin board system.
The 10 megabyte hard disk is almost full, which means it
takes 20 or more diskettes and an inordinate amount of time
to do a backup, which is the last thing you feel like doing
at I I pm. And it was such a simple change. I do it all the
time. No problem.
But I had one problem after another. The full story is
too long and complicated to relate, but I ended up having to
use a soldering iron to fix my keyboard, rebuilding the 10
megabyte hard disk without a full backup, using files
scattered over about 150 diskettes. I got to bed at 5am.
The lesson is simple. Always do a backup before doing
anything major with a computer. If you are going to in any
way physically change a computer (relocate, additions,
maintenance, etc), do a backup. If you are about to make any
major change to the software, such as adding a new version
of a program, do a backup. If you are about to make
significant changes to your data, such as an end-of-month
run, do a backup. (Perhaps Red Buttons could do a variation
of his "never had a dinner" routine using the tag "do a
And even then, doing a backup may not be enough. The
second case involved a customer who came close to losing his
business, and yet appeared to have taken all the right
The phone rings. We are told that the customer has
accidentally started the end-of-year run instead of the
end-of-month run of an accounting system. Naturally there
are a lot of prompts and questions designed to prevent this,
but, like the best laid plans of mice and men, things can
still go wrong.
A few quick questions, and we know there was a backup
done last thing the night before and the end-of-year run was
the first thing to be done that morning. The advice is to
abort the run and restore the data from the backup set. I
breathe a sigh of relief. At least some people are aware of
the need for adequate backups, and do them.
But soon the customer is back on the phone. The restore
from the backup set has aborted at diskette 10 of 18. Oh no!
The advice is to try to make a copy of diskette 10. This
works. Now use the new diskette when recovering the data.
But it still doesn't work. There is another backup. It's two
days old, but is promoted to No. 1 option. It aborts at
diskette 4. Other sets of backups are tried. All fail.
The situation is now desperate. A medium-size firm has
just lost all access to its accounting information, and it
would take months of work to rebuild from scratch. The
system, complete with backups, is delivered to our office,
and the resident technical genius is able to rebuild the
data files from the corrupted backup diskettes. And this
wasn't as simple as it sounds: it took well over a day to
Here we have a customer who has taken what would seem to
be all the right precautions. Certainly there were plenty of
backups, and more than enough different sets of backup
disk¬ettes. All gave no indication that they were corrupted.
Have I frightened you? I can assure you this case frightened
the hell out of me. The customer came extremely close to
having to spend months rebuilding the data files from
scratch, and I doubt whether the business would have
survived such a disaster.
When I relate this incident to others they all say that
of course this can happen if the PC DOS command Verify On
isn't issued before running the BACKUP program. I then watch
their face drop as I explain it was.
The format of the diskettes was corrupted. The disk
verification CHKDSK would pick it up, and so would the
RESTORE program, but not the BACKUP program. The solution is
to run CHKDSK over every diskette after it is used as a
backup (an extremely odious task), or to regularly run the
FORMAT program over a set of backup diskettes before using
them. The latter solution is preferable, and it is now a
feature of my "How to do backups" lecture.
Shortly after these two events, I heard Kevin Fitzgertild,
Australia's leading authority on computer security, speak to
a Melbourne PC User Group meeting. I had attended several
talks by Fitzgerald and read many reports of his activities,
but it was worth being reminded of the problems (as if the
previously described events were not enough).
Questions asked by others in the audience and discussions
in the bar afterwards highlighted how little thought most
people give to computer security, and the significance of
the risks they are taking.
I have always appreciated the problem, and spent a great
deal of time lecturing about it, but I still fall victim
from time to time. There is always some risk, and
complacency always seems to eventually set in. Thankfully I
often see the problems of others, which gives me a
However, I have never been in the position to put
anything as important as a valuable business and the
livelihood of others at risk. If you are in that position,
estimate what it could cost to recover from some of the
nasty situations you could find yourself in. How much time,
effort and expenditure is it worth to avoid that situation?
Are you prepared to do it, or do you like gambling with big
Lloyd Borrett is president of the Australian PC
User Association, founder of the Melbourne PC User Group
and support coordinator for HiSoft Australia.
Saturday, 15 October 2011