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Back Up Your Remote Work

April 17, 2020
Take sensible steps to safeguard what you’re now doing from home

Social isolation mandates have forced many engineers to work from home at the moment. Yet, the need to back up this work may not get adequate attention. At home, most people have non-existent or woefully inadequate backup systems in place.

Most importantly, follow any corporate policies, even if aggravating, and use any backup capabilities the company provides. This applies equally to backup and retention systems imposed to meet legal requirements of specific work. Also, adhere at all times to your organization’s policies on guarding confidential information.

Here, let’s look at three possible situations: 1) company policies are unclear; 2) they explicitly allow you to do more than the minimum; or 3) you work on a personally owned device and can’t connect to the corporate backup system.


Different types of backups guard against specific risks: failure of a system component like a disk drive; lack of access to a location, e.g., due to a fire or flood; a cyberattack such as from ransomware; and accidental deletion. Moreover, the backup can reside on an on- or off-site physical device or in the cloud.

To determine the most-suitable type or combination, you must answer three key questions: Why must you back up or what must you protect against? How should you back up? And what should you back up?

The first question gets into how much you’re willing to lose in a failure. Personally, I’ve decided that I can lose, at most, up to one week’s worth of work to a system component failure or location interruption. Such a mishap, while potentially aggravating or painful, wouldn’t be catastrophic.

Quantifying the risk from cyberattack or accidental deletion is more difficult. Regardless, if opting for an on- or off-site physical device, it’s good practice for backups to contain multiple copies and to have built-in time lags; augment an on-site backup with disconnected extra copies. The most-effective protection option for an individual is a sophisticated cloud system with versioning, i.e., keeping of multiple versions.

On-site physical backups can rely on a variety of devices, e.g., network attached storage, external disk drives, extra internal drives, networked computers with their own drives, or flash drives (USB thumb drives or SD cards). Never use a USB flash drive or SD card as primary backup; the failure rate is too high.

Off-site physical backups can use external disk drives and flash drives that you can store securely elsewhere. Among the options are asking a friend down the street to keep the backup or putting it in a safety deposit box.

Cloud services include general storage options such as Box, DropBox and Google Drive. Among the better known cloud backup services are Microsoft OneDrive, Crashplan and Backblaze. You may have Microsoft OneDrive available at no cost. However, I’ve found that its appetite for network bandwidth and local computer resources cripples both my computer and Internet connection. So, I’ve switched to Crashplan and Backblaze (both of which I’ve found reliable).

Understand how the service’s algorithm choses files for backup. For example, with the latest versions I’ve used, Crashplan backs up the most recent files first while Backblaze starts with the smallest files. (I’m unclear about how OneDrive selects files.) Both approaches are logical but give different results; decide if a particular approach is important to you.

Your connection speed will limit the backup rate possible with cloud services. Also, understand if this added traffic will incur extra costs or overload your connection when you are trying to do other online activities.

For both cloud and off-site storage, encryption is a key issue. For cloud storage, all files should be encrypted. For off-site physical storage, you may encrypt on a file-by-file basis or by using encrypted virtual drives. In any case, losing an encryption key is a disaster. So, regardless of how many electronic copies of the encryption key you make, always write the key down on paper and put a written (paper) copy in a safety deposit box.

For physical devices, file-by-file encryption leaves the file names visible, which may or may not be acceptable. Creating a virtual drive that’s completely encrypted hides everything. However, a hardware fault may make the entire virtual drive unusable. So, let me stress, do not use a USB flash drive or SD card as a virtual drive because they are too unreliable for such a critical task.

For hardware selection, Backblaze (www.backblaze.com) publishes drive failure statistics for specific hard drive models. Personally, I select drives that show low failure rates in its summaries.

What to back up depends on your work, of course. Keep in mind, though, that many programs save critical information in default locations that are completely unclear. So, if an item’s crucial, find where it resides and ensure that location is in the backup list.

Also, consider prioritizing types of information. I’ve broken my own backups into three categories. The highest level has multiple connected on-site backups as well as several off-site and cloud copies. The lowest priority only has cloud copies. However, everything is backed up.

Finally, not using a system is the same as not having one. So, automate whatever you have. Automation not only will ensure system use but also can prevent your home system or network and internet connection from getting overloaded. Let the backup run during the night or early morning when little else is going on. My own system is fully automated with staggered scheduling so it doesn’t overload anything.

Once your system is running, test it. Verify that you can recover files. Conduct tests on a regular schedule to check the system still works. Too many people presume their system works but find out otherwise when they need to recover something.

Running a perfect backup system away from your regular office is unrealistic. However, it doesn’t take that much work to run a good backup system — and just a “good” system is tremendously better than none at all.

ANDREW SLOLEY is a Chemical Processing Contributing Editor. You can email him at [email protected]

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