Hard drive backups for closed office
February 19, 2007 1:20 PM   Subscribe

My father passed away a few months ago and the question of how to store the data on his office computers for the long term has come up. [more inside]

There are two computers, one running XP, the other 98 or perhaps ME. We need to keep all the files on both computers. My father reportedly wrote a memoir on one of them that I have been unable to find. Even if it doesn't exist, I am reluctant to wipe or destroy that hard drive.

It is tax time and I am helping my mother with the taxes for the estate, personal and professional. My father ran a one man office. The most important programs right now are Quickbooks 2004 and MSN Money. These have all the family's financial information going back several years. We do not have either of these programs on our other computers.

So, what is the best way to store all this data? Money is a factor but we are more interested in security and accessibility. Is an internet service the way to go?

I can get around with a computer but I don't have any serious skills. Feel free to include lots of detail or links to explanatory websites.
posted by BigSky to Computers & Internet (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Use optical media (DVD-Rs) for short-term (3 yr max.) storage and access.

Use a combination of redundant tape backups and redundant hard drive backups for long-term (5-10+ years) storage.

Place your backups in a fire-resistant box; splitting your backups among multiple boxes is better.

You can likely rent out the services of a computer consultant to provide these services for you, rather than purchasing expensive equipment to do this.

You'll be good to go with the optical backups in the short-term, and if they fail, you can recover from your long-term backups.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:36 PM on February 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

The short term solution is just to keep the computers but longer term is tricky, backing up the data in a way that's accessible and a format that you migrate as through the years as other programs become useful.

I think paper copies are probably the best long term solution. They are more cumbersome but they'll last indefinitely, or much longer than you'll be around, if they aren't damaged, and there's no question about future accessibility.
posted by 6550 at 1:55 PM on February 19, 2007

Blazecock seems to have a good strategy for the thorough archiving plan. Here are two things you can do very quickly and easily, before getting into the bigger project:

If there is a USB port on the computer, you can get a USB "thumb drive", which are now available at something like 1 Gb/$30 or so. You could go to a computer or office supply store today and get that much storage, and copy the files onto it. I don't know how great these drives are over the longterm, but it's avery easy way to make a quick backup.

Also: make paper printouts of the financial stuff if it's feasible to do. That way you don't need a computer with the right program to read the backed-up files in 3 years.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:56 PM on February 19, 2007

I would make a complete backup of the disk using Norton Ghost. This makes an "image" of everything contained on the disk for a more complete backup. You could also store the physical drive in a fireproof safe like the above poster mentioned.
posted by ronmexico at 1:57 PM on February 19, 2007

Paper's good and media-neutral. Make copies. If you use physical storage, every 10 years you might want to copy your old backups to current media, so that you're not stuck with inaccessible archives.

I'm not an accountant, but in determining the value of backups of certain items, keep in mind how long you need to keep financial records (seven years?).

I would probably not recommend an internet archive service at this juncture, as it is a young technology. They become very pricy if you need access. Security and privacy are uncertain where financial and personal records are concerned. You'll be subscribed for the long-haul; if the company or service suddenly goes belly up, be prepared to quickly move your data to another service.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:05 PM on February 19, 2007

The keys to long-term archival are media that will not physically age much, media that will be readable (physical and software compatibility) in the future and a secure location. Redundancy is your friend throughout.

I'm with others here on taking a Ghost image (you don't have to use Norton, there are freer options but Norton is fine)... with one caveat: keep a copy of Norton in your backups so that you are capable of restoring the backups, in other words, do not assume you will be able to find a copy of Norton Ghost in 10 years because odds-on, you won't be able to. If you're a unix person (you're probably not, but some people reading this may find this useful), use dd instead; it serves the same purpose and is lowest-common-denominator.

You want the full disc images so that you can reconstruct a bootable system. I think one should also store all the data in a non-system-image format, e.g. a huge zipfile. Make sure you use a format understood by open-source software (e.g. zip or tar.gz), thereby guaranteeing its readability in the future. So once you've got complete Ghost images, make zipfiles of the contents of each drive at whatever granularity you want.

Make a backup of all the software required to interpret the data you care about, i.e. your accounting apps. ISO images would probably be fine.

Put all of your backups (drive images, big zip files, software install ISOs) onto a USB2 hard drive.

Now, split those images into 4GB chunks (no deleting the original big images) then make 400MB of reed-solomon redundancy for each chunk using parchive/quickpar (takes a while unless you have a fast CPU) and burn each chunk with its redundancy to at least two separate DVD-Rs. The par2 thing will mean that a disc is recoverable even if the disc is partially unreadable. Verify every DVD after you burn it. Don't forget to include copies of parchive/quickpar in the backups!

Take the drive with images and all those DVDs you burnt and put them in a safe deposit box at your bank. Maybe two separate banks if you're paranoid. If you have significant accounts at a bank, e.g. mortgage, they will often give you access to the secure boxes for free. The reason for the bank is that they keep a cool dry environment and the media (hdd and DVDs) will degrade more slowly.

In 5 or 10 years, go to the bank, take out ONE copy (leave the other there) and copy it to the portable media of the day: two write-once-optical and at least one hard drive copy.

Total cost: a big portable hard drive ($200-$300), a box of DVD-Rs ($20) and a bunch of your time.
posted by polyglot at 5:46 PM on February 19, 2007

Go buy a bunch of hard drives, so you have one blank one for each of the computers. Then, take the hard drives from the machines you want to back up, and duplicate them, block-for-block, onto the new drives. (This is trivial on Linux, so if you know anyone who uses Linux they could do it for you in an afternoon, and they wouldn't have to actually see any of the data on the drive to do it. They don't even have to mount the drive.)

Then take the original drives, and put them in a bank safe deposit box.

The drive copies you just made, are the ones that you can then use, to make further backups (DVD-Rs, printouts, etc.) from. But the key is, to make a full and complete backup, and then tuck the originals away in a safe place, before you do anything.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:35 PM on February 19, 2007

your cost is going to come from buying additional hard-drives, which I highly recommend. Buy Seagate drives that best match the size of drive. If not, buy something slightly larger and never smaller.

Read up on drive-cloning:

then download and use The Ultimate Boot CD which comes with a few disk-cloning programs.

I'm sure someone could do a step-by-step guide if you gave us the computer specs / models.

When the cloning is done, put the drives you cloned to back in their packaging and store in a cool, dry place. Boot up his computers and use the software to access the info you need.
posted by nataaniinez at 9:05 AM on February 21, 2007

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