March 2010
Vol. 26, No. 1

A Technology Newsletter for Extension Specialists

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Extension Backups – History, Policy, & Off Site Backup
by Joe Lear

Recently, we have received a number of questions regarding off-site backup of county file servers. Based on numerous conversations and e-mails I have found that there have been several assumptions (myths, miscommunications, rumors – whatever you would like to call it) about how the backups function for a county file server.


First, some extension network/backup history. File servers have only been in place in every county since 2004, before that there were very few counties with file servers and it was only in the 1990’s that all the offices were networked. Data was kept on individual computers, and files were either shared via the S drive on the Columbia campus or via floppy disks or CD’s. There was no central plan or policy on backing up the data. Most kept their data on floppy disks and those were never backed up. It was up to the individual to back up their own data.

When the first county offices got file servers, these units had tape drives. The tape drives required someone to replace the tapes every day and the backups occurred at night. Backups occurred Monday through Friday and an additional tape was provided for offices to create a monthly off-site backup that could be stored in another location for disaster recovery. We still use tape drives on a few of the file servers on campus. As we replace these servers, we will evaluate the best method of backup for these departments.

Starting in 2004, the file servers contained 2 additional drives to store 6 backups (Monday-Friday and a monthly backup) instead of using tapes.

There are two main reasons for using hard drives. First, tape drives are expensive. Tape drives cost as much or more than the file servers for the amount of data that can be stored. Hard drives are fairly inexpensive and are faster for backups and restores. You may be concerned that if the server fails, or gets hit by lightning, that all the drives could be lost. While there is a slight possibility that this could occur, it is highly unlikely that all three drives would be lost. We have had several servers hit with power surges and drive failures and in every case we have been able to recover data from at least one if not multiple drives.

The second reason is the issue of continuity. When we used tape drives in the counties, the job of changing the tapes was forgotten or not given a high priority as personnel changed in the offices. By changing to hard drives we eliminated the issue of changing tapes. With the hard drive system, the backups are automatically stored in 6 different folders split among the 2 backup drives (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday on the first drive and Tuesday, Thursday and the Monthly on the second). They are readily available for us to restore files as needed for the offices.

When the servers went out to all the counties in 2004 apparently people misunderstood how the backups were occurring and they assumed that backups were occurring on a server in Columbia. This has never been the case. Since 2004 there have been no official off-site backups for the file servers. We did assist offices that wanted to write the monthly backups to DVD, but the amount of data was taking too many DVD’s. So the practice ended for many counties.

E-Discovery and the Current Policy and Practice

E-discovery presented a new dynamic to county backup practices in 2007. E-discovery allows all electronic media and backups that might be involved in a legal case to be subpoenaed. This includes files on computers, cell phones, PDA’s, disks as well as the current and any previous backups for as far back as backups are stored. This means that if the backup media exists, the ability to read it must exist as well; even if it is out of date or old technology. To that end, Extension established the following backup policy:

  1. Extension uses two types of media for backing up file server data. For the county offices and some campus offices, the file servers backup data to 2 hard drives inside the server itself. For the other campus departments, data from the file servers is backed up to tape.

  2. Daily Backup

  3. Daily backups are written to media Monday through Friday and the media overwritten every 7 days.

  4. Monthly backups

  5. Monthly backups are written to media on the Last Friday of the month. The monthly media will be overwritten every month.

  6. Backups during Holidays (for servers still using tapes)

  7. During University holidays, tape media will not be replaced; daily backups will occur but be written to the tape currently installed in the tape unit. If a monthly backup is schedule to occur during a holiday, the monthly backup will be done on the next working day.

  8. Backup Media Deletion and Disposal

  9. As backup media becomes obsolete or otherwise unusable, the media should be erased and/or destroyed. Tapes should be erased or formatted (either via tape drives or bulk erasure). Hard drives should be erased to DOD standards. Tapes which can no longer be used due to hardware replacement should be destroyed.

  10. If hardware required for backup is replaced, the hardware will be kept until such time as all backup media used with the device would have been overwritten.

Examples of what can and cannot be retrieved with these backup practices:

  1. A file created or edited and deleted on the same day is not backed up and cannot be retrieved.

  2. A file created or edited and deleted in the same week is backed up and retained for 6 days from deletion. A file deleted in this scenario could be retrieved for up to 6 days.

  3. A file created or edited before the last Friday of the month and not deleted until after the last Friday of the month is backed up and retained until the next monthly backup which will be the last Friday of the month the file was deleted. File(s) deleted in this scenario would be available until the next monthly backup occurs.

  4. If the data drive fails, files will be restored from the latest available backup.

  5. If a file is saved to the file server and never deleted then it will be available to be restored.

This policy limits the number of backups kept which makes it simpler to comply with E-discovery.

Off-Site Backups

Now what happens if the file server should be stolen, the building catches fire, or there is a natural disaster? Shouldn’t offices have an off-site backup? The simple answer is yes, an off-site backup is a good idea in case of a disaster that could wipe out an extension center or the file server. The long answer is the there are some security/legal issues around off-site backups.

If you’re interested in having an off-site backup, ETCS is willing to help you plan this out.

We recommend that you purchase your backup device from us, this way we keep a consistency among all the offices about what backup device we purchase, making support for the backups easier. Currently we are recommending a 1.5 TB external USB drive. These are quite a bit larger than the current capacity of our servers so there is room to grow on these devices as new servers are purchased with more data capacity. Currently, we’ve been buying these for around 150 dollars. We’ll encrypt the drives here at ETCS and keep a copy of the encryption keys so no one can access the files except by bringing the drive back to your office or to ETCS where we can decrypt the backup for you. The encrypting keeps others from seeing the files if the drive becomes lost or stolen. We’ll also work with you to schedule the backup so it’s convenient for someone in the office to bring the drive into the office and take it back to its off-site location.

Your off-site backup should be stored in a secure location. Look for a location that everyone in the office has access to and prevents unauthorized personnel from accessing the drive. The location should also be accessible by ETCS personnel and Extension administrators should the need arise. In case of a natural disaster such as flood or tornado, having the off-site drive in another county might be a good idea. You could ask the Extension Office in another county if they would store the off-site backup.

We want everyone to feel their data is safe and secure in case of a fire or natural disaster, but we also need to balance this against keeping your data safe and secure from people who do not need access. These recommendations will help to protect your off-site backups and make it available when needed.


Last Revised: 03/25/10



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