Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

For Genealogists -- an illusion of security

During the past few days at the Mesa Regional Family History Center, we have had some lively discussions about transferring our genealogy files to work on a computer other than our own, particularly, bringing files to the Center for research purposes. This discussion brought up another old bugaboo, the illusion of security for backed up files.

The origin of this problem dates back into computer antiquity with the early versions of Personal Ancestral File. Primarily because of storage limitations on floppy disks, Personal Ancestral File has an option to create a compressed data file. The smaller compressed files allowed the user to store more names on the now ancient floppy disks. Because all storage at the time was on external floppy disks, the file menu item unfortunately was named "Backup." Over time, this choice of terms has turned out to be a really, really bad idea. As computers acquired internal hard drives and as memory storage went through a radical revolution, the venerable old PAF program still had its menu choice labeled "Backup."

The problem is that PAF does not make a copy on a different disk, because the program and the original uncompressed file are now on a hard drive, the Backup command merely makes another copy of the file on the same disk. So, if the hard drive crashes you lose two copies of the data file instead of just one.

In today's world of flash drives with multiple Gigabyte capacity for a few dollars (or even free), file compression is no longer an issue or needed, especially for the tiny text based files created by Personal Ancestral File. Unfortunately, the concept of "Backup" in Personal Ancestral File has assumed religious proportions. I have been accused of heresy for suggesting that the "Save as" command is more useful and less hassle. But what is more worrisome, PAF users believe that by compressing their files using the Backup command they are, in fact, backing up their files even though they do not have a separate copy of the data file on another disk or drive.

Here is what happens. The unsophisticated user is taught that when they exit the program, they should use the "Backup" command. Every time. Then their file is "protected." But since they have just made a copy of the main file onto the same disk, there is no real backup. But they are secure thinking that the file is somehow protected from loss. Even very experienced users take this process as a matter of faith and never question what they are doing. The idea of having multiple copies of the file on different media is entirely lacking. They are entirely ignorant of the fact that the Backup command is simply making a compressed copy of their data file, ON THE SAME HARD DISK. In fact, when I suggest that they may wish to make a real backup copy on an external hard drive, very few people have even heard of the concept of an external hard drive and some of them have computers so old that they don't have any way to connect the drive if they purchased one.

When the PAF user wants to work on their file at the Family History Center, they even make a Backup copy onto their flash drive and when the arrive at the Family History Center with a file, invariably it is in .zip format, that is, a compressed file, which then needs to be restored. They "restore" the file at the Center on one of the computers and now PAF makes a copy of their file on the computer's hard drive. After working on the file, they once again make a backup onto their flash drive and return home to restore the file to their own hard drive. One major problem, if the copy of their file on the flash drive is somehow corrupted, they just copies all of the problems to their main file at home. By the way, in all of this process they never rename any of the files, so all of the copies have the same file name and the backup copy rewrites over their master file.

At the time, PAF was released, it was the state of the art. External hard drives were very expensive and everyone used floppy disks. Now, external storage devices are relatively inexpensive. All new computers can have huge internal hard drives. You can go to any of the mass merchandisers from Costco to Walmart and buy a huge external hard drive for a few dollars. There is really no excuse for not have multiple copies of your data files to avoid catastrophic loss. There is certainly no reason to make a compressed copy of your files.

Next, some simple steps to avoiding backup failure.

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