Disaster Planning for the Home Office

by Jonathan Gennick

I need to develop a good disaster recovery plan for my home office. Recently
consolidated two of my office computers so that I now do all my work on just
one PC. I'm also beginning to purchase various office upgrades, such as a Firewire
card, copier, and fax machine.
All this work on infrastructure has gotten me to thinking about how best to
protect myself against loss of data.

One technique I've used in the past is to periodically copy important files
a ZIP disk. However, that technique has long since become impractical due to
the collective size of my important files. Most recently, I've backed up
critical files by copying them back and forth between my two office computers.
But that's become rather inconvenient since I've consolidated
my work onto one PC. Now I often find myself going for days, even weeks, using
the "Hail Mary, please don't let anything break!" approach to disaster

Clearly I need a better solution to protecting my data. And I want to take
more wholistic approach than just backing up my files. I work from a home
office, and the important thing, really, is not to protect just my files but
rather to protect my ability to do income-producing work. With that in mind,
I'm going to begin by thinking about all the things that might go wrong:

  • A major disaster such as a house-fire could cause me to loose everything,
    computers, disks, peripherals, paper files, books, even my office itself.

  • My hard-drive could fail, causing me to lose all my data files.

  • Some other component in my computer could fail, leaving my data intact on
    the hard-drive, but with no working computer to access that data.

  • One of my peripherals, a printer for example, or a monitor, could fail.

  • I might accidentally delete a critical file.

  • I could get hit by the proverbial truck.

Have I missed anything? I hope not. In a future weblog entry, I'll be thinking
out loud about how best to protect myself from each of these possible scenarios.
Actually, I shouldn't say how "best" to protect myself. The issue
is really how do "want" to protect myself. How much disruption do
I want to tolerate and does that change given the circumstances?

Next, it's worth taking inventory of the different types of electronic files
that I need to protect:

  • Digital photos, family pictures and such that I've taken with my digital

  • Master copies of my website files

  • Files for the various books and magazine articles that I've written in the

  • Files for whatever book(s) and magazine articles I'm currently writing

  • Files for books that I'm editing as part of my day-job

  • Email files: archived emails and my address book

  • Various personal files such as my resume, address labels, my Microsoft Money
    file, and so forth.

Obviously some files are more important than others, especially with respect
to earning a living. I'll be thinking outloud about this issue too. The criticality
of certain files, or the lack thereof, certainly must be factored into whatever
disaster plan I ultimately develop.

It's not just my data that needs protecting either. My daughter has an old
notebook computer on which she writes her journal and various short-stories.
There's a computer in the dining room that my wife uses for various things.
And I have a Linux box in my office runing a small database that I'd like to
protect. I need a plan or solution that takes all of these disparate computers
into account.

Lastly, I really want an automated, set-and-forget, solution. My daughter hasn't
backed up her files in months. My wife never does. Even I don't make backups
often enough. And I certainly don't want the overhead of having to run around
physically to four different computers in order to copy files to backup media.
The less I need to run around and do things, the more successful my plan will

That's it for today. In a day or two, I'll begin drilling down more deeply
into some of the issues I've identified here.

What do you think? Have I missed anything? Am I on the right track? If you have a home office, what does your recovery plan look like?


2002-06-13 05:52:00
Deja Vu
Funny .. this is the second time I've commented on this subject today - must be the time of year.

I was in this same situation: 2 kids doing homework, wife doing a fast-track anaesthetics practitioner course: extremely unpleasant when data got lost!!

First thing was to connect all the boxes together in a peer-to-peer network. 3 Win95 boxes. Then join all those to my Linux box. I was able to "convince" my family to use a SAMBA shared drive for storing data, then I can back up centrally. It works very well, and I've avoided tears before bedtime on more than one occasion.

With regard to your daughter's old laptop, you /may/ be able to find one of the old parallel port network "card/plugs" if it doesn't do PCMCIA.

I had one lying around, and ironically it worked if my laptop ran DOS but with Windows, nothing newer than Win 3.1x. It's a lot of fun setting one up and is very cheap these days.

If the laptop's middle aged, and you try to get a PCMCIA network card, be careful that the PC supports a 32-bit NIC. My Dell Latitude doesn't and I can't find a reasonably-priced 16-bit card :-(

As for backups, I have allowed for the day when my backup runs at 1am and a missile hits the house at 2am - the last step in the backup routine zips up all the data I just backed up to my ZIP drive, calls up my free ISP account that gives me 25 Mb of free space and FTPs the 14Mb of data offsite. To be honest, I would have trouble filling 25Mb on a free account so it comes in very handy ! Call me cheap, but it works for me !

I wish you the best of luck on this one - it's easy to get yourself secure, and quite cheap too.

Jonathan Gennick
2002-06-13 07:31:37
Deja Vu

I currently do have all my PCs networked (see Installing a Home Network: Part 1, and a central Linux server may well be part of my solution. I have a Linux box, but my few attempts to make Samba work were failures.

That's really interesting how you copy all your data up to your ISP each night. Not sure it would be as feasible for me to do as the data I want to back up consumes several hundred megabytes.

Some sort of RAID (either IDE or software based) will probably be part of my solution. Writing is the most mentally stressful activity I've ever done. The thought of losing even one days worth of intensive writing work is almost enough to make me cry. Thus I may use RAID to protect myself from losing even a few hours of work in the event a drive goes bad.

2002-06-13 07:41:35
Deja Vu
I've never tried RAID, although when I played around with SUSE linux some time ago it offered to install it for me. However, I wonder how useful a journalling filesystem would be ? ReiserFS is a name that seems to be in the news a lot - I'm quite wary of converting all my HDs over to a FS i've never tried, but i reckon using it with one disk might be safe. Still no good against head crashes though :-)
2002-06-14 14:12:36
Protecting the backup
If you have a garage that is separate from your house (and doesn't get too cold in the winter), it may be worthwhile to have the backed-up data replicated over a network to a system in the garage. Using Linux, this system doesn't need to be much. That would give added protection to the fire/missile-hitting-house scenario. It may be tricky getting the network cable out there, though. Depending upon the distance, pulling the network cable through the same conduit as the power could be less than ideal. If you use the garage as a shop, then you'll also have to consider the implications of all that dust.

Just another idea from another person that hasn't had time to address the issue adequately. :-)