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I can’t remember when I first heard someone say “A file doesn’t exist until it’s in three places”, but it did a good job of summing up my own philosophy. In the days of floppy disks and tape backups I always had three copies, although I thought of it as redundant backups. I would frequently lose a tape of disk so I made sure I always had two sets. But even then, these weren’t really in different places since they were in my home. Eventually one of those sets moved offsite to provide more protection against catastrophic failure.

Technology, along with everything else, has evolved since then. But even today’s technology can fail, and let’s not forget human error. Three local copies aren’t enough, I really do want my files in at least two geographic places these days. So what are the places?

  1. The active file. The one you use during the day
  2. A local backup of the file on another hard drive or storage device (such as an external drive or a NAS)
  3. An offsite copy of the file that’s geographically separate from the other two copies.

For desktops and laptops it’s pretty easy to setup the three copies. The first one is on the main drive (or data drive) of the computer and it’s the one you use all the time.

The second copy can be an external drive, or even a second internal drive if your computer has one. (Although an internal drive can complicate things if it’s the computer itself that fails so isn’t recommended.) It could also be a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device on your network. This should be the destination for some automated backup program, such a Time Machine on a Mac or a schedule ChronoSync copy. This is the backup you’ll use when you need to restore the data quickly.

The third copy is the offsite location. For important files this should be done as soon as possible. After all, the file won’t exist until this third copy is made. This is the copy you’ll use when disaster strikes and both the original copy and onsite backup are destroyed. There are multiple ways of accomplishing this and the solution can depend on your needs, and especially on your network bandwidth. I’ll be covering options in future articles.

For many people, their most precious data may be the digital photos they take using their phone. These same people usually only have one copy of their photo – the one on their phone. They may have sent the photo to someone, but that’s not a backup.

While they may not be the best choice to manage photos, services such as Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox and Google Drive can automatically upload all your photos to their storage and provide a backup. You can also setup these services to automatically download the photos to your computer so that they can be part of your regular backup strategy.

So, do your files exist?

I’m paranoid about backups and review my overall backup strategy at least once a year. It’s that time of year again. While it’s geared to those like me, home and small business users with a few computers and mobile devices, the overall philosophy is suitable for any one or any size business. It’s just the solutions that will vary.

My Backup Philosophy

  1. A file doesn’t exist unless it’s in three places.
  2. At least one of those places must be geographically distant from the others.
  3. RAID, or a RAID like device, such as a Drobo only counts as one copy. Even if that one copy is redundant any corruption or deletion removes the file. It’s also possible for the device (not the disk) to fail.
  4. The backup has to be automatic and unobtrusive. If I have to remember to run it, it won’t be run.

While data storage is getting cheaper all the time, it can still be expensive or infeasible to store terabytes of data. So I classify my types of data.
Critical: Financial information that would be required to recover from a disaster. This would also include data for current business projects. The idea here is that in the event of a disaster (as opposed to a simple PC failure) I have the information needed to recover as fast as possible. This is the data I need without delay.
Important: Data I don’t want to lose but I can wait a day or two to get it back. This is data such as archived financial records, business records, family photos and family movies among other things.
Pack Rat: This is data I save because I’m a pack rat. I probably won’t miss it if it’s gone. While I do want backups, if the data is large I may decide the data is not worth the hassle or expense of offsite storage. This includes movies I’ve ripped from my DVD collection and some really old personal and work files.

I also want to be sure my computer can be up and running as soon as possible after a hardware failure. Along these lines, getting the data to new hardware quickly is a priority. Some things to consider for this are:
Bootable Backups: A local backup to an external drive that can be immediately plugged into my Mac. I should be able to boot from that external drive and run everything until I have time to replace the bad disk in my computer.
Alternate Hardware: If your computer is critical to you business you’ll want to have a spare quickly available. It doesn’t have to be a complete replacement, but it should be able to keep you going. I have a desktop and laptop so I make sure I can access all data from both computers. My iPad can also fill in for many of my computing needs in a pinch since much of what I do is web based or plain writing.
Portable Data Formats: I try to keep my data as portable as possible. I’ve been using Markdown so that my writing can be in plain text, while still being formatted, allowing me to use any computer (OS X, Windows, iOS, Android) if needed. I may not have my apps of choice, but I could still work. Web based email using IMAP also helps. I can access email anywhere and it updates everywhere else. For critical data, I want to avoid being locked into a program if at all possible.

Some of this may not be financially feasible, depending on what you need. If you do intense CAD work or movie editing having a spare machine may not be the best use of your money. It may be better to bank the money and have a plan to replace any bad hardware as soon as possible and bite the bullet to deal with any productivity interruption.

My Strategy

  1. I centralize my file storage, using a Synology NAS (Network Attached Storage) to store my Critical and Important files. This makes it easy to find these files and keep them backed up. This doesn’t require a lot of storage and is currently just 14 GB of Critical data. Critical data is actually less than the 14 GB since I could wait for a restore for most of it. But the total is relatively small and separating it out would complicate my workflows. I also consider photos and music as Important data which adds another 130 GB or so. As video becomes a bigger source of critical (business) data I do expect my Critical data needs to grow.
  2. I use ChronoSync (website) to synchronize my most Critical data from my Synology to my Mac desktop and Mac laptop (when it’s online and on the local network) every night. Changes are infrequent so this sync only takes a few minutes and it makes sure I have a second (and third) copy of my files ready to use if my Synology NAS goes down or I lose my local area network. This sync also archives any files replaced due to a change or deletion. I have this set to save deleted/changed files for 180 days although I may have to lower this if disk space becomes an issue.
  3. I use Arq Backup (website) to backup the critical files every hour to Amazon S3. Again, since changes are small the time needed is minimal so I don’t even notice the backup. Arq keeps copies of all updated and deleted files so I can get a file from the past. Files aren’t deleted until Arq runs out of the space I’ve told it to use. I let Arq use enough space to keep about a year of my critical files.
  4. I use Synology Cloud Station, a Dropbox like service but one that’s totally under my control since it runs on my Synology NAS. I use this to save work in progress and other files I want handy. It syncs automatically to all both my computers and my NAS. The Cloud Station files are both Critical and Important so I treat them all like Critical files to make management easier and changes are backed up to Amazon S3 every hour. Cloud Station will also save older version of files, along with deleted file.
  5. All my Pack Rat files, except my videos, get backed up to Amazon S3 once a day using Arq Backup. I do have a small number of work and personal videos I’d like to save so they are included in the Pack Rat files.
  6. My videos are rips of the DVDs I own to make them easier to view. With the growth of streaming this collection really isn’t growing anymore and I’m not willing to jump through hoops and spend any money to protect it. But I did copy the videos to some old hard drives and I store one in my house and a second at another location.  If my home is destroyed I’ll have bigger concerns but could eventually get the videos back.
  7. My MacMini does a Time Machine backup to my Synology NAS. It also does a nightly Carbon Copy Cloner disk image backup to a external drive that’s bootable. Every two weeks I do another Carbon Copy Cloner image that’s stored in my truck. (Yes, that’s my local offsite backup.) I’d rather have it close, just not near the computer and if I’m away when disaster strikes my car is probably with me. I used to keep it in an office or a friends home but then access is a potential problem. Plus keeping it updated was a hassle so it became outdated. Even though the backup is up to a week old, it’s bootable and then the newer data is available from my cloud storage. The drive is encrypted so if it was stolen it couldn’t be used. Plus, nearly all my data is on my Synology NAS so this drive is only needed to quickly get the Mac going again.
  8. My laptop gets a Time Machine backup to my Synology NAS when it’s on at home.Every two weeks it gets a Carbon Copy Cloner disk image backup that’s also kept in my trunk. While I do have to remember this, breaking rule #4 of my backup philosophy, I automated as much as possible so all I have to do is wake the laptop and plug in the external drive.
  9. I schedule quarterly tests restores of each backup and also make sure the bootable backups do in fact boot. To be honest, a quarterly schedule is one thing, actually doing them is another and I do it about twice a year.

Items 1, 2 and 4 in my backup strategy are designed to make sure I can pick right up on my second computer should one of them not be available.

Naturally, if I’m traveling with my laptop and it fails I have a problem. Even if I had one, carrying a second laptop wouldn’t make any sense. But I’ll have to consider some strategies for dealing with some of the more common failures such as a hard drive.

Overall I’m confident that my strategy can protect me from losing my data. Replacing lost hardware in the event of a disaster is a different problem, although no less important. I still don’t have a quick solution to that but at least I’ll have the data.

My strategy works for me. While I think the philosophy is immutable, how it gets implemented can vary by user. Due to the file syncing my solution is a little complicated. But it works for me. You may find a different solution works for you.

Synology has released DiskStation Manager 6.1. Their official press release ishere. Their website has been updated to highlight the new features. The release notes are here.

Synology no longer supports Time Backup and HiDrive backup as of this version. So if you use these you’ll want to hold off until you have replacements.

Intrusion Protection is no longer supported and has been removed from Package Center. I assume this package will continue to live in the Synology routers, where it seems more appropriate.

For various reasons I didn’t have the hardware available to test this in beta, so I’m a little behind in reviewing this release. In fact, I was getting ready to install the beta yesterday when I noticed that the final release was out. At this time I haven’t seen it as an automatic update in Control Panel on any Synology NAS. I did download the release from the Synology download center and update a Synology DS716+.

The update was problem free and took about 15 minutes, including a reboot. The only niggles were the messages the that Snapshot Replication needed to be updated as did Log Center. Snapshot Replication was updated by DSM without any intervention on my part so that message was confusing, rather than informative. I did need to manually update Log Center as the installed version would not start.

One of the new features is:

Automatically updates incompatible packages after the installation of DSM 6.1 to boost your upgrading experience.

So this worked for one and failed for another.

As warned in the release notes, I did see higher than normal CPU usage for a short time after the upgrade. My media files were also re-indexed which increased CPU usage. While this took no where near as long as the full initial index, my NAS cpu was busy for about 45 minutes after the upgrade. Whether this was the warning about the infrastructure update or the file indexing is hard to say, except that the indexing process was the big CPU used during that time.

This test NAS has a basic setup, running only what I’d consider the common Synology packages. Meaning that everything it’s running probably got a good workout in the beta phase. Despite being a “.1” update, this is a significant update for DSM, incorporating a year’s worth of development. So I’ll be holding off a week or two before upgrading my own production Synology units and even longer before upgrading any clients. I haven’t run the installed packages long enough to say they are 100% problem free after the upgrade.

If you follow the tech press you may have noticed stories about problems with an Intel CPU (Atom C2000) used in some Synology products (and many non-Synology products).

While Synology never mentions Intel or the CPU (I suspect there’s a non-disclosure requirement at play here) they have extended the warranty of the six model that use the CPU by one year.

I recently had to send in my DS1815+ for warranty service after experiencing this failure, or at least something that resulted in the same bricked NAS. In my case I seemed to be experiencing a different issue which caused the NAS to spontaneously reboot several times in a row. While trying to troubleshoot that intermittent issue I must have experienced several dozen spontaneous reboots (usually in groups of 4 to 6 and in the dead of night) until the NAS just went completely dark. My theory is the stress of the reboots brought this problem to the surface.

Synology reworked the models starting in February. My replacement was received in February so I’m not sure if it’s a reworked model or not, although it did appear to be new, not refurbished. I suspect it was a non-reworked model pulled off the shelf so it’s nice to have another year warranty. This will bring it to 4 years where I will be considering replacing it as my primary NAS, although I do want to keep it around longer. My DS 1511+ has been around over 5 years and provides solid backup storage.

I also have a DS415+ that is nearing the end of it’s original warranty so it’s nice to get another year warranty on that one since it’s potentially affected.

If you have one of the affected models I wouldn’t worry to much about it. Especially since there’s not much you can do. Synology is not doing a proactive recall as they state that failure rates are normal. Since the problem prevents the NAS from booting there’s no chance of data corruption or loss since nothing is actually running. The big risk is down time that the NAS is not available while being replaced. I did not do anything to expedite the return and it took about three weeks to get the replacement. Shipping was one week each way (They are in Washington state, I’m in Connecticut.) They shipped the replacement two days after receipt. I used online tech support which added about two business days over a phone call. There are options to expedite the replacement, although expedited shipping can be expensive. If you want to cross-ship the new and old units they will charge you for the new unit then refund the amount when they get the unit you sent.

The 1-year warranty extension only covers the DS415+, DS1515+ DS1815+, DS2415+, RS815(RP)+, and RS2416(RP)+ models.