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Computer Stupidities


Although some people need to learn about backups the hard way, even the most illiterate of computer illiterates have had it ingrained in to their heads that they should backup their data on a regular basis. The problems arise when people fail to learn how to create a backup correctly.

No problem. When I arrive, I find out that the last time she had run a backup was 18 months ago. Worse, she hadn't done it correctly:

A user called who had lost a document. Thinking at first that we could restore it from a backup tape, my colleague started asking some standard questions.

This is what scares me: the user had likely wasted more time on the phone call than she would have needed to type up the fax anew -- as it turned out, it wasn't more than two or three pages.

A customer called our technical support and explained that his system had crashed and for some reason the restored backup did not work as expected. After we had spent a few days of investigating his collection of backup tapes we were convinced that he had a good one year record of backups from the wrong directory.

In the late 1980s in Finland, my mother was a system administrator for a company. In those times hard drives were small, and backups were made with PC Tools (version 4 or 5 at the time) which could be done using less than ten 3 1/2" disks for all the most important directories.

One day my mother asked the president of the company if he had done his monthly backup of his computer data. He said he had, and he'd even been able to improve the backup process. He had discovered he didn't have to change disks if he just answered 'yes' to all the "Is it ok to overwrite this floppy disk?" prompts. He was overwriting backup disk #1 with the data for backup disk #2, then overwriting that with the data for backup disk #3, and so on. My mother was still laughing when she called to tell me the story.

It turned out that the guy had been deleting files, which would free up disk space (he liked that), and when he wanted a file again, he would undelete it. Apparently he actually got away with this for a while, until he discovered 'defrag', which overwrote his deleted files.

We have a customer with tons of data produced every day. They insisted on backing up the stuff themselves, though they had a maintenance contract with our company. Anyway, one of their administrators put a DAT tape into the drive every night and removed it the next morning, labelled it, and stored it in a closet. One day the disk crashed. They called us because they couldn't restore the data from tape for some reason. It turned out that although they did put a tape in every night, remove it every morning, label it, and store it, what they forgot to do was run the backup script. They had a year's supply of backup tapes, neatly dated, and all of them empty.

A friend at work had to visit a police station to work on a Clipper database recording parking fines. Before he started work he made sure to check that the staff had a backup of the database in case anything went wrong.

"Oh yes, every evening we back it up onto a floppy disk and take it over to the other building and lock it in a fire-proof safe."

"Very good," said my colleague, impressed at their security-consciousness -- if only all our customers could be so efficient! But then something they'd said made him pause. "Wait a minute - did you say a floppy disk? You mean you back up the whole database onto a single diskette?"

"Yes, that's right. Just one."

"But this diskette can only hold 1.44 Mb of data -- you've got over ten megabytes in this system. What exactly do you do to make the backup?"

So they showed him. Every day they'd religiously inserted a fresh diskette into the drive, typed "FORMAT A:", and, "backup complete," they deposited the newly formatted, but quite empty, diskette in the safe.

Before starting his work, my friend showed them how to really make a backup, which was fortunate for my friend, if not for the local parking offenders, as a week later the PC in question suffered a complete hard-drive failure.