Home Network Backups

July 6, 2012

The past two months I have been working on cleaning up the home network and streamlining my backup processes. Anyone who has accumulated PCs and hard drives over time knows that data creep can overburden your network. I used to split drives into a number of partitions to keep data segregated. Over time some partitions became maxed while others were barely used. Some didn’t even make sense anymore (FAT32 partition anyone?). I don’t follow that strategy anymore (root folders segregate enough for me now) except that my operating system is always(!) on its own partition.

This was a spring cleaning exercise brought on by the slow death of my backup server. The machine was basically eight years old, with four 320GB drives and one 1TB Samsung. It was normally on 24/7 but was powered down prior to our Disney vacation. It didn’t want to come back up. After some work, I resuscitated it so I could be certain of what was on each drive. I ordered replacement parts; a new MB, an AMD X3 455 CPU, and 8GB RAM. The case was fine and the power supply was less than eighteen months old.

Investigating the drives
Hard drives are no longer as cheap as they had been mid-2011 and prior. In addition, since Seagate took over Samsung’s drive manufacturing, there hasn’t been enough data to determine whether that is a good, or bad, thing. As a result of these two factors, I chose to use the drives already I already had on-hand.

Choosing to not expand storage meant I really needed to get a handle on what was stored, and where. During the investigation of the backup machine’s drives, I discovered multiple copies of the same data, on different drives. On paper each drive was listed, along with what was on it (including the spaces being used for each). This gave me a clearer picture of whether there were data on the backup machine that was not really backed up data but rather original information. Fortunately there were only a few instances, primarily family video work from back when the machine was being used as my primary desktop. Everything else was a copy of live data found elsewhere on the network.

Because I did not have a drive large enough to move everything to wholesale, I spent the better part of three weeks shifting data around. In the end, I removed three net drives from the backup server, and am directly protecting more data than before. My entire openfiler SAN, which has continued to grow in importance, is now being backed up via CIFS, rather than backing the vm up. A single script backs it up nightly and, should the need arise, a single script can rebuild the entire SAN from scratch.

What the reorganization did was help identify and eliminate needless redundancy in the backups, and to ensure nothing was being missed that needed backed up. It was silly how much clutter had accumulated across the entire network and this process ended up freeing a large chunk of network space. Once the network was cleaned up to my satisfaction, I turned my attention to what, and how, to better protect everything.

Identify important data and classify
The first thing I did was identify data that was irreplaceable. Family family photos and videos, and scanned items fell into this category. These would be the most highly protected.

The second category were items that could be recreated, but would be extremely time consuming. The FLAC files from my CD archiving project was such an example. I do not ever want to go back through this process, so this data needed protection and a copy stored offsite. The same with the DVDs I have been slowly archiving to the network (and the originals boxed away in the basement) for playing on the XBMC box.

Other data was labeled as being nice to have, and I would prefer not to lose, but not the end of the world if it were lost. Utility installation executables, old DOS games, and notes on various projects over the years are some of my examples.

Backups of the VMware virtual machines were less important. An online backup would be fine in case of vm corruption. Eventually though, once harddrive prices have come down and quality gone back up, the most recent backup of each virtual machine from the NFS datastore would be desirable.

Ghost images of our primary PC are not terribly valuable in the case of fire. I’d have to replace all the physical hardware so the image wouldn’t be useful anyhow. They are saved to the network but are not copied offsite.

Downloads and temporary files obviously fell into the final category that could just be ignored. If they were lost, oh well.

What to protect against
I wanted to protect against accidental deletion, corruption of the primary data, fire/tornado, and theft. Each required a different strategy.

Accidental deletion/corruption is easily implemented. I’ve been using this strategy for years. I have a series of scheduled tasks that backup data nightly. Most run on my primary machine but a couple do run on the backup server itself. Plain old reliable XCOPY and Robocopy handle these tasks. This data is saved to the backup server. I do not sync my backups; it is add or update only. If I delete a file, it will remain on the backup unless I specifically go and delete it.

Theft of hardware is another disaster that needs defended against. TrueCrypt handles all my data encryption needs. It is fantastically secure and uses very few system resources. If a thief decides to steal the PCs, they’ll have a (mostly) bootable machine but nothing else. All data requires the password (quite lengthy bunches of gibberish) to be mounted. All backup drives are likewise protected. This might be considered a bit paranoid but if drives end up in other hands, I like to know they can’t access the bajillion family pictures on them. I also like having everything encrypted for the possibility of a drive failure and needing to send it in under warranty. Fortunately this has never been required but one has to assume it is inevitable.

To protect against fire, I have a two layered approach. The first layer involves periodic backups to external drives that are stored in a fire and waterproof media safe on premises. The safe promises to keep the contents under 155 degrees in a fire, which would be fine for the drives. This step has to be done manually and currently this is about every two weeks, but really needs to be more frequent. I also have copies of the data offsite. I periodically refresh drives that are housed offsite, in addition to burning DVDs of recent data in the interim and sending them offsite, too.

I have considered backing data up to the “cloud” but have ruled it out, at least for most of my data for now. The price is just too prohibitive and the fact that Comcast effectively caps monthly bandwidth to 250GB of data (unless I moved to a business account) means that it would take many months to get my data pushed up. It is far cheaper (and faster) to use DVDs and harddrives stored offsite, and have a fireproof media safe at the house for the more current backups.

These strategies continue to evolve but I thought it might be helpful to others to provide an overview of how I protect my data.

2 Responses to “Home Network Backups”

  1. so … what has changed in 20 months? Have you adopted any cloud storage? Drive prices have kept climbing, and they don’t seem to be any more reliable…..
    I’m struggling just to organize, let alone backup all my Music & Video files … it grows constantly, so I’m interested in your thoughts and experiences.

    Thanks for these posts.

    (I just tried out crunchbang today, which is what brought me here).

  2. Mark,
    My strategies are very much the same now than at the time of this post, just the underlying tech has changed a bit. The media pool continues to grow (new movies keep being purchased and put onto the network) and I had to ensure the backup stream could handle it. Consequently, I purchased two Seagate 4TB Backup Plus external drives, at different times from different vendors. My media pool plus all my important data can fit on these drives (for now). I rotate them offsite to my parent’s house every few months. They backup their photo albums to them as well, which has saved them once so far by deleting from the wrong folder. I update my backup to the external about once a month, and then put it back in the media safe.

    I upgraded storage in my backup server as the media pool was spilling over onto multiple drives. I purchased a well-rated internal drive, the HGST Coolspin 4TB drive. The media pool has plenty of room to grow on that drive (which is updated in the middle of each night). This makes the backup easier to manage.

    I also added more storage to my ESXi server, the Seagate 3TB NAS internal drive. I’m not necessarily recommending this drive as the first one I got was a dud, and it took a while to prove it to Seagate. But, in the end, I have one that is working just fine. By moving to a drive larger than 2TB required me to upgrade ESXi from 4.1 to 5.1 but that was a trivial process.

    I have also switched to a different NAS software on the ESXi server, from openfiler to Open Media Vault. As my media pool grew, I had to be aware of how long it would take to restore all the data in the pool in case of a failure. Openfiler was just too slow in this regard. After much research and personal testing, OMV showed to be an excellent upgrade. It was 2.5-3.5x faster on writes, and 2x faster on reads. On a 2.3TB, growing, pool, that means many hours of savings. It also allowed me to have some folder security, and has an integrated recycle bin. When I get time I hope to get OMV written about on a post.

    Cloud storage just doesn’t work for my situation. It would take forever to upload, and would be a fortune to download. Harddrives are just a much cheaper solution for me. If my primary pool dies, I have the online backup. If both fail at the same time (a lightning strike gets past the UPS), I have the external backup (and possibly not having the last month’s of DVD rips, which I would just do again). Big fire hot enough to destroy my local backup? External from offsite. I recognize harddrives now have less reliability than in previous years but my strategy really helps mitigate the danger.

    I really like the HGST drive and the fact it was in a retail box. That pretty much removes shipper abuse from the roulette we all play when ordering internal drives online.

    Hope this helps some.

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