Terry's TMG Tips

Protecting Your Data

This page created 30 Jan 2011

Version note: Applies to all versions

You have invested a lot of time and effort, and perhaps money, in the data you have entered in TMG. Data entered in a computer is subject to a number of risks, and it is quite possible for all your carefully entered data to be destroyed. In this article I discuss the various risks, and suggest some measures you can take to counter them.

Topics Included in this Article
The Risks
Understanding the risks to your data
TMG Backups
Using TMG's Backup feature
External Backups
Making sure your backups are not connected to your computer
Off-Site Backups
Getting backups out of your house
Automatic Backups
Ways to automate the backup process
Testing Your Backup
An un-tested backup is not a backup
Electrical Protection
Surge protectors and Uninterruptible Power Supplies
Malware Protection
Anti-virus program and firewalls
Terry's Solution
The system I use, for example

I recently received this email from a user:

It's a sad story where a virus wiped out a huge project and the backup. I was able to use FileZilla to retrieve information from my website. Is there any way to restore a project into TMG 8 where all you have left is the downloaded files?

Any help you can offer would be so appreciated.

He was lucky, I suppose, in that he had at least the web pages created by Second Site which contained at least some of his data. But I had to tell him that the only way I know to get that data back into TMG is by using Windows copy and paste, one data item at a time, into each Name, Date, Place field, Memo, and Citation in every Tag for every person, and into each Source Element in every Source. That's a horrendous task to be faced with. It could only have been worse had there been not Second Site pages to copy from.

This is not a sad story, but a tragic story! And it didn't have to happen. But too often we put off creating backups, or create inadequate backups, like my correspondent, which fail when needed. Now is the time to make sure you have truly adequate backups. This article offers some suggestions about how to go about that.

Because I believe there is more to sound risk management that just protecting the data entered in TMG, much of this article deals with data beyond that stored in that program. In this Internet age, much of our source data is in the form of emails, images downloaded from various sources, and scanned documents and photographs. While some of that can be replaced, doing so would take a considerable time and effort, and some may not be replaceable at all. So this article discusses protection of that data as well. The same methods can, and should, be applied to non-genealogical data too.

The Risks

There are a multitude of risks that can potentially cause the loss of some or all of your hard-won data. In the following table I list the major risks, arranged in what I judge to be their approximate order of likelihood of occurrence, and suggested measures to counter those risks. But note that the most likely risks may not necessarily have the most devastating consequences.

Risk Counter-Measure
User Error – accidentally deleting or changing valuable data Frequent TMG backups to a local drive
Hard Drive Failure – physical failure of your hard drive or associated components Regular backups to external media
Power Surge – nearby lightning strike or power line accident Surge protector or UPS
Malware Attack – attack by a virus or other malware Firewall and current Anti-Virus program
Power Failure – power failure at the time data is being written to disk Frequent TMG backups to a local drive or UPS
Theft – theft or destruction of you computer and peripheral devices Regular backups taken off-site
Fire, Damage to Your Home – any catastrophe that destroys your home Regular backups taken off-site
Flood, Hurricane, Earthquake, etc. – any catastrophe that destroys multiple properties in your community Regular backups to a safe site
Loss of Your Backups – loss of your backups at the same time as loss of your primary data Regular backups to multiple locations

The sections below discuss each of these counter-measures in more detail.

TMG Backups

TMG includes a backup feature, accessed from the File menu. It is important to understand what a TMG backup is, and what it is not. Because by default one is prompted to make a Backup when exiting TMG, some users mistakenly see it as the equivalent of saving a file in a word processor, which provides a like prompt. It is not. Most programs you use, like a word processors, keep a temporary copy of their files in the computer's memory, recording all your changes in that copy only. Your work is not permanently recorded until you "Save" the file, which copies the temporary copy to your hard drive, replacing what was there previously.

TMG and other database programs (most genealogy programs, as well as financial programs like Quicken) save your changes to files when you click the OK button on each data entry screen. You cannot discard your latest changes by choosing not to "Save" the file as you exit. They are already part of your permanent files.

Rather than "Saving" your changes, TMG's Backup makes a copy of the current state of your Project files. Further, it compresses them to take up less space on your storage media, and combines the approximately 80 files that make up your Project into a single backup file for easy transfer.

I recommend that users make a new TMG Backup after entering enough new data that re-entering it would be a chore. I recommend adding the Backup button to the Custom Toolbar to facilitate doing this. I recommend making these backups to the local hard drive so they are quick and easy to make. The purpose of these backups is to provide a means to recover from user-error and corruption of your Project files by events like a power failure while data was actually being written to your hard drive.

Following this method will result in a significant number of backups on your hard drive after a while. I suggest looking at them every few months, and deleting most of the older ones. When I do that I keep all of them for about a month back, one per month for a year or two, and one per year prior to that.

I do not recommend making TMG Backups to any external media, provided that a backup system like that described below is followed.

I do not recommend including external Exhibits in the TMG Backup. That inflates the size of the backup needlessly, as generally the exhibits are changed infrequently. Instead, I recommend backing them up separately using the methods described below.

Making External Backups

The single most important element of any worthwhile backup plan is to make regular backups to media which is not normally connected to your computer. It is important that the backup media not be connected to your computer except when backups are actually being made, to prevent a single event like electrical surge or malware attack from destroying both your primary hard drive and your backup system.

It is essential that these backups be made regularly – often enough that that you would not be overwhelmed by the amount of data that would have to be re-entered should it become necessary to resort to the backup. Weekly may work for some users. I think daily is better if you work actively with your data. Backups made only occasionally have a way of not happening for months, or even years.

These backups should include your TMG backups described above, and also all your other important genealogical data. For me that includes email files, all my stored images and documents, my Second Site files, and copies of my website pages. But it should also include all your other data you wouldn't want to lose – financial data, photographs, and more.

There are programs available that make "images" of your entire hard drive, which allow quick restoration in case of hard drive loss. Such capabilities are important to businesses, where rapid restoration is essential. While some dedicated individuals use them, I believe they are needlessly complex for the average user. Operating systems and programs can be re-installed if need be, though it takes some time. I do try to include the configuration files for those programs in my backups, so I can more easily restore my customizations if I need to re-install. But keeping your data safe is essential.

There are a number of methods available for making external backups. It is possible to use CDs or DVDs, but the growing size of hard drives makes this method increasingly difficult because of the large number of disks required. Flash drives, also called thumb drives, can also be used, and are highly portable. Many users prefer external hard drives, which can be detached and stored away from the computer, and are available in high capacities at reasonable prices.

An online backup service is an alternative. I cannot recommend them as one's only backup method, but I think they have a reasonable place as part of a backup plan, as described below. Another alternative is the use of a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device. These are actually small computers with hard drives but no monitor and no keyboard or mouse, which connect to your regular computer over your home network. They fail the test of being completely disconnected from your computer, though you can locate them remotely to provide some degree of protection from common risks. Both of these methods can be arranged to work totally automatically, which addresses the major obstacle of manual methods; making backups regularly. I believe that used together they provide reasonable protection, with each offsetting the disadvantages of the other.

Off-Site Backups

While simply disconnecting your backup media from your computer can protect it from risks like a power surge, hardware failure, or malware that destroys your primary hard disk, it does not protect from a thief who steals all your computer-equipment, or calamity like fire or flood that destroys your house. It is important that you regularly make backups that are stored away from your house.

This can be done by making backups on external hard drives or other removable media, and carrying them to another location. Just be sure that location is not subject to the same risks as your home. Keeping your remote backup at a relative's home or your workplace when they are in the same floodplain as your home, for example, does not provide a safe off-site backup. The other difficulty with this method is that most users, like me, are not disciplined enough to do it regularly. A backup that is a year or two old is all but useless.

I recommend online backup services as a good alternative, even though they are not risk-free. I suppose it is possible that some unauthorized person could gain access to your data on such services, but I believe that risk is small (perhaps less than of them accessing it on your own computer). It is also possible that the service could become unavailable for technical reasons or failure of the company providing the service. I believe that risk can be offset by having another backup system locally, since I think it unlikely that the online service would fail at the same time your local backups are lost. I am using Mozy.com, which offers a small amount of space free and much more for a reasonable fee. Others have used Carbonite.com and reported it to be satisfactory. You probably need a high-speed Internet connection to use an online service successfully.

Automatic Backups

As discussed above, it is essential to make backups regularly, and to have the backup media not be connected to your computer except while actually backing up. While some people are disciplined enough to manually attend to connecting backup media, making the backup, and disconnecting it on a regular basis, most users, I think, are not. The result is either that the backup device remains constantly connected to the computer or the backups are made infrequently.

There are a variety of programs that can be scheduled to automatically make regular backups, but they require that the media be connected at the time they are to operate. If the system being used requires that be done manually, for many of us that will result in failure.

The online backup services mentioned above solve these problems. They automatically connect using the Internet on a regular basis without user intervention. But they have their own issues, as mentioned above, and thus are not in my opinion satisfactory as a sole backup solution. However, I believe that combining one of them with an automatic local backup system does provide reasonable assurance against data loss. Creating an automatic local backup system does require constant connection to the backup device, but I believe if one provides as much physical separation as possible between the backup system and your computer, such as with a Network Attached Storage device as previously mentioned, the combination provides a reasonable solution.

Most automatic systems allow multiple versions of each file to be kept. Each time a file is changed the new version is backed up and a fixed number of prior versions are saved. I believe this is a valuable feature because it can allow you to recover information inadvertently deleted if you discover it in time. I recommend using this feature. I set my systems to keep about 8 prior versions. This result can be replicated with manual systems by rotating a number of backup devices.

One word of caution about automatic backup systems: many of them by default make "continuous" backups. That is, they make a new backup each time a file is saved. I highly recommend disabling that feature. The reason is that you may accidentally remove important data and fail to notice initially. If you save the file repeatedly as you work with it, the backup version containing the deleted information can be replaced in a few hours with later versions without it. It is better, I believe, to have automatic backups made daily.

Testing Your Backup

A backup untested is little better than no backup at all. Accounts abound of users losing their primary data, only to find that backups they thought they had are either unrecoverable because of some sort of corruption, or were never actually made at all. It is vital to test that your backups are actually made and useable. Methods of testing differ by system.

For TMG backups, you can make test restorations of your data. Just tell the Restore Wizard to place the restored Project in a different folder than your working Project, so you don't over-write you working data with possibly invalid data.

For backups made to external media or online services, examine the lists of files to be sure all the files you intended are being included in the backup. This is especially important when you use an automatic system to create your backups. Then exercise the restore function of your backup system by making some test backups to be certain the files are in fact correctly stored and recoverable.

Electrical Protection

In addition to having backups to recover from data loss, there are important steps you can take to prevent data loss in the first place. Most users are aware that they should use a surge protector to prevent an electrical surge from entering on the power lines and destroying their computer. Surges commonly arise from lightning strikes, but can also occur when high voltage transmission lines fall on lower voltage distribution lines because of falling trees, ice, or motor vehicle accident. Some may not be aware that surges from the same causes can also enter their houses on telephone and cable TV lines, and be carried to the computer. It is therefore important to have all lines connected to the computer protected by surge protectors. Some surge protector models provide protection for each type of line.

In addition to the danger of voltage surges, voltage drops or total loss of power can also cause data loss. This can happen if you have open files with unsaved data in a program like a word processor, but also in TMG if the power loss should occur just as data is being written to the hard drive. Surge protectors are of no help for this issue. The solution is an Uninterruptible Power Supply, often called a UPS. It consists of a small battery that can power your computer for a few minutes until files can be saved and programs properly shut down. Most models will shut down your computer automatically if the power is not quickly restored and you are not present.

UPS systems are relatively inexpensive compared to the overall cost of your computer, and are highly recommended unless you live in one of the few places that is essentially free from any electrical interruptions. A UPS includes surge protection circuits, so separate surge protectors are not required.

Malware Protection

Most computer users know that an anti-virus program is essential for any computer connected to the outside world, to prevent the entry of viruses or other malware into the machine. Anti-virus programs must be frequently updated with the new "signatures" which allow them to recognize the latest versions of malware. For most anti-virus programs this requires a subscription to receive the updates, which are then generally installed automatically as long as you have an Internet connection.

There is a separate category of malware that has for some years been addressed by anti-adware programs. Several anti-virus programs now generally address these forms of malware, so that separate programs may no longer be needed. Some may still choose to employ this added level of protection.

There are other forms of attack on your computer through the Internet that are not addressed by anti-virus programs, many involving security breaches in operating systems, browsers, and other programs. The first line of defense is to insure that all the latest updates are installed by your operating system and browser. The same is true of other programs that read documents obtained over the Internet, such as Adobe Reader. Most of these systems allow for automatic updating, and I recommend those features be used.

That of course means that you should not continue to use an operating system, browser, or other programs of this type, after the vendor discontinues active support for it. Better to pay the price of the upgrade than suffer the potential losses that can result. If you absolutely must continue to use such a system, make sure it has no exposure to the Internet.

Another line of defense is to use a "firewall" to keep out unwanted intruders. Firewalls can be either hardware (a physical device) or software. Current versions of Windows include a software firewall that seems to be regarded as reasonably useful. There are also software firewalls from other vendors which claim to be more effective. I recommend users use either the Windows product or that of another vendor.

I believe that anyone using a high-speed "always on" Internet connection should also use a hardware firewall. Consumer models are reasonably priced and simple to use. Many broadband modems and routers have a hardware firewall built-in. If you require a router to connect multiple computers it costs little or nothing more to get one that includes firewall functions.

Terry's Solution

For those wondering how to implement all these recommendations, I offer this description of the protection system I use on my own computers. No doubt some will think my solution is overkill, and others will think it inadequate. But perhaps it will be useful to some as a starting point.

Disclaimer: I have no interest in the companies or products mentioned above other than as a customer. They are mentioned only as a starting point in readers' own research.

Conclusion

We invest a lot of time and effort in our genealogy work, and our data can all be destroyed in the blink of an eye by a variety of hazards. The measures outlined above can significantly reduce the risk of that happening, and are, I believe, well worth taking.

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