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Backing up - trust no-one 

Every day, new online services and tools are launched that elicit oohs and aahs from us and we scrabble to sign up. It would appear that the pace of online applications being released is higher than the development of desktop applications at times :). 

We're increasingly seeing a shift away from data being created and stored on our own systems, then published up, in favor of it all being created and stored on our web host's server, ASP (application service provider) or SAAS (Software As A Service) provider.

This trend is nothing new, in fact; prior to the mid 90's, many computer systems were "dumb" terminals, interfacing with a mainframe to access applications, perform tasks and store data - nothing was installed on the local machine except the bare essentials for connecting to the mainframe.

We seem to have come full circle in data storage reliance; i.e. terminal/mainframe -> desktop -> back to a remote "mainframe" type arrangement; only we now have powerful PC's and web browser software fulfilling the role of terminal.

There's pros and cons in this arrangement

Some of the pros:

  • Provider/vendor has the responsibility of security and upgrading online applications  in many cases

  • A greater range of features are usually provided

  • Subscription models can be more cost effective for small business

  • Applications are usually accessible from any computer via a web browser

Cons:

  • Functionality customization can be limited in the case of ASP/SAAS type arrangements

  • Service outages and connectivity problems

  • The company can disappear, taking valuable data with them

  • The company has relatively easy access to your customers' data

  • Backups maintained by the provider can become corrupted or you may be charged a hefty fee to have data restored if the need arises.

If you're using an ASP, do you export your data files regularly? It's very wise to. Most will allow for exporting to a format which can be easily imported into other applications. If not, at the very least you should be able to retrieve crucial information relating to your clients.

Online backup - free trial

It's important minimize the level of reliance your business has on these services wherever possible; or at least to protect yourself from the possible negative ramifications.

Ask yourself this question - what would happen if the ASP or your web host suddenly vanished or decided to get just plain nasty. Would you be somewhat inconvenienced, or totally wiped out?

For example, a plethora of blogging services are now available and I've noticed many small online businesses utilizing these to publish up news, information and articles related to their products and services. It's very important information; so losing it all could be disastrous.

This scenario doesn't just apply to ASPs - the same sorts of threats are present with a traditional web hosting arrangement depending on the type of site you have. Sure, you may have all the files for your site on your computer; but what about data stored in MySQL databases?

Backing up MySQL databases

If you're not sure on how to back up a MySQL database, there's usually three options for doing so; some of them depending on your web host's setup.

The first backup option is through the application itself - some will include this functionality; but if you have a large database, it's often not a reliable method.

Assuming you are hosted on a Unix/Linux/FreeBSD type platform, the second option is via phpMyAdmin; a GUI application used to administer MySQL databases. Again, for large databases it can be somewhat unreliable. Ask your web host if you have access to this.

The most reliable option for backing up a MySQL database is via a command line interface, either through telnet or SSH. SSH is preferable as it's a secure form of Telnet. Again, you'll need to ask your web host for availability/access details.  You can download a free SSH client (software for connecting ) called PuTTY here.

Once you've accessed your account via SSH, here's how to back up your MySQL database using the mysqldump command. Type the following on a single line:

mysqldump -u [uname] -p [pword] [dbname] > [backup.sql]

Where:

[uname] - is your database username
[pword] - your database password
[dbname] - the name of your database
[backup.sql] - the name of the file you wish to be created

Be sure to leave out the brackets "[]" when inserting your values. If you have trouble with that, try this slight variation:

mysqldump -u [uname] -p --databases [dbname] > backup.sql

The database backup file will then be created which you can then download via FTP. If you need to restore your database at any time; upload the backup via FTP, SSH in to the directory where the uploaded backup is and run this:

mysql -u [uname] -p database < [backup.sql]

If your web hosting service provides no easy option for you to back up your MySQL databases, then it's time to find another web host.

Backing up your file base via SSH

If you don't have a copy of all your site files on your system, sometimes FTP isn't a great way to go for backing up your filebase, especially if you have a huge site. 

If you have SSH/Telnet access and you're hosted on a *nix type server, you can use the following to create a compressed archive of your site.

tar -cvf archive.tar directory/

Where archive.tar is the name you wish to give to the archive file and directory/ is the folder you wish to archive. This will also preserve file permissions.

Then, to compress the archive.tar file:

gzip archive.tar

The resulting file would be:

archive.tar.gz

Remember, backing up your file base and backing up your MySQL databases are usually two separate functions.

Store multiple, off-site backups

Once you have backups in place on your own computer (and hopefully your computer is password protected), it's important to also burn copies on to CD/DVD or some other form of removable media - and store them securely off-site. That way, if your computer crashes, your premises is broken into and your computer stolen or destroyed by some other disaster; you'll still have access to your important data. 

It's also wise to keep multiple backups - don't just overwrite a previous one; use a fresh CD or thumb drive; just in case your own backup is corrupted you'll have a previous one to restore from.

Another option to add to your backup strategy is to store backups with a provider that specializes in data archiving. One such company is Carbonite - they offer a free 15 day trial of their remote backup service.

  Online backup - free trial

It's all about multiple lines of defense.

The onus of backing up is on you

Most web hosts and ASP's will back up your data, and some will have multiple backups too, but if you check the fine print in your contracts, you'll notice indemnity clauses that will state something along the lines of:

"all care taken, but no responsibility assumed"

You'll be hard pressed to find one that doesn't include this sort of clause, and if you can, I guarantee you'll be paying an arm and a leg for the service.

As Fox Mulder was fond of saying, "Trust No-one" :). This isn't paranoia when applied to backing up, just see it as being a well developed online business survival instinct :).

Nobody will take as much care of your business as you can, nor should they be expected to unless you are paying megabucks for the service. Consider the backups maintained by your provider as the second line of defense rather than the first. Ensure that you have contingency plans in place in case your web host or ASP suddenly vanishes or has a major malfunction.  

The extra hours you may put into maintaining such a plan will be nothing compared to a scenario where disaster strikes and you lose your valuable data.

Related articles

When things go wrong in online business

Dealing with aggressive clients

Michael Bloch
Taming the Beast
http://www.tamingthebeast.net 
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In the interests of transparency and disclosure, please note that the owner of Taming the Beast.net often receives goods and services mentioned in reviews for free, or may receive payments or affiliate commissions for advertising or referring others to merchants of products and services reviewed.

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