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Systems & Networks | Thursday, January 12th, 2012

The perils of USB memory sticks

Always backup your work!

The Internet makes moving files around extremely simple.  Whether it’s sharing a photograph with family of Facebook or Flickr, or securely transferring a sensitive commercial document from a laptop to company server over a secure VPN connection, documents have never been more portable.

It makes the old practice of saving files on to a floppy disk in order to make it portable redundant.  And hurrah for that – it was slow, cumbersome and something never to rely upon – all it took was a bit of grit to get inside the disk or for someone to put it on top of a speaker and the data within was lost.

The USB memory stick has brought the sneakernet back into vogue.  Alas, it appears that a generation of users must relearn how to avoid the perils of the network…

Over the last year or so, we have been fortunate (!) enough to have worked with a couple of students from Huddersfield University on a sandwich placement year*.  Both students have worked on a variety of website projects – one on the graphical side, and another programming.  It’s certainly been an experience, and we have learnt as much as they have over that time!  (And no – never work with placement students is not of the lessons we’ve learned ;-)).

Back to the sneakernet, our computer games programming student thought that it would be a good idea to store his dissertation on a USB memory stick.  And that’s a reasonable thing to do – it can be easily transferred between student home and college and the library and his parental home and a printer as required.  But it’s not a reasonable thing to do if it’s the only place that the work is saved and a negligent worker at the printers pulls the stick out of a computer without properly dismounting it first.  That leads to data corruption and weeks of lost work with a deadline approaching – as our computer games programming student is now experiencing 🙁

This post isn’t an “I told you so” or gloat – he knows as much as I and I suspect I do that backups of important files should always be made – but instead a salient reminder for us not to be complacent.

There are many ways that backups can be made, each suitable for different tasks:

  • Formal backup procedure – Commercial users should certainly have a formal off-site backup procedure.  This can take the form of incremental backups over the Internet, or more traditional tape backups.  Do periodically review your backup procedure and ensure that backup policies are carried out regularly.
  • Automatic backups – For home users, your ISP, telecomms provider or another company may be able to provide automatic backups of personal files – such as documents or photographs – to “the cloud” – storage space on the Internet.  Check their privacy policies to make sure that you’re happy with how they handle your files first, but these services can be an easy and cost effective way of keeping a backup should a disaster occur
  • Dropbox – provides some free space to which you can automatically synchronise files to.  You can then synchronise these files with other computers, such as other desktops at home, laptops and even your smartphone.  We wouldn’t necessarily recommend storing anything too sensitive here, but it would be perfect for syncing university projects…
  • Manual backup – Ad hoc backups to disk, uploading to the Internet or email can be useful, although we wold suggest a more formal procedure for both business and personal use.

A running theme throughout all of these is that you should check out what the companies involved are doing with your files.  Make sure that you’re comfortable, and make a decision based upon the files you want to back up.  To be on the safe side, assume that uploading all your holiday snaps to Facebook will lead to the whole world seeing them!

Contact our Systems team on (01457) 819600 if you would like to discuss your business backup systems.

*Incidentally, I think that our computer games programming student took the phrase sandwich year far too literally.  His daily meat-slab sandwiches were immense!

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