Disaster recovery and business continuity for a one-man-band

I’m no expert on the subjects of backup, disaster recovery or business continuity, but having worked with PCs for 15 years and worked as a freelance web developer I have a few experiences which have led me to a strategy I now use, and which I thought I’d share.

The goose that lays the golden eggs for any freelancer in the web industry (and in many other industries) is your laptop, and as we all know – these are prone to failure when you least expect, and when you can least afford it! If you’re charging a client £25 an hour, and your laptop is out of action for even one day – that could cost you £200, or worse – cost you an entire project if you can’t deliver on time.

There are two main things to consider for a good insurance against laptop failure:

  1. Business continuity – continuing to work even if your laptop fails
  2. Disaster recovery – restoring all of your data after a failure

Now these principles don’t just apply to your laptop; if you’re a larger operation you may want to apply the same ideas to PCs, Servers and other Laptops – but for the sake of this blog post I’m going to work on the assumption that you have one main laptop.

Laptop Failure

Laptop failure could mean a number of things, a hardware failure such as a hard-disk crash or a motherboard fault, or even theft or complete destruction. In any case, anything that renders your laptop unusable for more than a day is for all intents and purposes, a failure.

Business Continuity

In the event of a failure, you’ll want to continue working, and in order to do so you will need two things:

  1. An alternative device
  2. Access to your data and software

Having a backup laptop is not something most of us can realistically afford, but having an agreement with a friend or family member that should your laptop let you down, you could use theirs is not a bad place to start. You’ll want to ensure that your backup laptop is kept in good working order, and virus free – so you could agree that in exchange for this promise, you’ll buy them a nice anti-virus package or give their machine a once-over every few months.

This is basic, and very low-cost – but another option is an insurance policy which offers a “Courtesy Laptop” should your machine breakdown, while you’re waiting on a repair. This is what I have chosen, as I bought my laptop recently from PC World and took advantage of their “Whatever Happens” premium cover, which for £10 a month gives me peace of mind of knowing I have a loan of a laptop, and repair or replacement of my own laptop within 7 days. There are other cover plans out there, and it is worth paying attention to the small print but this is by far the most robust plan for continuity. Check with your home contents insurance provider if they offer something similar as this may be better value for money.

Now the juicy bit – accessing your data and software. You’ve got a temporary replacement machine to work on – now you need all of your tools and data. Plan number 1, get cloud storage.

I’m a Windows 8 user, and this includes Microsoft’s rather excellent (and soon to be renamed) SkyDrive service. This creates a special folder on your computer, which when you store documents in it, backs these up to the cloud. The advantage is – jump onto another PC, download SkyDrive, put in your password and all your documents are there. You can even use a web interface for quick access to one or two documents without installing anything or waiting for it to sync. I’ve used a number of similar services including Ubuntu One and Dropbox, and these are all equally good at what they do – but the advantage to SkyDrive is that you get 7GB of storage for free. I’ve added 50GB for a measly £16 per year.

On the software front, I subscribe to a number of cloud offerings including Office365 – so I can install Microsoft Office on any machine and transfer my license over temporarily or permanently. The added benefit is that I get an extra 20GB of SkyDrive storage for free (taking my total cloud storage to 77GB), and free credits on Skype. I also subscribe to Adobe CreativeCloud for Photoshop – again I can install Photoshop on any machine and transfer the license.

Both of these options work out much better for me than shelling out for a full software license, and the added benefit is continuous upgrades.

As far as coding goes I use all free tools including NetBeans, Notepad++ and FileZilla so it’s easy to get these again.

Another great alternative for an office suite is Google Docs. It’s not as full-featured as Microsoft Office, but it is cheaper and is now built into Google Drive.

Similar stacks are available on all platforms such as Ubuntu One on Linux, and iCloud for Mac.

So my business continuity plan is take my broken laptop to my local PC World, grab a replacement and log on to the cloud to access all my work. Should there be a broadband or power outage – other things to consider are perhaps a mobile broadband dongle (or a nice big fat data plan on your Smartphone and tether it), and a handy coffee shop with good wifi and a charging point!

Disaster recovery

When the crisis is over, and you get a shiny new laptop, or a shiny new hard drive with nothing useful on it, you’ll want to get it very quickly back to your normal working standard.

There are three words I want you to remember here

  • Backup
  • Test
  • Restore

Don’t make a backup of your laptop and hope for the best – think of Schroedinger’s Cat – until you test your backup it can be thought of as both useful, and useless. Test it!

We’re talking here about the complete state of your laptop – operating system, software, and data. It’s unrealistic to back this up to your cloud storage as it would be incredibly difficult to restore, so you’ll need an external hard drive and some good disk imaging software, ideally one which can do incremental backups.

I use a 1TB LaCie d2 Quadra, and Acronis TrueImage 2014.

When selecting an external hard disk drive, get one with the fastest interface your machine can support – ideally USB 3.0, e-SATA or Firewire. This will make all the difference in how quickly you can backup and restore your data.

I chose Acronis TrueImage as it has tremendous industry recognition as a serious backup tool, and cost around £40 for a home license. As a nice little bonus, because I purchased TrueImage 2013 a few weeks before 2014 was released, I received a free upgrade from Acronis which was a nice surprise.

I’ve configured TrueImage to backup all the partitions on my machine to my external drive as an incremental backup (meaning only the changes are saved each time) and rather than schedule a backup (because my drive isn’t permanently connected to my laptop), I’ve set a monthly reminder on my phone to do it.

It takes around 25 minutes to backup my laptop and around 15 minutes to validate the backup (a process where the backup software checks the integrity of the backup to ensure it will restore – note this is not the same as testing your backup!).

The first test of my backups came when I decided to upgrade my laptop’s hard drive to a solid state drive around two weeks after I purchased it. I updated my backup, swapped the drives, restored the backup and in a total of around 2 hours my laptop was exactly as I had left it.

You can test your backups in a similar way if you have a spare (internal) hard drive, you could swap it out and try restoring your backup to it, or alternatively set up a virtual machine using something like Oracle VirtualBox and restore to that. Test your backups about every 6-8 months, but validate them EVERY time you backup.

You’ll also want to make a bootable recovery disk on a USB stick to be able to run the Acronis software and restore your backups.

If you don’t want to shell out for Acronis, there is a free alternative called Macrium Reflect. I have not tried this myself, but I do know that it costs around the same as Acronis if you want it to do incremental backups.

So in total you can have a good disaster recovery and business continuity plan for around £150 a year. That’s excellent value for money in my opinion.

Quick Breakdown of my stack

  • Backup – Acronis TrueImage 2014     £40 one-off
  • Cloud Storage – Microsoft SkyDrve    Free (+£16 per year for extra storage)
  • Insurance – PC World Whatever Happens     £10 per month
  • Cloud Software – Adobe CreativeCloud (Photoshop)    £17 per month
  • Cloud Software – Microsoft Office365     £7.99 per month
Like this? Share it!Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn