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Creating emergency-resilient electronic file backups

Most computer users know about the importance of backups as it’s all too common to have years worth of information and memories wiped out by a computer crash. Generally though, the average backup strategy involves copying files into some sort of device in your home or office. This may be of little use if the building is destroyed. Furthermore, fragile electronics may not survive an evacuation should you need to leave your home in an emergency.

The key to creating emergency-resilient electronic backups is to have both local and remote copies to create several layers of redundancy.

  • Local backups (or on-site backups) are kept in your primary location, such as at home or the office. These are for convenience since it’s usually easier to make more frequent and larger backups. Should you need to restore, they are easily accessible.

  • Remote backups (or off-site backups) stored at another location are for redundancy in case your local ones are destroyed. These are likely to be the ones you’ll fall back on after a large-scale emergency.

Local backups

Your local backup storage options include CDs, DVDs, external hard-drives or memory sticks. Since they can be connected directly to your computer, you can quickly backup and restore large files. Unfortunately, they’re also the ones most likely to be lost in the event of a house fire, earthquake, flood or any number of emergencies.

To help protect them, these should ideally be stored in a strong, waterproof and fire resistant container. There are commercially available data safes that are rated to protect your backup media from fire, water and theft but these are expensive. A cheaper but still pricey alternative would be to use professional waterproof hard cases from Pelican or Wonderful. Those on a very tight budget can simply try putting the backups in a sealed plastic food container such as those from Lock & Lock or Tupperware.

However, the biggest drawback with these local backups is that you are faced with a dilemma:

  • You can keep your backup media stored in the protective case and schedule regular backups. They’ll have some protection in the event of an emergency but it’s easy to postpone or forget about making the backups. You also won’t have a copy of any files that have been edited between the backups; or

  • You can make frequent backups to a constantly attached drive, usually automatically through backup software. This makes your backup process more reliable but leaves the media at risk since they’re left out.

Image of laptops and hard-drives in temporary office space during an emergency
A make-shift office of laptops and backup drives laid out on the dining room table

Remote backups

The most convenient way to keep remote backups is to use an online service like the following:

By far the easiest to use are Dropbox and Carbonite but the most secure are rsync, SpiderOak and JungleDisk. (There are many more services available but these are the ones that I’ve personally tried.)

*SpiderOak and Dropbox have a free option. If you want to try one of these, use my referrer code and we’ll both get free extra space.

These types of services host their servers in business-grade data centers; your data will be housed in a secure facility with its own disaster recovery systems. In other words, they do the job of keeping your data safe for you. (Of course, you should never give full trust to a third-party so local backups are still important.)

Keep in mind that due to storage fees or internet speed limitations, some types of data, such as a large music or video library, may not be practical to store online. You should also expect your first backup to take a while since you’ll need to copy everything onto the remote server. For example, the first time I used SpiderOak, it took several days to backup almost 30GB of data. Fortunately, subsequent backups are quicker as most services copy over only the changes.

A solution to keeping remote backups of large files is to create a ‘backup-ring’ with friends and relatives from out-of-town. The principle behind this is quite simple: make backups and then swap disks when you visit your out-of-town friends; you keep their drive and they keep yours.

Synchronization

File synchronization is a technology that’s matured over the past few years and combines benefits of local and remote storage. It works by copying files from your computer onto online storage and when any changes are made, the older file is automatically updated with the new version.

Most services also allow you to synchronize several computers so if you have a laptop, desktop and office computer, they can all be updated with the latest changes. This feature alone can greatly simplify your backup and restore process; if one computer is unusable, you simply log in to another, synchronize then pick up where you left off. The same process applies when buying a new computer. Just install the synchronization software and your files will be copied over from the servers.

Some even offer web and mobile device access so in an emergency, you don’t even need your own computer to get hold of your files.

Dropbox, JungleDisk and SpiderOak offer computer synchronization. Note that these services require an internet connection to synchronize. During a wide scale emergency, internet links may be down or unreliable so it’s a good idea to ensure that your computers regularly go online to get updates.

Other tips

  • If your email provider supports it, try using the IMAP protocol for your emails. This essentially keeps your mail server synchronized with your computer’s mailbox changes. Even if your computer is destroyed, you can still connect to the server and have your emails in the same state of your last access: new, read, saved and deleted emails will appear as they did on the destroyed computer. Those who use web-based email, like Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo won’t need to worry about this.

  • Remember that your backups may contain confidential files. For privacy, make sure that all backups are encrypted. Your backup software may have this feature built-in. If not, you might want to try TrueCrypt which is well-known and trusted encryption software.

  • Some files use special formats so make sure you also backup any software you need to access your files. As much as possible, try to save or export files into a widely used format. For example, PDF files can usually be opened in pretty much any operating system and most devices come with some sort of PDF reader.

  • Don’t forget to run a test restore. You may be diligently making backups but they’re useless if some error in your process means that you can’t retrieve the files when needed.

It’s all about continuity

While keeping your data safe might seem like a low priority in comparison to other preparedness tasks, the purpose behind creating emergency-resilient electronic file backups is continuity. Crises always pass and life eventually returns to normal. Since a large part of our assets, both business and personal, are now electronic, rescuing your data files will speed up your recovery.

More than anything, having data backups provide emotional security. Knowing that your digital archive of family photos or vital business documents are safe can help you focus on the immediate needs of getting through an emergency.

Q: Can I use an email program such Outlook to send bulk mail?

Quite a few clients have asked if they can run an email marketing campaign through our servers using an email program like Microsoft Outlook. The main thing to note is that email accounts provided by our hosting company, Rackspace, are not really to be used for sending out bulk emails. Although it is technically possible this method is not recommended for several reasons:

  1. You may breach Rackspace’s terms of service
  2. It’s more error-prone and therefore the results are unreliable.
  3. There is no way to gather metrics such as view and click-through statistics.
  4. There is a risk of getting your domain blacklisted as a spam sender by ISPs. Once you’re on the blacklists, some or all of your email accounts will keep ending up in the recipient’s spam filters. It may be very difficult to get off the blacklists.

However, many of our clients are small and micro-business who send out nowhere near the levels of bulk mail as many larger corporations. I’ve therefore contacted Rackspace to ask what are the allowable limits under their Rackspace Cloud service. Based on their reply, you should be safe if you:

  • Send no more than 250 messages per 20 min
  • Send no more than 5,000 messages per day
  • Include an unsubscribe link in the messages (and act on the request)
  • Send only to people who’ve given you permission to contact them about this

Nevertheless, I recommend that you a dedicated bulk emailing service to send to your distribution lists. The catch is that there’s a fee and the legitimate ones are very strict with how you’ve gathered the email addresses. (They won’t allow you to send to people who haven’t given you their permission.) However, the messages are more professional and you’ll be able to track statistics such as the number of emails that have been opened, unsubscribed or bounced.

We use such a system and if you’re interested, I’ll be happy to put together a quotation for you. As a rough idea, our profile of clients tend to average approximately £10 per campaign to use the system.

For your reference, Rackspace have a Knowledge Center article that states the following:

If your application is going to be sending out single messages (or less than 25 messages at a time), we highly suggest using SMTP. SMTP is a better option for sending out small amounts of mail. If you have questions on configuring your application to use SMTP, please visit with a member of our support team.
On the other hand, you may need to use our mail relays if your application will be sending out messages to a larger mailing list. If that’s the case, please review the following rules for sending messages through our mail relays:
1. Your message must have a working unsubscribe link, which must be demonstrated to us upon request.
2. The message must have a valid Return Path. This means the message must have a valid from address listed in the message.
3. The message of the email can only refer to the domain the message is being sent from. This means “DomainA.com” cannot send messages for “DomainB.com.”
4. You must obtain Rackspace Site’s advance approval for any bulk or commercial e-mail, which will not be given unless you are able to demonstrate, at a minimum, that your intended recipients have given their consent to receive e-mail via some affirmative means, such as an opt-in procedure, your procedures for soliciting consent include reasonable means to ensure that the person giving consent is the owner of the e-mail address for which the consent is given, you retain evidence of the recipient’s consent in a form that may be promptly produced on request, and you honor the recipient’s and Rackspace Site’s requests to produce consent evidence within 72 hours of receipt of the request.
5. We do not allow bulk or commercial e-mail being sent to more than five-thousand (5,000) users per day at a rate of 250 messages every 20 minutes.
6. Rackspace Sites may test and otherwise monitor your compliance with its requirements, including requesting opt-in information from a random sample of your list at any time.

Apple Mail setup

Email Setup Instructions for Apple Mail

Your Settings

If you are hosting your email with our preferred hosting company, Rackspace Cloud, the settings for your email server are as follows.
Incoming server: secure.emailsrvr.com
Outgoing server: secure.emailsrvr.com
Username: Your full email address
Password: This will be sent to you separately

Setting up a new account in Apple Mail

  1. Open Apple Mail and in the menu, click Mail > Preferences
  2. Click the Accounts setting
  3. Click the + (Create an account) button
  4. Mac Mail Accounts pane

  5. The Add Account settings will appear
  6. Mac Mail Add Accounts

  7. Enter your Full Name, Email Address and Password, then select Continue
  8. Set the Incoming Mail Server settings
  9. Account type: select IMAP
    Description: this is up to you but I suggest you enter your company name
    Incoming Mail Server: type secure.emailsrvr.com
    User Name: type your user name
    Passwrord: type your password

  10. Select Continue and if the details you entered were correct, it will take you to the Outgoing Mail Server screen
  11. Set the Outgoing Mail Server settings
  12. Description: this is up to you but I suggest you enter your company name
    Outgoing Mail Server: secure.emailsrvr.com
    Check Use only this server
    Check Use Authentication
    User Name: type your user name
    Password: type your password

  13. Select Continue and if the details you entered were correct, it will take you to the Account Summary screen
  14. Select Take account online and click Create
  15. Close the Account Settings by clicking the red close button on the top-left of the screen.

If the tests at step 7 or 9 failed, the most likely reasons are:
The user name was entered incorrectly. For example, you may have only entered the part before the @ sign. On our system, the user name is made up of the while email address. e.g. [email protected]
The password was entered incorrectly. If you copied and pasted from an email, you may have inadvertently included a space character.

Editing an existing account in Apple Mail

  1. Open Apple Mail and in the menu, click Mail > Preferences
  2. Click the Accounts setting
  3. Select the Account Information tab
  4. Mac Mail Account Information pane

  5. Set Incoming Mail Server to: secure.emailsrvr.com
  6. Under Outgoing Mail Server, click the drop-down and select Edit server list
  7. Click the + button and a new server should appear (a grey note to ‘Double-click to enter’ should appear in the Server Name column.
  8. Mac Mail Server pane

  9. Double-click it and enter: secure.emailsrvr.com
  10. Select Advanced
  11. Use these settings
  12. Set the Use default ports option
    Check Use Secure Sockets Layer
    Authentication: Password
    Enter your usual username and password

  13. Click OK
  14. Make sure secure.emailsrvr.com is set under Outgoing Mail Server
  15. Close the Mail preferences window

Q: What do I need to set up a website?

Getting a website set up can be quite easy but at a minimum, there are three things you’ll need:

1. The domain name

This is makes up the website address and requires registration and yearly renewals. It’s like the online equivalent of registering your company. For a web hyperlink, the domain is to the right of the ‘http://www’ and before the first backslash; for an email address, it’s after the ‘@’ symbol.

In all of the following cases, the domain name is example.com:

If you are a client, just send me the domain you’d like to register and we’ll take care of the details for you.

To register a domain name yourself, find a registrar and follow their registration procedure. There are lots of companies that offer registration services and a web search should bring up a list of popular providers. Make sure that the registration is under your name as some try to lock you in to their service by registering the domain under their own company name.

Some registrars offer extras, like privacy protection, at a price whereas the extras might be included free by other providers. Many also offer email and web hosting which is often automatically included during their registration process. We will provide you with hosting under a maintenance agreement so pay close attention to the purchase itemisation if you only need to register the domain.

Note that you might have to get creative with the name. If the one you want is already registered, you may have to think up different variations until you find something that’s available. Purchasing a domain from an existing owner tends to be quite expensive.

Once you’ve registered your domain, just send me the login details so that I can do the rest of the setup.

2. The website itself

This is the actual design and text visitors see when they visit your site. In the past, developers used to code each page manually. Every time you wanted to change the text on a page, you’d need to ask the developer to recode it.

These days, adding and updating websites are much simpler through the use of Content Management System (CMS) software. The CMS runs on the server and allows you to make day-to-day changes, like updating text and photos, without having to hire a web developer. Your website can be easily managed by a non-technical office administrator or secretary.

For simple sites, I usually suggest that we use the WordPress as this will make it easy for you to add and edit content. Drupal can be used for sites requiring more complex functionality.

Settling on a design is the trickiest part of setting up a website and normally takes a long time. For those who want to get the site up and running soon, it’s best to use a pre-made template. These can be downloaded online for free or quite cheap (about USD30-USD70).

Some people don’t like using a template because it’s not original or unique. While I think this is the best route when starting up a new venture that has limited budget, we’ll be very happy to work on a custom design from the very start. If you’re interested in this, please contact me for more information.

3. Hosting

Websites need to run on powerful computers, called servers, that are permanently connected to the internet. It’s quite expensive to run a business-grade server yourself so hosting companies offer a service where you ‘rent’ space on their computers. They take care of the management so all you need do is provide the website files. (This is similar in concept to renting space in a serviced office.)

We provide hosting free of charge for clients on a maintenance agreement with us.

Another Cup of Coffee Limited

We support Drupal and WordPress websites for small businesses, media agencies and not-for-profit groups. Our work includes setting up and maintaining content management systems, developing custom code and troubleshooting problems with servers.

My Role as founder

Founder, project manager and developer, 2006 to present

Day-to-day, I manage remote teams for my company, Another Cup of Coffee, using a simplified version of Scrum. We’re a group of independent professionals from different cities around the world working under one brand-name. When a new project comes along, I put together a team with the most relevant skills.

Aside from managing projects, I’m also a hands-on developer and systems administrator.

Internet Explorer 7 security warnings from Microsoft

Microsoft have issued several security updates for Internet Explorer 7. As exploits go, this one appears to be quite serious as they note that “consistent exploit code can be crafted easily”. This means that another outbreak of (possibly virus-related) attacks looks imminent.

If you use IE7 and don’t have automatic updating enabled, you should check for updates and install it manually. Instructions for updating your Windows Vista or XP computer can be found on the Microsoft Update page.

More information:

How the web can help you thrive during a recession

David Armano, from the interactive services firm Critical Mass, suggests 10 Ways Digital Can Help You Thrive in a Recession. It’s a US-focused slideshow presentation but also applies to British small businesses.

I share it because several points correspond with our approach when building sites:

  • Small companies and start-ups don’t have the luxury of time and money. Trying to create the prefect site before launching squanders both with very little guarantee that you’ve covered all the bases. Instead, launch quickly, test it on your target audience and use the feedback to improve.
  • Building from scratch is expensive so use ready-made tools and software when possible. For example, we use the Drupal content management platform as the foundation for most of our sites. It gives us lots of built-in functionality so we can focus the areas that are unique to a particular project.
  • Head straight for the prototype. For some products, spending time—literally—on the drawing-board creating documentation and schematics is essential if you want to avoid costly mistakes. The web is different. The technology means that it’s more efficient to simply build a working demonstration of your ideas.

See below for David’s slideshow.

Building a sustainable on-line business: have a price

In this video, David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founder of 37signals, talks about how build a sustainable on-line business. 37signals builds Basecamp, a successful online project management tool which, incidentally, is what we use for our own projects.

Here’s a summary for you:

  • Don’t be afraid to charge for your product.
  • Solve a simple problem a little bit better than the other guys.
  • Aim your product to small businesses with a niche need.
  • Side-businesses are really not that bad.
  • Great businesses aren’t built over-night so don’t be in such a hurry.

The future of advertising is PR

If you’re looking into starting a marketing campaign, this blog post by Eric Karljaluoto, creative director at smashLAB, might offer some fresh perspective. It’s an insightful read, though not for someone who’s easily offended. Here are the main points I took away from the article:

  • “Don’t spam, engage people in a dialogue.”
  • “It’s no longer about the number of messages you send; instead, concentrate on the actual interaction or engagement that results.”

Additional reading: