World Backup Day - 2021

It’s the 31st of March and that means it's World Backup Day!

Perhaps World Backup Day isn't as well-known as some other <insert name here> days but it does highlight an important issue - backups are vital and aren't conducted enough. Most people know what a backup is and why they’re important but oddly, not everyone does it - research suggests over 30% of people haven't. Backups aren't exciting and they're not always quick... but blimey, they're useful. Cloud technologies have made it easier than ever to backup important files and superfast internet/network speeds have meant even the largest files can be backed up safely.

Data and backups have come a LONG way in a very short space of time, even today you can find 1TB (ONE TERABYTE) capacities of a micro SDXC card which is no larger than a postage stamp - considering just ten years ago, the largest was around 64GB and that was deemed essentially unfillable. From formats and compression techniques to hardware and cyber threats – there are many, many things to consider when it comes to backups.

Back in the day, one of the most exciting things was buying a new phone, say the Nokia 8210. At a time when smaller was better, opening that tiny box and unearthing your new cutting-edge phone, complete with Snake, custom ringtones and even WAP was great fun. Re-entering names and numbers (usually from memory alone) one-by-one however, was not.

Thankfully, those days are behind us. Buy a new mobile phone today and during the initial setup, you’ll be greeted with an option to backup from existing data held in the cloud – this can be anything, from contacts and messages, to photos and multimedia. While this can be very useful, it’s not conducted automatically and the user must consent to backing up their data - even still, a huge time saver.

In the enterprise, things have moved on at an incredible rate too, the largest magnetic tape (at the time of writing) holds a staggering 580TB worth of data - a 72.5x increase in capacity in 14 years. The ginormous amounts of data that are produced each day twinned with the ever-growing threat of cybercrime mean every organisation needs a robust backup policy and procedure(s).

In recent years there have been several high-profile examples of organisations that have fallen victim to backup issues caused by both internal and external factors. From government departments, to game developers and popular retailers - no one is exempt from the catastrophic headaches that insufficient or non-existent backups bring.

Fancy an anecdote? Here's a perfect illustration of how bad things can be, lifted directly from our data book – Crossing the data delta.

You know that you are looking at a genuine disaster for your organisation when the news reports of the fire in the building next door include the words ‘Richter Scale’ to describe the explosion.

In this particular case, the Richter rating was 2.4, and was described as the largest explosion in the UK since WWII. Thankfully, despite the enormity of the conflagration, there were no fatalities. It took place next to a large office complex, but over the course of a weekend.

The story took place at the Buncefield Oil Storage Facility in Hemel Hempstead in the UK. A massive fire, early on a Sunday morning, engulfed the oil depot itself, as well as surrounding office blocks, one of which was occupied by Northgate Computing.

Northgate was, at the time, one of the major data processing agencies for the UK Government. One of its responsibilities included running the payroll for the UK’s National Health Service (NHS); the fifth-largest employer in the world (at the time of writing the NHS employs around 1.7 million people).

Northgate had a full disaster-recovery provision in place, and this immediately swung into effect. The fire took place on 11 December 2005 – with the all-important Christmas payroll runs due for imminent processing. Time was clearly of the essence. As well as a contractual liability, in terms of meeting their contract conditions, there was a very human realisation that Christmas could be ruined for over a million households.

The well-rehearsed routines were triggered, and a fully-replicated IT capability was made available, with the latest data restored from offsite storage. The payrolls were run on time, everyone got paid and, presumably, had a fantastic Christmas (well, everyone except the insurance companies). Was that the end of it?

Not quite.

Fifth-largest as opposed to third within popular understanding in the UK, and still a huge employer by global standards. Numbers one and two are the Chinese and American armies respectively, but three belongs to Walmart and at four is McDonald’s. The British Health services is in fifth place in front of a series of gargantuan Chinese and Indian institutions.

The customer-facing systems were afforded the highest priority as part of the contractual position. However, the priority for each of the other systems had been decided a long time ago, and had not been ordered to reflect the changing nature of the business. So, the Finance system was next in line to be restored, but the company’s email system was towards the bottom of the list. When the procedures were planned, email simply hadn’t been considered that important.

These days, most companies could probably operate for quite a few days without a finance system. Customer receipts would continue to flow in, and if you aren’t making supplier payments as quickly as you should be, well, for once you have a great excuse.

But try running a modern business without email for three or four days. It can’t be done.

Email has replaced mail and fax as the primary method of written communication, both externally and internally. Indeed, many processes rely on it, and falling back on telephone conversations just isn't the same.

The lesson here is that organisations – in the widest sense of the word – need to become involved in planning for recovery after a disruptive incident, and the procedures need to be reviewed and updated frequently. No one can predict what developments lie over the horizon, and as these become part of the operation, they need to be factored into the recovery provision.

A final word on Buncefield. Spare a thought for the Northgate employee who purchased their pride-and-joy Porsche car the week before the fire. As they were going away on Annual Leave for a fortnight’s diving holiday in the Mediterranean – and didn’t relish the idea of leaving the car outside their house – they decided instead to leave it inside the secure compound at their offices, which came with its own security guard. It was bound to be much safer there. Or so they thought…

Moral of the story? Whether you have a smartphone, a website or a multimillion pound business - make sure you have an effective backup procedure, you won’t regret a bit of it!

Effective backups are governed by a strong level of data literacy. If data literacy is your thing, join our roundtable on 13th April, 2021.

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