Scott Hanselman

Painful Reminder: Focus on Core Competencies (and Back Stuff Up)

January 27, 2009 Comment on this post [38] Posted in Musings
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Backup your stuff! Two interesting and unrelated things happened this weekend in my circle of influence.

Lesson: Back Up Your Stuff or Die.

First, an errant unsigned driver install caused my beloved Lenovo T60p to start Blue Screening on Boot Up. My subconscious knew what was doing on, but I got nailed anyway.

However, my tuckus was saved by Windows Home Server (again). Yeah, yeah, blah blah, Microsoft Shill, blah, blah, Time Machine, whatever. The WHS is rocking awesome. I don't even think about it until I totally need it. I booted off the recovery CD and I was given the choice of 4 different backups in the last week. I was up and running within an hour, everything working perfectly. It's like Norton Ghost and Acronis without the hassle.

Do you back up? How often? What happens if your house burns down tomorrow and your business is run out of your house? Where are your digital photos? Videos? Memories? Tax forms and insurance details? What is your family backup strategy?

Backup your computers - that means a full system image. There's lots of ways to do this and one of them is built into Vista. You likely have this on your computer (and your parent's computer) and didn't know it. Hit the start menu, type "Backup" and go to the Backup and Restore Center. Take an external drive over to your relative's house, make them feed you dinner, and backup up an image of their entire machine.

Backup and Restore Center

Better yet, get Mom and Dad some kind of automatic server like WHS or some online backup like Mozy. Again, I point to having a family backup strategy. I'm using Mozy now, but I'm looking for a good system that also supports Windows Home Server and won't break the bank.

Lesson: Do what you're good at and let other folks do what they are good at. Netsource!

The second thing was that I got a call from my cousin who works for a small (maybe 20-30 people) real estate management company. At some point in the past, someone setup an Exchange Server or some kind of Mail system for them. The truth and identity of the man is shrouded in mystery and the mists of time. (Stop me if this sounds familiar to you.) The machine runs great and the little company forgets about it. They forget about the mail server that has become as important to their little company as air and power.

Hanselman Backup Strategy Fast forward to last week and lightning strikes. Literally. Power was cut and the machines are all fried. Now the mail server reboots and reboots and they haven't gotten email in days. Who set it up? What was his name? Where are the backups? Where is this week's mail? What can we do? What was wrong with this tragic situation? Well, lots of things, but ultimately this:

They were running something in house that wasn't their core competency. They are a property management shop. What are they running their own mail server for? Historically, it was the only option and I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I recommended they look at a hosted mail solution. The couple of hundred (thousand?) dollars it's going to cost them to fix this debacle, they could pay for a hosted solution for a year.

Outsource your freaking mail. It's 2009. I use GAFYD. I've tried Live Custom Domains. Both are great and are a complete no-brainer for any business under 100 people. Some folks say these works for as many as 500 users and some Universities have happily outsourced all their mail. I use UserVoice for a Customer Feedback Forum on BabySmash. I use ORCSWeb to host my websites. My advertising is now outsourced to The Lounge Advertising Network. You can use .netInvoice to handle all your invoicing if you like. I manage phone calls with GrandCentral. I could do ALL of these things myself, but I'm not good at them.

There are so many great services that you can "netsource" for a fraction of what it would cost for you to do yourself.

I'm convinced these two basic tips/lessons/nuggets/whatever can save you piles of money when applied intelligently.  Do you agree, Dear Reader?

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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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January 27, 2009 10:32
Yes, I agree. I still have a large number of our digital photographs on a non-network-functional NAS unit (I hope, if the disk is still okay, still need to check...) but have started using JungleDisk by Amazon now to put stuff like that in The Cloud from now on. Hey, that's both of the above points at once. Still not a complete strategy though; very seriously considering a WHS myself. Hope there's a JungleDisk backup plugin for it. Haven't checked that yet.
January 27, 2009 10:38
Just checked, and the answer seems to be "Yes":
January 27, 2009 10:51
Yes-I agree. Not remembering to back up is like not remembering to protect your system with a good anti-virus. Been there-Done that-learned a big lesson-though I still get in a comfy zone, and go full circle. So I end up needing more stuff to help me handle - ahem, my stuff...thanks for the post.
January 27, 2009 10:56
HDDs are so cheap so doing frequent backups to external USB drives that are locked in a fire-proof safe and/or stored offsite is the simple solution. Vista 'complete system' backup, acronis, ghost etc are fool-proof.

Netsourcing email may work in some parts of the world, but not in places where the ISPs don't provide 'enough' bandwidth and uptime.
January 27, 2009 11:51
Of course we agree, it's as logical as brushing your teeth and eating healthy and everyone does that, right? Most likely not. So you can tell them once you can even tell them twice but a bad experience seems to be the only way to teach them it's the only way.

Anyway I'm not the best person to speak, I have lost my favorites and email addresses numerous times before, but I'm pretty sure that I have those covered now. But there is no accounting for Murphy's law.
January 27, 2009 12:09
People tend to underestimate the importance of backups Until that Fateful Day. I've been blessed with the fact that I haven't yet had to resort to my backups.

[There's lots of ways to do this and one of them is built into Vista. You likely have this on your computer (and your parent's computer) and didn't know it.]

Until I upgraded to Windows 7, I didn't know there was such a feature! Action Center told me about it and I immediatelly set it up to make weekly backups of my system to my Linux server. Works like a charm. In addition to that, I use Synkron to copy all my important documents to the server.
January 27, 2009 12:39
Don't get me started on Microsoft's annoying decision to have like a million different versions of Vista...! Complete PC Backup and Restore is not included with Windows Vista Home Basic or Windows Vista Home Premium, so your tip only works if they've forked out for the Ultimate version!
January 27, 2009 12:50
Oops messed up the href

My WHS is backedup to Works great. They have no WHS native client but you can install it like this. Great plus is IDrive allows you to keep and restore up to 30 versions of a file. A feature i have not seen on other services.

The one issue I have with WHS is that it is not possible to Remote Access to Windows XP Home or Windows Vista Home edition computers. Only to higher editions. This is a mismatch in branding. Why is it a feature in a home server while it is not supported in your home products?

January 27, 2009 12:54
It happens to the best of us.

I have a similar setup, what I find most important is to make sure you have a child, parent, grand parent backup.

I also use Microsoft Live Mesh to sync between all my machine, this also provides a method of keeping files live.
January 27, 2009 13:13
Can this be used in a small business environment? The WHS web site isn't clear about which clients it will backup (or at least I wasn't able to find it).

ie PC's in a domain, or more importantly servers.

January 27, 2009 13:58
I agree with the "Netsourcing" for sure. Our company outsourced our email a little while ago after something similar happened (still not entirely sure what went wrong, but we lost pretty much all of our emails). It cost us a few thousand to get someone in to attempt recovery, and in the end, we managed to get most of it back. But we found a company (Cobweb Solutions) who does Hosted Exchange, with all kinds of guarantees on service and support etc, and we're now spending just over £100 a year for each of our staff (5).

And £500-600 per year with confidence in the system is a LOT better than a few thousand to restore a mail server which none of us knew how to administer...

Great post.
January 27, 2009 16:54
I have found that, with only two PCs in the house, using is enough. I don't see the need for WHS unless you have a larger home network. All our photos, videos, docs, and music are on my desktop on a mirrored set which backs up to Mozy. My wife's notebook has mapped drives to access all that data. She stores nothing important locally.

We also have the desktop set up so either one of us can log in via Windows Remote Desktop or Live Mesh Remote Desktop when we need remote access to our documents. JukeFly and VibeStreamer are a couple of nice options to store your music in one place and listen to it anywhere.
January 27, 2009 17:18
Alvin - the WHS doesn't just backup certain files and folders - it does full disk image backups, every night. So if you lose a hard drive, or install something nasty, you just boot from the WHS restore disk and choose the point to restore to. EVERYTHING is back to how it was - not just your photos, docs, etc. Sure, you could install all of your stuff again, configure all your preferences again, etc, but thats a LOT of time.
January 27, 2009 17:48
One thing I discovered about Mozy last fall... if you have 2 files in different directories with the same name (i.e., "C:\photos\Cousin's Wedding\photo0001.jpg" and "C:\photos\Summer Vacation\photo0001.jpg"), Mozy will only backup the first one it finds -- after that, it looks at the file name and says "Oh, I already have that file backed up -- I can skip it!"

Luckily, I discovered this when I set it to sync up a new batch of digital photos I had just taken, not when I was trying to restore anything. I contacted their tech support, and the initial response was denial of the problem, despite the fact that I had verified it by restoring 2 different files from 2 different directories, and ended up with 2 copies of the same file. They eventually admitted that yeah, its a problem, and claimed it should be fixed in the newest version, but by then I had already switched to using Elephant Drive.

Much happier with Elephant Drive - you can set up automatic synchronization, or you can store stuff up in the cloud without it sync'ing back down -- toss it up there, delete it from your hard drive, and it will stay put. Same price as Mozy (5 bucks a month, unlimited storage for one PC), and their tech support is much more responsive. I had an issue with my initial backup set, and had a tech chat with me online for over an hour while we went through a bunch of troubleshooting to find the problem.

In short, I highly recommend you check your Mozy backup set for duplicate filenames, and see if you can actually recover the right files. If not, check out Elephant Drive. I am not affiliated with them in any way, other than as a happy customer. Cheers!
January 27, 2009 17:51
I am thinking of going back to Vista just to have this backup feature. I am tired of loosing data, wish they wouldh ave added this to XP.
January 27, 2009 18:13
Apparently, domain hosting isn't Microsoft's core competency either. The first link you gave goes to an infinite redirect loop. If I search for Live Custom Domains, I'm taken to a site that has an Application Error.

Rule 1: if you're a real player in web hosting, you don't expose customers to developer errors. Give me a nice "we're sorry... back later" message.

The whole reason I avoid hosting is because I don't want to sign over rights to store my data. I like the idea that I can physically retrieve my data if I need to, and the FBI has to serve _me_ and not my provider if they want access to it. It's not paranoia; I use many applications in the cloud. There's just a certain privilege to hosting one's own content... not to mention single-sign-on.
January 27, 2009 18:16

A fireproof safe may not be enough, fireproof is generally set at the flamepoint temperature for paper, CD's & DVD's and perhaps (not 100% sure) hard-drives may melt at a lower temperature.

January 27, 2009 19:40
I've used iDrive on my home server for the past year or two. It's $5 a months for up to 150 GB. I don't think they officially support home server and it doesn't plug into the console like JungleDisk, but it works, is affordable and doesn't require me to pay attention to it.
January 27, 2009 19:54
I think WHS is the best thing since slice bread. I've been using it since Beta and it ROCKS! Couldn't be happier and with the price I'm surprised everyone isn't using it.
January 27, 2009 20:50

I posted a comment about my backup strategy on one of your earlier backup posts and I thought that I would give you an update as to cost now that a couple of months have passed. I am using WHS with the Jungledisk WHS "beta" plugin. I do a Robocopy of my laptop to a shared folder on the WHS so all of my data gets copied to Amazon S3 on a weekly basis and I have the WHS for bare-metal restore.

So, bottom line, I have 100 GB on Amazon with probably 10 to 15 GB weekly churn and it is costing me $30 / month.

January 27, 2009 20:52
I setup a scheduled task for Vista Complete PC backup to backup to an external drive. With shadow copies I've got several to recent backups to chose from when I restore. I'm interested in WHS but can't justify the cost when this works fine. Live mesh also works great in some scenarios.
January 27, 2009 21:19
A plug for Carbonite. $5/mo for unlimited storage. Actually, on second thought, don't use them, because I don't see how they can sustain that business model. Still, I have >100G with them and am at $5/mo.
January 27, 2009 21:37
Joshua -

That's pretty cool to have it all baked in, but still not worth the extra box for me. I always create an image of each machine after it's configured with the base install of apps/prefs I use.
January 27, 2009 22:14
Why didn't you mention Gmail / Google Apps as the best solution for outsourcing email?
January 27, 2009 22:19
I've been using WHS since it was first available. Having the piece of mind that my PC is backup every day is great. It also forms part of my family backup plan. The parents have a laptop which I backup once a week onto WHS. Here in South Africa, as I'm sure you are aware from Scott's African holiday, bandwidth is not that cheap so backing up to the cloud is not an option. I also like the fact that it images the PC which can be used to restore a dead machine.
January 27, 2009 22:24
I'm pretty good with my backups, critical files to an external hard drive every night and then a full ghost once a week - including booting the backup to make sure it works.

I had a hard disk failure 3 months ago and was back up and running on a new drive inside 3 hours. However yesterday I faced a new challenge, came to switch on PC and it was totally dead wouldn't power up. Fortunately I noticed a very slight noise coming from it and I just removed the power lead and plugged it back in and it fired up as normal.

It got me thinking though, what if it was totally dead, a mirrored drive isn't much use as you can't replicate a 3 year old PC. So, I think I'm going to get a second PC in case it happens, that way it would be possible to be back up reasonably quickly.
January 27, 2009 22:41
DennisG - I did. It's called GAYFD (Google Apps for your Domain) and it's what I use for It's awesome.

AlvinA - It's the convenience I'm paying for. I'm aware I'm paying for it, but the transparency and bonehead ease of use is worth the money to me.
January 27, 2009 22:42
You can use Gmail & Google Apps as a backup mail server:,guid,23121e52-0337-4c72-92c3-53c472b35f43.aspx
January 27, 2009 23:54
I know, wrong place, but: Mozy Home not supporting WHS kinda sucks :( Funnily, I've blogged about the same topic just last week when I saw that JournalSpace went out of Business because their (only) backup was a RAID-1 configuration, which did not help when the database got corrupted.

As for netsourcing: I agree that mail should usually be kept outside, but also keep in mind that you are now having a dependency on a third party. Can you trust them not to steal/sell/look at your data? What happens if they have server issues? Companies are very reluctant to outsource their IT, often for good, often for bad reasons. But if you really have no in-house IT staff, then it's indeed better to outsource to someone who knows what they are doing.
January 28, 2009 3:56
I can agree with the Idrive recommendation. I have not used it with WHS, but I have seen it work. I have had good luck with the service in general.
January 28, 2009 3:57
I can concur with the IDrive recommendation. I haven't used it personally with WHS, but have heard it does work.

January 28, 2009 5:57
I lost all my photos (about 8 years worth) 6 months ago. I got a new PC and moved my old HDD over to it. I thought I moved the pictures folder onto a new storage drive and deleted the old one. Two months later I go to check some photos and discover they are ALL gone. Recovery software got the photos back all corrupted. I have truly learnt my backup lesson.
January 28, 2009 19:28
Totally agree regarding hosted vs. in-house email but you have to remember that as recently as 5 years ago, there weren't a lot of hosting companies offering Exchange (or even Exchange-like) mail services for a reasonable price. The Microsoft Small Business Server model *was* the best option out there as a balance between features, maintainability, and cost.

Now, even a developer geek like me would never suggest a company with less than 50 people bother to host their own Exchange server when companies like Intermedia can provide the service for less than the cost of an admin to run it all in-house.
January 28, 2009 21:06
I setup a WHS because of a previous blog entry on here - prior to reading it I didn't even know WHS existed! I got a refurbished 1U server that's as loud as anything (dual opteron, yeah a couple years old) and I had to dremel a hole in the top to expand the HDD space but other than that its been great so far. Not only the backups, but the proliferation of addons for WHS, and tight integration with my Media Center. I really don't know how I got along without it before.

There is the JungleDisk addin for WHS that will remain in perpetual beta that works pretty well (encrypts and backs up to Amazon's S3). I also use their software from my wife's store to backup the 2003 server there and my Macs at home ($20 unlimited installations for JD is not bad IMO). My Linux boxes backup important directories to the same S3 account using s3cmd and a shell script I wrote. All said and done 8 GBs costs me about $2 a month to keep perpetually backed up with some versioning allowance for some files. I like having all my off site backups in one place, its convenient.

My home backup strategy is better than my office's.
February 01, 2009 19:55
And of course your backup should be offsite not onsite. We used to work in WTC tower 1 and our backups were in WTC tower 2, you already know how that worked out. So offsite 50 miles or more away would be best or use something like Skydrive or Amazon S3/EC2
February 04, 2009 20:59
Any opinions about using GAFYD for a small business (30-75 employees) versus MS Small Business Server? We use SBS now and it seems like a real bargain. We use ISA Server and SQL Server and get a lot of value out of Exchange using public folders for email and calendars. I haven't used GAFYD but it is hard to imagine it would work as well for us as Exchange works.
February 17, 2009 9:35
@Jim that's FUD. Google Apps works fine, and better yet, you can access them from anywhere, and collaboration features rock. I can't play flight simulator in a spreadsheet, but it's good enough.

@Scott you're right and wrong at the same time.

I agree that you outsource anything that isn't your core competency. But the only problem with CloudSourcing is that you are still reliant on someone else's business, and CloudSourcing, while possibly mitigating some risks, introduces new ones.

The new risks are: The company you outsource to can go broke, no service for their net outages, no service for your net outages, and their unplanned outages and upgrade bugs can affect you when it's not convenient for you, and you have to trust them if they are holding any sensitive data at all (depending on the country you do business in, their data security policy is your concern).

What happens if you want to move or they go bust? Can you migrate your data, are you locked in, and can you even get your data? Do you even have access to a 'dump of everything'. It's your data right?

Sure the story about the mailserver that 'just works' is a hassle when it goes down, but then again it did work for years didn't it, and barring meltdown of the drive, the data is still there?

That company didn't write it's own email software, and they don't have an IT department, so in that sense they did already outsource, they just didn't pick the right guy or they no longer paid to maintain them.

The small company isn't always able to gauge if the internet service or the guy selling software is better, which kindof ruins the entire argument too. They're swapping one set of problems for another.

It's not bad advice per se, but it's a fallacy to think that outsourcing / CloudSourcing mitigates the need of a good backup plan. There are countless examples of data in the cloud going poof too. With CloudSourcing you're still beholden to their their backup strategy too. You'd better hope they tested it. Wait .. wasn't that the point of your post?

PS I hope your home server has it's own backup. What happens in a fire?

Thanks for the great blog ... it's always a pleasure.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.