Generally when I’m asked to “rescue” a small business owner from missing or lost data, the first question I have for them is “Where is your website backup?” Typically, their response runs somewhere between pointing to a jumbled pile of CDs and/or DVDs and “Backups? What’s a backup?” It’s rarely a nice middle-ground answer, but tends toward one end of the spectrum or the other.
Insert huge sigh here.
If it’s a small business website owner I’m talking to, the answer is almost guaranteed to be “My web host takes care of that for me.”
In my experience, the only people who backup their data at all tend to be those who have lost precious data to a hard drive crash or similar disaster. The event almost never fails to give them religion, but of course, the zeal fades after a couple of months with no catastrophes. We humans want to believe that our hard drives will last forever and that our web hosts know how to back up our websites properly. As long as nothing happens to dispel either of those myths, we blithely compute away, a disaster waiting to happen.
The absolute worst case I ever saw was at a client’s site back in the early 1980’s. They were upgrading their computer system because the one they were on was running 24/7/365 and couldn’t keep up with the volume of their business. It was so bad that they didn’t take time out to back up their data (which would have taken less than an hour each day) because they didn’t want to fall further behind than they already were. Therefore, they had not turned off the machine for over a year!
What’s wrong with that picture? It doesn’t take a genius to realize that a hard drive crash probably would have wiped out enough of their data to put their entire business in danger of folding. They were running a maxed out system that had a total of 6 hard drive cabinets, all of which were figuratively bursting at the seams.
So, in we came one Friday night to transfer their software and data to a shiny new system with a comparative ton of memory and disk space, not to mention the horsepower to expand well beyond their current needs. The first thing we had on our checklist was “Backup existing system.” In those days that meant shutting down the primary disk, loading a bootable backup disk and starting the machine back up. Once the primary disk was backed up, the rest could be backed up in sequence using the already loaded software. As I mentioned, this rather clumsy process took the better part of an hour.
Well, an hour later, we had a fully backed up system. We shut down the primary disk, put their run disk back in and started it up. Or rather we attempted to start it back up. Turns out the boot sector on the disk had gone south at some undetermined time in the past while it was on its knees trying to handle the load and begging for mercy.
This outfit had no clue how close they came to losing their entire business. Had the primary disk failed completely, there might have been an old backup of their software somewhere from which we could have restored it. After all, it hadn’t changed in a year! The problem would have been any data contained on that disk. Backups from a year ago are of no use with present-day data. That should be obvious to the greenest of computer users, yet these folks were so focused on processing their business data, they were completely oblivious to the fact.
Now, in a case like that, it’s pretty easy to answer “No” to the title question, right? What about if you’re diligently backing up every week or two? If you’re copying your entire disk drive(s) somewhere, you can probably assume you’ll be able to recover, although it won’t be easy. Most of us don’t back up entire hard drives, though. We tend to pick and choose what to back up, trusting ourselves to remember what’s been backed up and what’s been changed since the last backup.
If you’re a busy small business owner like most of us, you’ve got so many details floating around in your head that there’s no way you’re going to remember everything you changed. Remember when you got on a roll and spewed out page after page of sales copy with accompanying photos and graphics? Then, went back and edited them a few days later? Then changed your mind and wanted to go back to the first version?
Show of hands, please…
All of the above is bad enough if you’re maintaining an HTML website. You can almost count on your web host to back up your site correctly as long as A) you don’t have too much data (ever check to see what “unlimited” really means?) and B) you’re not using a backend database such as MySQL to store data. If you’re using WordPress, your web host is virtually guaranteed not to know how to back it up correctly, unless they happen to specialize in WordPress hosting (read: expensive).
WordPress consists of two major components: the software, uploaded media, themes, and plugins (at a minimum) and a MySQL database that contains the site settings, posts, pages, and other critical data without which your site will not run. Depending on the configuration of the server your web host has you on, the MySQL server might be on the server itself or it might be on a completely separate machine. In either case, there is virtually no way to guarantee that the database will be backed up simultaneously with the software components. That’s because typically a small business website is on a shared server sharing resources with a number of other clients of the hosting company. When they back up the database, everybody’s data gets backed up at once. The same is not true of the software pieces because it’s not physically possible to do so.
So, what does that mean in English? If your web host’s server crashes, and they do crash just like your home computer if a tad less often on average, they will restore the software portion of your web site, but not necessarily the database unless the database was also involved in the crash and became corrupted. The problem is that you don’t know when those backups took place. They could be up to a week old, or longer. One part might be a week old and the other part a day or two, so they’re now out of sync and your website is in big trouble.
I think I’ve thoroughly explained the problem. Now, of course, you want to know what to do about it. That will be our next installment in a day or two or three. Stay tuned!
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