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Data Security - Back up your computer back-ups

Don't risk losing your precious IT data if there is a fire, warns Dr Neil Paul.

The risk of losing important data in a fire is doubled when backed-up information is kept in the same place as the original files (Photograph: Getty Images)
The risk of losing important data in a fire is doubled when backed-up information is kept in the same place as the original files (Photograph: Getty Images)

Three months ago, Sir Richard Branson's paradise home on Necker Island in the Caribbean went up in flames.

Thankfully no one was hurt, but when Mr Branson was interviewed he was upset about losing 10 years' worth of personal notes and data he wanted to refer to while writing his autobiography.

Although material on the computer was backed up, the back-up was in the same room and was also lost in the fire.

Vulnerable to theft and fire
This had me panicking slightly: I back up my collection of photos and videos and have a large external disk to help with this. But this sits next to my main computer so is similarly vulnerable to theft and fire.

In any case I am paranoid as over the years I have had numerous hard disks die on me.

Luckily I have never lost anything too valuable but I do not rely on just one disk any more. My personal back-up system is a Drobo (see www.drobo.com), an external storage device comprising four hard disks. The idea is that if one disk dies the other three cope.

Since hearing about Sir Richard's problems I have hidden another external drive in a shed at the bottom of our garden. This is just reachable on Wi-Fi and I now back up my back-up automatically to that as well, and feel a lot calmer.

Online back-up solutions
I am also investigating online back-up solutions. Unfortunately upload speeds in the UK are slow. It might take as long as a month to do the first back-up, although after that it is only incremental changes that matter.

Some companies allow you to get round this by sending them a hard disk, but I think this deters people from using them, although an online solution is not very expensive at £200 or so.

Two friends of mine store all their important files on a large, expensive USB memory stick that they keep on their keyring. I would be afraid of losing it, and USB sticks are not actually highly reliable, so I would not recommend using them without a further back-up.

One of the friends recently had to pay more than £100 to recover one Word document needed for a project from a corrupt memory stick.

At the surgery you should be better protected if your system has been correctly set up. You should be on a network and your home drive (sometimes called 'My Documents') should be mapped to a shared drive held on a server that is being backed up properly.

If not - and if you are saving things to the local hard disk (often called 'C') - it is high time you became nervous and investigated alternatives.

Being backed up properly is also a concern. I remember my schooldays, when we looked after a DEC pdp9 mini computer. The hard disks were the size of washing machines. Backing them up was a chore: you ran a copy from A to B then put A away, running off B. You would therefore create daily back-ups. You would also have weekly ones and monthly ones just in case.

The practice server should have a similar back-up system which probably uses tapes. These need swapping regularly and ideally, a set needs to be kept off site. You might want to do a reciprocal deal with a nearby practice or buy the senior partner a fireproof safe.

If you use a remotely hosted clinical system, it might be worth checking that you are using a shared drive for nonclinical stuff and that this drive is properly backed up because the IT staff may not have bothered about this.

Retrieving information
For maximum security you need to check the information can actually be retrieved from the back-up. There are lots of stories of people thinking they had archived pictures and documents to CDs and DVDs but not being able to read them a couple of years later - never mind that technology moves on and that tape format will go out of fashion.

Information stored at the practice is often difficult to get at from home largely because of all the security involved in safeguarding patient data. If you have a lot of non-patient data you might find it easier to investigate cloud computing as your storage device and access the cloud from work and home.

With cloud computing, instead of your own IT system hosting databases or software, a cloud provider does this for you in a server farm while you have access via the internet.

This has several advantages, including access from anywhere, and backing up is done for you.

There are several cloud products available - for example, Box.net, for which you have to pay, and DropBox, which is free for up to 5GB of data. You may need to clear use of these at the practice with your IT people, although these products can usually be accessed through any web browser.

  • Don't save documents on local drives - use a network drive or consider a cloud solution (see main text).
  • Keep copies of your back-ups off site.
  • Have good back-up software that runs in the background, keeping everything backed up all the time. Preferably this should have built-in security and error checking.
  • Investigate redundant disk arrays on which you have been depending to cope with physical failures.
  • Test your back-ups on a regular basis, to make sure they work.
  • Invest in high quality media that is archive quality - it should last longer.
  • Obey instructions on storage and handling of media.
  • Dr Paul is a GP in Cheshire

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