Backup your backup

Basic business sense demands that we backup our computer systems.

by Paul Feuerstein, DMD

Basic business sense demands that we backup our computer systems. Most practitioners use multiple backup tapes and store them at home. But how often do you check the reliability of the backups? Have you ever tried to restore the system? How do you know it works?

I've used Quicken for years. Although our system is networked, we kept the data on the same machine as the program, and backed up to a series of four floppies, with three successive sets. One day, the hard drive crashed. "No problem," I thought, "I'll just reinstall Quicken from the original disks and restore from the backup disks. "Error # 14 — data not readable?" Let's try set 2. Three disks went through; the last one died. The third backup finally worked. This incident painfully taught me that we should do a periodic test restore and replace the media on a regular basis.

I polled my experts at several practice-management companies. The general consensus is that for large amounts of data backup, DAT tape is the best and most economical. The tapes — which can crimp, stretch, or break — should be replaced at least once a year. Keep in mind that the manufacturer will replace the broken tape at no cost — but not your data. Oddly, the tape drive itself can cause problems. Over time, the head alignment can go off slightly. The tape machine will read and write your set of tapes; however, should disaster strike, a brand-new machine may be incapable of reading the old tape. Two solutions can prevent this. You could get a second tape machine and put it on a different computer, perhaps even at home. Periodically, make a copy of the office data on another tape drive. Always remember that backing up your data is no guarantee that it can be restored.

Some offices use a laptop as an alternate backup; others use the second tape drive or CD-R In either case, it proves the system. One interesting alternative is a removable hard drive. This used be an expensive proposition, but reasonably priced USB hard drives with 20-plus gigabytes are easy to find. If utilized correctly, a removable hard drive can adequately serve as a "backup to the back up." Store the drive at home, or in another secure location — and test frequently.

One notable reliability problem is "skipped files." In some backup systems, an open file on the computer or anywhere on the network cannot be copied. If you don't study the backup report that appears on the screen after the process, you may not notice skipped files. This is a potentially serious issue, as one of these files could have your critical data. Thus, the periodic restore is essential. With a little expertise from your software company, you may actually perform a restore to another computer on the network that is not the server. Then, carefully remap the software to read the data on that machine. This is actually the protocol to follow should the main server crash and you have to use another computer temporarily. Make sure you have support to guide you through the process and that there are no active users on the network. You must switch back to the main server right after the test.

Internet backup is another option, but can be tedious without a high-speed connection or cable access. Several companies offer storage services offsite. This type of service is what allowed the stock market to reopen — with no data loss — after the September 11 tragedy. These companies had redundant backups; data entered in New York City was simultaneously sent over a network computers in other states. Dentists don't have to be that sophisticated, but must be close in concept.

Whatever system you choose, simplfy the process. Once you have determined your strategy, verify it with your practice-management company. Make certain that more than one person in the office understands your system. We teach prevention to our patients; we need to take our own advice.

Dr. Paul Feuerstein installed one of dentistry's first computers when he placed a system in his office in 1978, and he has been fascinated by the technology ever since. For more than 20 years, he has taught courses on technology throughout the country. He is a mainstay at technology sessions in New England, including annual appearances at the Yankee Dental Congress, and has been a part of the ADA's Technology Day since its inception. A general practitioner in North Billerica, Mass., since 1973, Dr. Feuerstein maintains a Web site (www. computersindentistry.com) and can be reached by email at drpaul@computersindentistry.com.

More in Practice Management Software