Backing Up Your Parish’s Data

backup-tipsChances are in every diocese this year, at least one of each diocese’s parishes will suffer from a catastrophic data loss.  I’m sure you’ve heard a similar story:  a hard drive crash, spilled coffee or even theft and the all important PC or MAC with the parish’s Church Management System, QuickBooks files, census data, and/or financial spreadsheets is now gone.  Unfortunately, most parishes assume someone is backing up their computers; they’re just not sure who that someone is!  I’ve heard stories of dioceses receiving urgent phone calls from one of their parishes looking for a backup of one of their computers that just crashed only to find out that no, the diocese isn’t backing up their computers.  Similarly the local vendor you bought your computer from three years ago is probably not backing up your computer behind the scenes.  Unless you specifically contracted for an annual backup and recovery service, you need to assume that no one else but you are responsible for backing up your parish’s computers.

There are three types of Backup Strategies I’ve seen churches employ.  Actually, there’s four.  However, even though I’m a fan of prayer, I don’t consider the most common one, “pray nothing ever goes wrong”, an effective backup strategy.  The three types of Backup Strategies commonly employed by a church are:

  1. Barebones – Employs some simple, portable media solution (used to be Zip Drives but now our Flash Drives) to just backup the most critical files.
  2. External Media – Using a tape or hardrive based solution to backup your systems on to other physical media.
  3. Cloud-based Backup Solutions – Backing up your systems to the Internet Cloud.

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Bare bones

If you’re an experienced IT professional, this approach will undoubtedly make you cringe.  However, please remember that most churches don’t have the luxury of having an experienced IT professional working for them.  In many cases its a non-IT person (a lay computer person if you will) trying to backup and secure your church’s data.

The bare bones strategy is just that, bare bones, but its easy and requires little technical knowledge.  A decade ago, this one done via Zip Disks, then CD-ROMs, but now USB Flash Drives are the storage device of choice.  For $40 you can buy a 64 Gig Flash Drive with 4 Gig drives now being less than $10.  This is large enough to potential store your entire “My Documents” folder and should be able to easily accommodate your Quicken Quickbooks backup or the backup of your Church Management System.  In a bare bones approach, you’re not worried about backing up your entire computer, but rather just the critical files.  At least once a month or better yet, once per week, you copy your critical files to a USB Flash Drive and take them offsite or place it in a safe for security.

For less than $40 a piece, I would recommend that you get a few of them and rotate their usage.  Your master files are on your computer, but you have backup #1 that was made 2 weeks ago, and last week #2 was made.  Now at the end of the this week, you copy over the files on backup #1 Flash Drive.  If your only backing up your most critical files, you may be able to fit multiple weeks on the thumb drive.  The only risk to that is these Flash Drives are so convenient and so small that they’re easily misplaced.  You also want to clearly label them as “BACKUP”, so someone else doesn’t grab one and inadvertently reuse it.

External Media

Tapes are the most common form of external media, but are now being replaced by hardrive and solid state drive storage units.  Tapes still have one key Computer backup tapes for data recoveryadvantage over even such as elegant backup solution as Apple’s, Time Capsule, and that is, tapes facilitate taking your data offsite.  You have to remember the risks you’re managing to.  Computer crashes or accidental data deletion are the most common causes of data loss, but other more tragic things can happen too.  If you’re the victim of a fire or a theft chances are your backup device that was sitting next to your computer is now gone or destroyed along with your computer.  As you’ll see in the list of backup steps below, offsite backups of some shape or form need to be part of every backup strategy.

For external media, my favorite solutions are:

  • For Windows Computers – Seagate Backup Plus 1 Terabyte – $89
  • For Macs – Apple’s Time Capsule (for Macs) 2 Terabytes = $299

The Seagate drive comes with its own backup software and the Time Capsule uses your Mac’s built in Time Machine backup software.  Whether you use Windows or Macs there’s many other external hard drive solutions that will work with your operating system’s backup software.  These two options are just very easy to get going out-of-the-box for the non-technical person.

Cloud-based Backup Solutions

Cloud-based backups are becoming very common and are something that every church should look at for their backup strategy.  They basically leverage an online service that stores all your data somewhere in the Internet.  You’ll have to trust the firm to store and secure your data and bear with the time They affordable and easy to setup.   Two great attributes for every parish!  Cloud-based solutions will be covered in a separate post later this week, so stay tuned.

5 Simple Steps to Protect Your Critical Data

In the mean time, regardless of which strategy you employ, there’s some simple tips to both get started and to ensure that if disaster strikes you’ll be well prepared.

These steps are:

1.  Test you backup strategy.  Whatever strategy you employ, make sure you test it once a year or better yet quarterly.  Just testing it with a single file helps immensely.  Make a copy of a file, wait a week, delete it, wait another week, and then try and restore the file.  If your the IS person, you’ll be doing the work.  If you’re not your church’s IS person, ask them.  Don’t tell them its a test.  Just ask and see what happens.

2.  Follow the Backup Practices of Your Critical Applications – Quicken QuickBooks (File, Create Backup) and Church Management Systems, like ParishSoft, all make local backup copies of their databases.  By local, I mean they’re stored to the same computer the system runs on.  You absolutely need to know where these backup files are.  These are the files that must be backed up on a regular basis.  Find out where they are and make sure they’re going to your backup device on a regularly basis.

3.  Stay (Reasonably) Current with both Software and Hardware – Do you remember floppy disks or Zip Drives?  If you still have one lying around in a drawer somewhere, try and see what files are still on it.  Chance are you no longer have any way of reading files off those devices.  Backup devices change with the times, you need to keep changing with them.  Keep your software current, too.  Many church management system vendors require you to purchase annual support as part of their contract.  While I don’t like being forced into a contract like this there their are benefits if something goes wrong, they’re there to help.  If you use QuickBooks, make sure your version isn’t more than 3 years old.  Any older and you risk Quicken support not being able to help you recover a corrupted database.

4. Move Your Data Offsite – Your backups are only going to be effective if you can get to them when you need them.  Its a prudent practice to regularly take your backups offsite.  This helps shield them from fire and theft.  Even at my house, I intentionally locate my backup device (its a wireless Apple Time Capsule) in my basement away from my computer.  It won’t help in the event of a fire, but just in case of a break-in, chances are my backup device will still be there.  Once a year I then backup what I really care about, my family photos, and put them in a safe deposit box.

5.  Secure Your Passwords – One related challenge to backups is having the necessary passwords to do a restore.  The bare bones approach probably doesn’t need any passwords, but External Media or Cloud-based backup solutions often require an administrator password to restore files.  These passwords get rarely used, are too often forgotten, and need to therefore, unfortunately, then be written down.  Either use a password repository online, like LastPass, or simply write the Administrator password down and put it in an envelop in the church safe.  Like your backups, please don’t store your passwords right next to the computer!

In the next installment of this article, we’ll take a closer look at the pros and cons of a Cloud-based backup solution and some of the leading Cloud-based backup vendors currently out there.





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Author:Joe Luedtke

Joe Luedtke is LPi and is currently leading LPi’s efforts to move into the on-line world. Joe works for the world's largest and oldest social network, religion, and believes that this social network could benefit tremendously from the the proper use of Internet technologies.