Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Backups are important—just ask the folks at Pixar

June 2, 2012

Do you know where your backups are, right now? Most of us don’t, or if we do, we don’t know what shape they’re in. That inattention nearly cost Pixar the movie “Toy Story 2,” when both its main database and the backup copy became scrambled and lost. And it could happen to you, too, dear reader.

For decades, all cartoons were made the same way, by drawing on “gels” that were fitted into a machine that flipped the gels the way you’d flip the pages in a book, giving the illusion of motion. Today, hand-drawn cartoons are a novelty. Nearly all cartoons are created totally within computer memories. And that’s bad news when something untoward happens to that memory. Months or years of work and millions of dollars can vaporize in a few seconds. Thank heaven for backups, huh? Not so fast.

Pixar didn’t use PCs or Macs to do its work. It relied on the much faster and more powerful Sun servers that ran an operating system very different from the graphical user interfaces you may know. That operating system relies mostly on complex commands you actually have to memorize and type in correctly. In Pixar’s case, the command that caused the problem was a variation on the cryptic term “rm,” which in the language of the Sun server means “remove files.” True to its mission, rm began doing so.

Immediately, panic ensued. The “Toy Story” software used a database of characters from which the film’s rendering would later create the moving figures, so it was a central part of the filmmaking process. It was that database that began disappearing, piece by piece. Part of it was salvaged, but much of the previous months’ work had vanished. Pixar, like most of us, believed its backup would restore the files, but the backup also proved to be defective. With only two known copies of that database, and both being badly damaged, “Toy Story 2” appeared to be all but finished before it had even really begun.

Then a miracle happened that will forever live in high-tech lore. The technical director, Galyn Susman, was a dedicated mom who wanted to work from home occasionally to be with her kids and at the keyboard. She kept a high-end computer at her house that, fortunately for all concerned, had a complete character database on it, just like the ones they’d lost. The Pixar crew raced to her house, brought back the computer, and reloaded the database from it. A year’s work was saved. No word on what happened to whoever typed in the “remove files” command.

So everything ended well with Pixar, but how about with you? Stories like this should galvanize the business community, but it’s likely that you’ll just read this and make a mental note to check on your own backups sometime, when you get around to it. That’s surely understandable.

For most of us, computer files are acknowledged intellectually to be important, but they don’t feel important emotionally. Truthfully, for many of us, old files don’t mean much, because we’ll probably never need them again. I still have materials I did for clients years ago, and have never touched since, on out-of-date media called “zip disks” that I probably couldn’t access if I had to.

But for others, especially those of us who archive materials for clients or work in regulated industries, backups are more than important—they’re indispensable. Many of us have gotten around the backup problem by using “cloud-based” applications, sometimes known as “SaaS” or “software as a service.” My accountant uses one. He keeps few copies of anything locally. In a way, that’s even worse, because it makes the user complacent that the SaaS company itself is keeping good backups, which is not necessarily the case. When it comes to backups, assume that the glass is always half empty—or worse.

As you might expect, most major companies use sophisticated backup systems to make sure vital information is never lost, although even those can fail. Small-business owners can’t match that level of reliability, but they can take steps to be more reliable. Back up regularly to more than one location. Don’t make backups of backups; back up from the originals. Keep one copy physically separate from the other, not together on the same shelf. If possible, keep one in a fireproof safe or off-site in possession of a vault company.

If you’re not sure how to set up an appropriate backup regimen, consult a computer security professional, not just your local computer repair guy. Make sure the media you choose for backup will be in use years from now. I once backed up to zip disks. Try finding a drive for those nowadays.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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