Who does backups these days, anyway?

Relax, we've got your back

Well I do and of course so do you, so we're covered then!  A bit like "The whole world's gone mad...except you and me!"

Seriously, I've been involved in computer/network support in regional South Australia since the late nineties. I would make a best guess-estimate that 10% (probably less) of people that I've worked with have meaningful backups of their data. Meaningful being, the majority of their data on an independent device. Some start with good intentions and then they slip.

A higher percentage might back up, say, their financial accounts, e.g. their MYOB data file, usually on a daily basis or at least after working with it. But guess what? Ask them where that backup resides and many can't tell you. Usually in that case it's most likely it's in the same directory as their main data file. Not much good if the drive fails!

Now most times when people have a problem and can't access their data it's because their computer has died. This may be because of software (usually) or malware or some hardware problem other than the hard drive. So when the machine is fixed there data is there. Beware the repairer doesn't wipe the drive before repairing, this is probably more common than actual hard drive failure.

The hard drive is where all the important stuff is stored. Usually you can grab that hard disk "storage" and plug it into another computer and copy your gear off. HOWEVER, although it's not that common, I have seen cases of hard drive failure where the data is not available because the device just doesn't work. Crikey, I have one of these myself. Sometimes but not necessarily a dead end, but potentially an expensive exercise to recover data in these cases.

In the last few years there has been a proliferation of file storage solutions, hosted apps and documents. Services like Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud, Amazon Cloud Drive, Amazon S3, Adobe Creative Cloud and OneDrive are but a few and Wikipedia compares 28 services here. With all this storage online, ones where people fully expect that these resources will be backed up and safe, they could be excused in thinking that data redundancy is a given, everywhere. The trouble is that it's not. Not now and probably not ever.

What about your website backups?

Often the result of many hours of work and thousands of dollars, websites are just data, just files, stored somewhere. Most server administrators will have some sort of backups in place, in case of disaster. Mostly these backups are large and cumbersome and take hours if not days to restore. Individual websites might be able to be restored from these backups, but often the process is slow, cumbersome and can be expensive.

Another point is that the age of the backup may be either very old (months) or only quite recent and not necessarily containing a version of your site that you would be happy with. A hack or corruption may not be noticed for a day or even a fews days and a recent backup may hold the same data as the broken site. Not much use.

I often hear the expression, in the cloud or on the cloud, often said as if that imparted some heavenly reverence for the security and redundancy of the speaker's data. Remember, the cloud is just a bunch of computers and wires. In many cases cloud-based hosting of websites does nothing to provide an independent copy of your website. So whether hosted in the cloud or on a single physical machine, your data, your website, will potentially be at risk.

So what can I do, you ask?

Well most website control panels have some form of backup facility. Maybe your web hosting service or web developer looks after you and you just give them a call and they set up your next new email account for you. So you've never needed to stick your head in there for a look around before. The most common is cPanel, so we'll use that as an example.

In fact I'll introduce cPanel to you, because if you haven't needed to use it, you may not even know it exists. (I know I speak for many of my own clients when I say that)

cPanel and it's parent WHM (Web Host Manager) is software that sits on a server and manages web hosting accounts. WHM manages the server to a large degree and the cPanel accounts within. WHM really is the software that a hosting provider uses to manage his customers' web hosting accounts. Of interest to the average punter however is the cPanel software.

cPanel manages most things associated with your website:

  • The files that make up the website
  • The databases that stores much of the information that your website displays. - I can remember the days when website were largely static files. Once upon a time a "database driven" site was new and excitingly cool. Nowadays database driven is almost invariably the case.
  • Email mailboxes
  • Email forwards
  • DNS entries
  • SSL Certificates
  • Backups
  • Dozens of other bits and pieces
  • Tools to install all manner of software including WordPress

Now as backups are on the list they are of interest to this article.

In cPanel, backups can be full or partial. That is that they can be a complete backup containing all files data and configuration details. This can be saved locally or sent via ftp to another server. Generally you would use this the move the whole hosting to another server. The downside is that this is often large and if stored locally, quickly eats up allocated space to the point of going over quota and making the website unusable. Partial backups can be home directory, database/s, email forwards and email filters. The first two are of interest and can be directly downloaded AND importantly, restored. Still it's a fairly manual process.

Email is stored in the Home Directory backup unless it has been downloaded or deleted from the server. Most small websites incorporate email with their web hosting and for low volume it's the most cost effective scenario. There is a good argument for separating this vital part of your online data from your website hosting. Worth exploring another time.

The best way to keep your WordPress website backed up is to outsource the responsibility, use a plugin to achieve this or an external service.

Whichever solution you go for an offsite backup is the safest option, so your data is not on the server that hosts the site. Also being able to schedule the backups is important.

Of the plugins I've used BackWPUp, BackUpWordpress, BackupBuddy.  WP-DB-Backup is popular but only backs up the database and your files need to be backed up manually. This is OK if you don't upload many media files (images etc). In fact many of these backup programs can be configured only to do database backups, with files being saved less often. Of the external services I've used WPMain, iControlWP, CMS Commander and ManageWP, which is my all-time favourite. Many are subscription based others pay once and renew for updates. Some are free!

Like with all things WordPress, we are spoiled for choice. Sometimes you just have to try a few and go with what you like the best. Most software will back up to Amazon S3, Google Drive or Dropbox. Really, the main thing is to get comfortable with the software then get comfortable with a few basics of WordPress so you can happily restore your site when things go pear shaped. Another thing to note is that some solutions require a running instance of WordPress to be able to restore, which after a bad hack, may not be so, in which case you might need to set one up and then restore over the top.

In conclusion, you need to decide how important your data/website is and whether you are capable or comfortable with performing the backup and restore process. Decide what the value is of you taking on this role in time spent and whether this is cost effective. Either way, it is something that any website owner should address.

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