Preparedness for Digital Doomsday, by David W.

Saturday, Jan 2, 2010

One subject I've not seen mentioned recently is that of data recovery and security. As a proponent of various disaster recovery plans for large companies during my tenure as in information technology auditor I'd like to propose a few ideas to the readers to increase the chances of keeping data post-TEOTWAWKI. No one plan works for everyone and your mileage may vary.

First off we all generate lots more data then we think. The most common insurance against loss of a home PC is regularly maintained backups to some form of storable media like DVD-r’s. However, in a post-TEOTWAWKI world we might not be able to count on having functional hardware to restore to on the other side of the crisis. The decision to attempt to maintain digital data must first be made. Assembling your family photos and all of the documents will most likely result in a heavy cumbersome item to store and/or move. Printing the entire 2009 year of this very blog results in quite a stack of paper. Keeping a for each monthly archive results in 12 megabytes of data - a very tiny amount to manage when we think of data in terms of gigabytes. Indeed assuming the same amount of content, about 66 years of monthly printouts of survival blog can fit on one CD-ROM, about 400 years on a single DVD-R.

Maintaining a digital store of data of your records, photos, videos and other media has its ups and downs. On the plus side you can store an enormous volume of material (you can even scan your entire paper file) on a small device such as a laptop or external drive. These items are fairly easy to grab and go - and they can be copied for redundancy to fairly inexpensive devices for backup purposes. The downside is that power is required, they are vulnerable to EMP, and in the event of total loss you don’t have a scrap of paper to rely upon. Even after scanning your papers to digital format, be sure to keep the most critical papers ready to go alongside your backup drive. It’s a big decision, however in my case I keep so much data that I’m going all out to preserve as much as possible. Ill lay out my strategy at the end of this article.

Supplying power is the key to using any digitally stored material post TEOTWWAKI. Laptops can require 10x less power than a typical desktop model. In my home office I use a desktop, but I frequently transfer all of the data to my laptop machine. That way I can grab my laptop and go if need be. Readers of Patriots may recall the use of a notebook for movie night years after the crunch. A solar charger and small inverter (175 watts or so) is generally sufficient to power a laptop with its 110/220 adapter. The prescient purchase of a 12 volt car charger for your laptop will save the inherent loss of running an inverter to step up to 120 VAC merely to convert it back down to around 12-14 volts DC. [JWR Adds: I agree! As I've previously mentioned in SurvivalBlog, a DC to DC adapter is far more efficient than a DC-to-AC-to-DC solution, with an inverter! Ditto for simple battery charging of NiMH AA, C, D, and 9 VDC batteries! For those, use a DC-to-DC charging tray, available for RV accessory dealers, such as Camping World.]

Another machine type to consider is a Mini PC or Book PC – these are available – and quite small for a grab and go situation. They require a keyboard, mouse and display but otherwise are self contained. Personally I prefer a laptop but there are some other choices out there.

Battery life and survivability is reasonably good with modern laptop batteries. Their life can be prolonged in several ways. First off they generally hold three to five hundred cycles of charge and discharge. They do not suffer the 'memory effect' of prior types of NiMh and NiCd batteries. See this site for more information on prolonging Lithium type batteries. That said, the cell will last longer if it is not cycled very often. If at all possible, run the laptop from its power adapter and use the battery only once or twice a month. In this way you should be able to get more years of service. Spare batteries can be purchased as well.

Hardware survivability is the other key. Unless you have deep pockets, buying multiple notebooks for redundancy is out of the question. I'd rather have a backup M1A then a spare laptop any day of the week. That said there are certain parts you can purchase that greatly increase your chances. Whatever machine you have, acquire a spare hard disk drive. These are now so small and cheap and readily available on ebay. Note that spare internal hard drives for laptops differ from external USB drives. There are great advantages to having both spare internal hard disks for your laptop as well as a few external drives. Another consideration can be the new solid state hard disks which are less prone to failure with no moving parts.

Step one is a data inventory. Bear in mind that I use a desktop PC and transfer a copy of the data to my laptop frequently. In my case I am very diligent about storing every file in the My Documents folder. By right clicking on the “my documents” folder, and then clicking the 'general' tab, windows will tally up the count of files and give you their total size. In my case, 193 GB

The next step is to make backups. With some quick and dirty math I know that it is quite a chore to burn these to the 41 (193GB / 4.7GB per DVD) but every four months I do so, anyway.. There are many other strategies but this works for me. Other folks like to burn only the data since the last backup. (Do a web search on “incremental backup” for more information.)) These are stored in a CD wallet and placed with my backup materials. I rely on these in the event that hardware and backup drives are all a total loss, and will recover the data after the crisis ebbs. After sizing the "my documents" folder and any other data folders I want, i plug in an external hard drive ( in my case a 1TB free agent drive which cost about $99 ) and before going to sleep, I drag and drop the files to copy on to it. By morning the copy is complete. This is done weekly in my case. I can tolerate the loss of one week of data but no more. Finally, after the copy is complete, I delete the prior documents on my laptop. (Be careful – if you use the laptop to change a file you must save it to another location or risk it’s loss) , and copy the fresh full backup I just made from the external hard drive to the folder on the laptop, which takes several hours and should be done at night.

What I end up with is my desktop PC with all of its data. I do my work here. I also have an external drive ready to go with the most up to date data, and a laptop already loaded with the same information, ready to grab and go at a moment’s notice. Or in the event of extended power failure, while sheltering at home, I can power up the laptop using my small solar charger to use the information stored there. Finally I have a CD Wallet that has most of the data if no hardware is working. Lots of redundancy.

For more advanced users, or those who like to learn and are fearless to experiment, I highly recommend the Linux world. Go to and download the latest disc image and burn it to a CD-ROM. You end up with a bootable CD-ROM that loads linux instead of windows (and can be toyed with without making changes to your PC if you just want to poke around.) That has many technical capabilities that exceed the scope of this writing. Many distributions of linux can support booting from a USB Jump Drive – with the ability to see the hard drive in the machine. Since the hard drive has the moving parts it is most prone to failure. One Linux strategy that I employ is having a USB Jump drive bootable to linux and DVD backups of my most critical data. Truly the top 1,000 of my most favorite family photos, and scans of my most important works all fit on a single DVD-ROM. Using that strategy I can boot Linux from the USB Jump Drive and see my most crucial stored data on DVD-R’s without the use of any hard drive. Not one moving part to break.

Everyone should consider developing some strategy. I find the idea of a functioning computer loaded with survival information, literature, my personal information, family photos and archives and other critical data a comfortable thought for TEOTWAWKI. It is also a great item for entertainment, and hopefully after the crisis I can assist others in recovering their digital lives.

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