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Back Up Your Contacts

Friday, November 6th, 2009

My in-flight reading for last week’s trip to Cleveland was Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith. (Yes, oh FTC inspectors, that’s an Amazon Affiliate Link.) I don’t buy hardcover books by just anyone, but I’m a big fan of Chris Brogan’s, and increasingly impressed by what I hear of Julien Smith on the Media Hacks podcast, f-bombs notwithstanding.

The subheading on page 169 on this guidebook for “how to be human at a distance” is “You Live or Die by Your Database.” I’ve talked about backing up your WordPress database on this blog, but the database Chris and Julien mean is the one you store contact information in.

There are several online applications that people use for contact management. Some use their Gmail account. Others use Plaxo. Still others consider LinkedIn a great place to store professional information. Software built specifically for contact management includes Highrise from 37 Signals, BatchBook from BatchBlue Software, and beyond that, there are several other applications. (p. 171)

It’s no surprise that authors who co-wrote their book on Google Docs should mention online contact management tools. In the next breath (or at least the next paragraph), however, they remind readers of the importance of keeping a local copy of that online database—in other words, a backup. “If, as we say, you live or die by your database, why would you trust a third party with its ultimate integrity?”

Amen, brothers.

Exporting to CSV

Of the tools they mention, the only one I use is LinkedIn. (I have a Gmail account, but I almost never use it, so I don’t have any useful contact information stored there, and Plaxo developed such a reputation for spamming everyone in your address book back at the turn of the millennium that I still won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.) It’s quite easy to back up your LinkedIn contacts as a group. In the bottom right corner of your Connections page, there’s a link that says “Export Connections.” When you click it, you go to the export page:

If you would like to back up your LinkedIn connections to Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, Yahoo! Address Book, or Mac OS Address Book, please select your application and file type from the menu below, then click “Export.”

The file type for Outlook, Outlook Express, and Yahoo! is CSV, which stands for “Comma-Separated Values.” That’s a very old format for storing data in a plain text file, and while it looks like gibberish to the human eye, you can import it into almost any kind of contact manager, from Outlook or Entourage to Excel. You can even upload it into another LinkedIn profile if you’ve made the mistake of creating two of them, or into an e-mail service provider. (Don’t even think of doing that without permission.) Sometimes you’ll have to manually match up the names of the data fields in one program with the field names in another, but a CSV file is an almost universally usable form of backup.

In fact, if you want to back up your Outlook contacts, go to File|Import and Export and select “Export to a File.” Comma Separated Values is your first choice—and also your second, since you get both DOS and Windows flavors. This is what you do if you want to move your Outlook contacts to LinkedIn, instead of the other way around.

I’ve just produced CSV files from both sources and put them into my Dropbox. CSV files are quite small, since they’re “flat” files: just text, nothing else.

The only problem with creating CSV files from these programs is that you can’t automate the process. If I want a backup of my LinkedIn connections, I have to remember to go in and make one; likewise if I want my Outlook contacts in CSV rather than PST format.

Where Else Are Your Contacts?

Once upon a time, there was a thing called a Rolodex. You filled it with cards on which you had written people’s contact information. Maybe you pasted in their business cards.

These  days, not many people have one. Instead, they have cell phones. And the easiest place to store a phone number someone gives you when you’re away from your desk is inevitably your cell phone.

A cell phone leads a dangerous life, thanks to being carried around everywhere. And you don’t have to be in a high-tech business to depend on yours. My mother’s phone recently suffered an unfortunate encounter with a glass of water in the middle of the night, and Verizon couldn’t get her contacts back. (Verizon does offer a backup service for its users, but doesn’t make a big deal out of advertising it.)

If you have a smartphone, you probably sync it with your computer. If your iPhone or BlackBerry dies, you most likely have a copy of the phone numbers and e-mail addresses it contains right on your PC (or Mac). But those of us with “dumbphones” either need to sign up for programs like Verizon’s Backup Assistant, develop an unfailing habit of manually copying phone numbers from the phone into the computer or a paper address book—or find ourselves digging through scraps of paper and old appointment books in an attempt to reconstruct the information. (My mother actually ended up driving to a client’s house instead of returning his call because she couldn’t find his phone number and he had Caller ID blocked.)

Is Paper Best After All?

Personal productivity and brain style expert Eve Abbott used to print out all her ACT! contacts once a year just in case the computer crashed, but using paper to back up your contacts gets to be unwieldy when your contacts number in the thousands. (I haven’t seen one of those printouts since she switched to Outlook a few years ago.) And with so many people changing jobs these days, the information on those printouts can get to be obsolete pretty quickly.

So while the business cards in plastic sleeves or even the scribbled numbers in the appointment book might save you in the event of a drive failure or drowned phone,  they’re no substitute for regular electronic backups. Create a cell phone backup plan, automate any contact backups you can, and set yourself reminders to create CSV files from your online databases on a regular basis.

Because the important thing about your contact database isn’t where you store it, but being able to reach the people you keep in it.

Putting Your Data in Danger

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

Would you entrust your data to a company called “Danger”? Microsoft and T-Mobile did. And it was your data, if you were a Sidekick user.

The adventure began on October 10th. The headline in TechCrunch read “T-Mobile Sidekick Disaster: Danger’s Servers Crashed, And They Don’t Have A Backup.” Jason Kincaid, author of the TechCrunch article, was absolutely scathing on the subject:

This goes beyond FAIL, face-palm, or any of the other internet memes we’ve come to associate with incompetence. The fact that T-Mobile and/or Microsoft Danger don’t have a redundant backup is simply inexcusable, especially given the fact that the Sidekick is totally reliant on the cloud because it doesn’t store its data locally.

I’ve never used a Sidekick, but a mobile device that doesn’t store phone numbers, etc locally at all seems bizarre, and in fact I’m not sure that statement is quite accurate, given suggestions in other articles that if you keep the Sidekick charged and turned on, you would at least save anything in its current memory.

But then, I still have a “dumbphone,” so what do I know about how these things work?

By October 11th, T-Mobile had posted the following discouraging notice on its user forums:

Regrettably, based on Microsoft/Danger’s latest recovery assessment of their systems, we must now inform you that personal information stored on your device — such as contacts, calendar entries, to-do lists or photos — that is no longer on your Sidekick almost certainly has been lost as a result of a server failure at Microsoft/Danger.

Not surprisingly, the media has been all over the story. “Microsoft has said that the hardware failure that caused the problem took out both the primary and backup copies of the database that contained Sidekick users’ information,” Ina Fried wrote on October 12th. “But the question remains, why wasn’t there a true independent backup of the data?”

That would certainly be my question. Rafe Needleman, also writing for CNET on October 12th, concluded that you can’t trust the cloud because you can’t trust the people running it. The problem, in other words, is not one of technology. Tech support staff often refer to problems that start “between the keyboard and the chair.”

If it’s possible to create independent, redundant backups in your own data center, it’s possible to do it in the data centers used by cloud computing companies. The only difference  is that you can’t walk down the hall and see that they’ve done it. Some people will slack off when you aren’t there to hold them accountable, but that’s not true of everyone. As Lance Ulanoff concluded in his October 13th article, “Don’t Blame Cloud Computing for the T-Mobile Mess,”

Obviously, something went very, very wrong with T-Mobile and Microsoft’s Sidekick data set-up, but let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater (or the cloud with the rainwater). The cloud isn’t the problem. Instead, I blame the people—as always.

But the Register, with typically British enthusiasm for a pun, declared “Danger Lurks in the Clouds” on October 18th. The danger is that all mobile devices will rely increasingly on a working connection to provide any functions at all. Nevertheless, author Bill Ray concludes:

Cloud-based servers are still more reliable than most of the kit knocking around users’ homes – the life expectancy of an Apple Time Capsule, for example, is just over 17 months according to the Time Capsule Memorial Register, so even those who are backing up locally shouldn’t be too smug.

That article concludes, in the Register’s usual tongue-in-cheek fashion, that paper is the only safe storage medium.

By October 20th, Microsoft and Danger had in fact been able to restore some of the data, as reported in CNET and on T-Mobile’s user forum. That’s a happier ending than Sidekick owners had been led to expect. I’m glad they got their data back, but if I’d been affected, I’d want more.

I’d want to know what the company was going to do differently from now on so that this wouldn’t happen again. And I’d want a free application that would let me back up all my contacts, calendar entries, etc, onto my computer. It wouldn’t even have to sync with Outlook or Google or Mac-whatever, as long as I’d be able to restore the data to my mobile device.

Finally, as an occasional naming consultant, I want to see Microsoft Danger rebranded. What incentive do you have to entrust something valuable to a company called Danger? What incentive do employees of a company called Danger have to be careful? Danger is a fun name for a company that makes games, but for data storage, it just sounds unreliable.

Visiting Spare Backup

Friday, July 17th, 2009

Last week while we were in Pasadena visiting family members (mine), the Ur-Guru and I drove out to Palm Desert to the corporate offices of Spare Backup, Inc. Long-time readers of this blog may remember that I covered Spare’s online backup service/software about a year ago, and also (DISCLOSURE) that they’re a client of mine. (They weren’t a client yet at the time I wrote the review.) The reason for the trek across the desert was to talk about future projects. Naturally I can’t discuss those on the blog, but I’m happy to talk about the part of the visit that wasn’t confidential.

First, as you might guess from its name, Palm Desert is hot. I’m told that it’s actually bearable several months out of the year, but July is not one of those months. It was 110°F, and I learned something new about my car: the clutch squeaks at high temperatures. This of course made for added peace of mind when attempting to locate an essentially unmarked building on a street with an unusual numbering system.

We arrived on the same day gave Spare Backup’s flagship product 4.5 out of 5 stars, which meant everyone was in a good mood, but also on the same day as the first investor conference call, which meant the CEO was distracted.

While we were there admiring the artistic silver-toned lighting fixtures and the slick blue broken-glass table in the executive conference room, however, we got to see some demonstrations, including a look at the back end of Spare’s enterprise backup product (the one I wrote the white paper about last year); a preview of Spare Room, the file synchronization, sharing, and collaboration suite that’s available in beta for Spare Backup’s current online backup customers; and some early tests of Spare Mobile on Android and Windows Mobile phones. (Though I’m not a smartphone user myself, I found the mobile application fascinating.)

After the initial demos in the QA lab, CTO Darryl Adams showed us his special demo in the working conference room, involving two laptops, a camera, and a wireless printer. He took a photo and sent it to the first laptop, where it was automatically backed up. Photos backed up to “the cloud” as part of Spare Backup’s system become part of Spare Room. Previously set commands synced that photo to the second laptop, which also set it as the desktop wallpaper. (Looking at the photo below, would you want it for your wallpaper?) Finally, the photo was sent to the printer.

Sallie Goetsch & Stefan Didak at Spare Backup

It was a pretty neat demonstration, and the only hitch seemed to be getting the wi-fi to work in order to get started. Darryl says that his wife uses that sync feature to send him photos of their two-year-old on a daily basis—though without the added command to print.

It will be interesting to see how the final version of Spare Room stacks up against its assorted competitors. Spare’s great claim to fame has always been ease of use , and both Spare Mobile and Spare Room seem likely to carry through on that promise. (This is the backup service for people who don’t know what files are, and where someone once called the help desk to say “Your software broke my toaster.”)

We enjoyed the trip up the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway while waiting for the rush-hour traffic to lighten up so we could return to Pasadena (CEO Cery Perle recommends it to all Spare Backup’s visitors), but it’s good to be back in a more forgiving climate—one where the clutch doesn’t squeak.

Data Disasters: Did You Forget Your Mobile Workforce? FileSlinger™ Backup Reminder 08-15-08

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

The Ur-Guru and I have just returned from a week of Extreme Tourism in Chicago. He took 28 GB of photos. Each night he copied them all from his camera’s 8 GB Compact Flash card onto the two portable hard drives he’d brought along. (One serves as the original, one as the backup, and then he clears off card so he can take more pictures.)

We also fixed my father’s wireless router, so there’s wi-fi in his 45th-floor apartment again, but I had to use webmail for outgoing messages because RCN (Dad’s cable Internet provider) appears to block any outgoing traffic from non-RCN senders.

Anyway, I’m back home with another guest post for you, this one from Ken Colburn of Data Doctors.

Data Disasters: did you forget your mobile workforce?

A hard drive crashes every 15 seconds…

2,000 laptops are stolen or lost every day…

1 in 5 computers suffers a fatal hard drive crash during their lifetime…
31% of PC users have lost all of their files due to events beyond their control…

60% of companies that lose all their data will shut down within 6 months of the disaster…

The overall average failure rate of disk drives is 100% – all drives eventually fail…

And another hard drive just crashed while you were reading this.

Will one of yours be next? Are you prepared?

If you ask your IT department, they will assure you that the primary servers are being backed up every day and that an off-site data storage component is in place, so no matter what happens, the company is covered.

What most IT departments fail to recognize is that as much as 60% of a company’s mission critical data resides on hard drives that are not being backed up.

Your mobiles sales team, your CEO’s laptop, remote users or offices; the list can go on.

The assumption by the IT staff that all the users are following the company policy for backing up critical data is generally flawed.

In reality, getting 100% compliance from all users is virtually impossible because of a single hurdle; human nature. Everyone knows that a hard drive could fail at any moment, but no one thinks it’s going to happen to them, so they will do it tomorrow.

In providing data recovery services for over a decade, a pattern has emerged as more companies rely on computers; critical data is being lost on a regular basis.

The proliferation of the laptop computer as well as the increase in remote workers and even the digital camera (of all things) are primary drivers.

I regularly run into mobile salespeople throughout the country and in every discussion I hear the same thing: “I would be totally screwed if my laptop crashed or got stolen” and it’s usually followed by “my IT guys just don’t understand”.

Digital cameras have also increased the need for data recovery because digital images are not thought of as “data”… until they are gone! We routinely see a drive in for data recovery that has thousands of mission critical images on it that no one thought to backup or were so large that they did not fit into traditional backup procedures.

Even with the realization that their future is in jeopardy, statistically only 1 in 4 users will regularly back up their files. Why? It’s generally too technical or time consuming.

Another common mistake that some IT departments make is assume that if the critical data is being backed up and we can replace a laptop with an image of the corporate software, we have everything covered.

We routinely see customers pleading for help because they installed a special program that only they needed and no one took this into consideration during their disaster planning.

In a perfect IT world, everyone is using the exact same software on every remote or mobile system, but the reality for most is that no two computers are exactly the same.

Some of the biggest offenders of not following the IT department standards are upper management and they often times have some of the most mission critical data on their systems.

100% of all Data Loss is PREVENTABLE!

There are a number of personal backup solutions that IT departments should consider implementing as an additional layer for their mobile workforce.

We have been working with folks on backup procedures for long enough to understand some of the biggest roadblocks…users don’t know how to backup and even if they do, they don’t have any idea where on the hard drive this data resides, much less taking the time to actually do it.

The best chances for success and a huge time saver for the IT department for when (not if) a hard drive crashes is an automatic whole drive imaging system. (The expense of one data recovery will usually pay for 4 or 5 personal backup systems.)

If you can reduce the point of failure down to “can I get my users to plug this device in” your chances of success are much higher.

By eliminating all of the technical aspects of the backup process you can expect non-technical mobile and remote users to be much more successful in protecting themselves.

One solution is to install an automated imaging program that automatically fires whenever the external backup device is plugged in and/or setting a scheduler to automatically backup (and pester the user when it has not been done) to an external device.

Another great option for field personnel is an automated Internet based backup service. Once the client software is installed, it can automatically push copies of critical data up to a secured Internet server and be setup to pester users whenever it does not occur.

The bottom line on covering your bases is to really cover all your bases, so don’t forget your mobile and remote users!

External backup solution:

Online backup solution for businesses (Free 30-day trial):

Shaking Up Your Backups: FileSlinger™ Backup Reminder 07-20-07

Friday, July 20th, 2007
The earthquake at much-too-early-AM today reminded me that it really might be a better idea to sleep with the computer under the bed than on top of it. On the other hand, I’d probably give myself a hernia reaching for it every morning, and the ceiling is the only thing that can actually fall on it where it is. And if that happens, I might not be around to worry about my data. (Yes, I sleep with my computer, at least when the Ur-Guru isn’t here. So sue me.)

Though my clients might still be around to worry about their data, in which case it might be useful if someone knew my main password. If the machine is trashed, one ought to be able to get to the data by removing the drive altogether, but if it’s only the Sallie that’s trashed, perhaps better to keep the computer intact. (Though I don’t know…maybe I’d prefer to have it self-destruct if I stop breathing. I go back and forth on these kinds of things.)

Let’s pass over the question of whether it’s morbidity or senility that turning 40 has brought me, however, and get on to the stories I said I’d have for you last week. So we’ll start with Sandy’s dead CrackBerry. Sandy is the author of the about-to-be released book fEmpowerment: A Guide to Unleashing Your Inner Bond Girl, but no special effects were used in the creation of this story.

My BlackBerry has “off and on” had the bottom line of keys stop working (that means, for example, b-n-m do not work). A “hard reboot” (dumping the battery out and back in) fixes it. It doesn’t happen all that often, so I hadn’t taken the time to go get another machine from the Nextel folks.

Monday, I was out and about, and (of course) I have a passcode on my BlackBerry. My passcode includes the letter “B.” I’m sure that you can imagine where this is going… I hit the passcode to get in a few times, “counting down” the passwords you’re “allowed.” Used them all—it dumped the BlackBerry and then gave me a “507” error (which is a circle with a line through it, over a small picture of the screen—not very pleasant).

After I cursed a lot, I had a “light bulb” moment and realized what had probably happened. So I went home, since now the machine was a hunk of junk. (Have you seen the guy put the iPhone through the blender in “Will it Blend?” That’s how I felt.) I figured that I had to call support and they would ask for my mother’s maiden name and 2nd aunt’s middle initial, and then they would allow me to boot up the hunk of junk.

Uh—no. If you do this, your BlackBerry gets fried. As in no retrieval-oh.

Luckily I synch the BlackBerry every day when I get home—so I’d “only” lost what I’d done that day while out and about. And far MORE luckily, I have a service plan that includes “real person” support, so I toddled off to the Nextel store, and they replaced it with a new machine, and I synched it up to the computer, and downloaded all the info back into it.

So, that’s the words to the wise.

I don’t actually use any kind of a PDA at all, but having no option but to recycle the hardware seems like a slightly extreme reaction to password problems, and it’s not like Sandy was carrying military secrets around. I suspect this particular “feature” of the BlackBerry was invented to satisfy security-conscious enterprise and government users, who are daily embarrassed by stories of laptops, backup tapes, and the like falling into the wrong hands.

It’s harder to see the value of total hardware lockout to an individual. And come to that, frying the device if you mess up your password doesn’t prevent employees from deliberately passing on company data. I hope they can at least send it back to the factory and get it refurbished and reissued.

On the other hand, Sandy did get a new device with working keys out of the adventure. Because the data was backed up, having to replace the BlackBerry was annoying and inconvenient, but not catastrophic.

Then there was my colleague Donna Papacosta in Canada, where Apple is apparently less paranoid about repossessing dead hard drives than they are in the US. Her 13-month-old MacBook keeled over without warning one day. “Of COURSE my files were backed up,” she said in response to my comment on her original post. “Except for the ones that weren’t.”

Unless you’re using a continuous data protection solution that copies everything the minute it changes (and eats bandwidth for breakfast), you’re pretty much guaranteed to lose *some* files if you suffer a fatal drive error. Donna is now backing up several times a day, both online and to an external drive. That’s often enough that anything that slips through the cracks is probably something you can live without, or recent enough to be easier to re-create than the project you were working on last week.

Get all the details of Donna’s MacBook adventures on the Trafcom News Blog. But make a backup before you go off to read it.

FileSlinger Backup Blog at Blogged


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