How we distribute our backups geographically

If you fear not only about single point of failure but even area of failure in your data security assessments, here is a simple and effective process to distribute your backups.

We are a software development company, so all of our most valueable assets are constantly endangered by hardware failure. We regularly do risk assessments in regard to data security and over the years created a fine-tuned system of duplication and doubled duplication to prevent data loss. Those assessments aren’t really complicated, you basically sit down, relax and think about your deepest fears on a certain topic. Then you write them down and act on their avoidance or circumvention. Here’s an example of some results:

  • No data transfer over unsecured internet connections
  • No single point of failure
  • No single area of failure

The last result is of particular interest today: We want to prevent data loss in case of “area-based desaster”, like a whole-building fire or meteorite impact. Well, to be clear on the meteorite scenario, it is both highly improbable and dangerous. If the meteorite happens to be just a bit bigger than average, we won’t worry about backups anymore because we all live in a perimeter around our company. Yes, worst-case scenarios are always morbid.

Stages of data-loss prevention

We have several measures in effect to prevent data-loss in place. Technologies like RAID drives and processes like daily backups and several copies of that backups make sure that we always have at least one copy of all important data even in the most drastic locally confined desaster. But to adhere to the first rule that no data transfer can happen over unsecured internet connections and to make sure that an internet connection isn’t a single point of failure that may compromise data security, we had to come up with a way to distribute our backups in a physical manner without much effort.

The backup export disks

Our system relies on three facts:

  • Small and resilient hard drives with high capacity are affordable
  • Every home of our employees can be an unique backup storage location
  • If we take turns, the effort is low for everybody, but high enough to be effective

So we bought an “backup export disk” for every employee. It’s an 2,5″ USB-powered hard drive with enough storage capacity to keep our most important data. All export disks are registered at the backup distribution system that can, upon connect, provide them with the most current backup. And a little “backup export token” that gets passed from employee to employee in a predetermined order. The token is just a piece of cardboard that says “tag, you are it!”.

Our backup export process

So what do you have to do when you find the “backup export token” on your desk? Just five easy steps:

  • Bring your backup export disk next day (this is the hardest part: remembering to bag the disk at home)
  • Plug it into the backup distribution system (a specific computer in off-state with an USB-cable) and switch it on
  • Wait for the system to do its job. This will take a while, but you’ll get an e-mail at completion, so just wait for the e-mail to arrive
  • Unplug the backup export disk and take it back home (store it in a dry and safe place)
  • Forward the backup export token to the next employee in line

That’s all there is to the obvious process. Some more things happen behind the scenes, but the process mostly relies on the effect of repetition by several operators.

Simple and effective

This process ensures that our backup gets “exported” at least thrice a week to different locations. All in all, we store our backup in at least five locations with a maximum age of two weeks. The system can scale up (or down) without limitation, so it won’t change even if we double or triple the location count or the export frequency. And any individual disk cannot be compromised as the data is secured by strong encryption, so there is no need to restrict physical access to it on the storage locations (like using a safe) or fret if a disk would get lost.

Decentralized, but supervised

Every time a backup export disk is connected to the backup distribution system, the disk’s health figures and remaining space is reported to the administrators. Using this information, we can also reconstruct the distribution history and fetch the most current disk in an emergency case. If a disk shows its age, it gets replaced by a new one without effort. We only need to tell the backup distribution system about it and associate it with an employee so that the e-mail is sent to the right person.


By assigning our employees with the core mechanics of keeping the backups distributed and automating the rest, we reached a level of data security that even protects against area effect scenarios.