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You can never have too many backups. Also, you can never have too many backups

A Reg reader comes to appreciate the value of paper

Who, Me? In this modern era when massive amounts of storage can be had for pennies on the gigabyte, it's easy to forget that it was not always thus. Once upon a time, keeping business data safe was a cost- and labor-intensive process.

In this week's instalment of Who, Me? we meet "Boyle," who wrote a COBOL program in the early 1980s that enabled a small company to computerize its invoicing system. The powerhouse on which this task was performed was a Data General minicomputer with 64K of RAM and a whopping 10 – count 'em, 10 – megabytes of storage.

Not 10 entire megabytes all in one drive, of course. Five fixed, five removable. This is important.

You see, even in that long-ago age, Boyle understood the value of backups. There is no point moving key business data like an invoicing system onto newfangled computers if you lose it all, right?

So Boyle had a system. See if you can follow: 

  1. Copy the live fixed drive to a blank removable.
  2. Copy the live removable down to the fixed drive.
  3. Copy the new fixed up to a blank removable.
  4. Copy the backed up fixed, now on a removable, back down to the fixed.

Got that? We're not sure we've got that, but let's move on.

Boyle's system had foresight, but with the added bonus of complexity and being a literal pain in the back. Remember that those fixed disks were 15-inch metal platters back then.

And because the backup system was such a hassle, Boyle sometimes let it, shall we say, slide. These days many people let their backups slide if they involve anything more complex than clicking on a button labeled "backup" – so let's cut Boyle a little slack maybe.

On one occasion, when no backups had been done for a month(!) Boyle went in on the weekend to get it done. Now what was that procedure again? If you have to scan up the page to remind yourself what you read a few seconds ago, imagine if you hadn't done it for a month. That's the situation our correspondent was in.

And of course, as you might expect, something went wrong. Somewhere, in this highly elegant process, the wrong fixed was copied to the wrong removable or vice versa, and all was lost. Everything.

Thankfully, the business owners had not yet fully embraced the oncoming tide of modernity, so there were paper records of the previous month's transactions on hand. Ah, paper – where would we be without paper?

After a painstaking weekend of data entry, Monday arrived and no one was any the wiser to what had happened. Boyle's reputation as a technological whizz remained intact, and he wrote the backup procedure down – on a bit of paper – to avoid any repeats of the error.

Have you ever found yourself lost in a procedural maze of your own making? Had analog technology come to the rescue when digital failed? Tell us about it in an email to Who, Me? ®

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