Home Backup Strategy

I've been meaning to document my home backup strategy for quite some time. In the process of evolving the design, I've tried to address the following concerns:

  • Rapid restoration of data in the event of an outage (RTO)
  • Minimal data loss from an incident (RPO)
  • Recovery from accidental deletes
  • Recovery from malicious deletes, such as ransomware
  • Recovery from cosmic ray damage on hard drive platters
  • Recovery from total destruction of the house
  • Recovery from a failed hard drive
  • Nice, but not too expensive. Contain recurring costs.

These are all interrelated, so I cannot describe a single technology or procedure that covers each item in turn. Instead, I'll describe the solution and discuss how it addresses each point.

The solution I've evolved uses a local NAS with continous asynchronous backup to Code42's CrashPlan servers in the cloud. This is the only portion of the solution that includes a recurring cost, however, that could be eliminated if I instead used their "backup to a friend" feature. The $5/month cost is reasonable, especially for unlimited data. The continuous asynchronous backup feature is nice in that it provides minimal data loss in the case of an issue. Potential data loss is limited to the time it takes any new/changed files to transfer to the Internet. CrashPlan also provides access to previous versions of files, so if ransomware encrypts my data or I accidentally delete a file, I'm covered. It can also protect me from cosmic ray damage in certain scenarios (basically, if I knew the damage had occurred). The downside, however, is that this does not protect me from cosmic rays, nor does it allow me a quick recovery time in the event of a loss of my data locally.

To deal with the as yet unaddressed concerns, I built a local NAS server using Ubuntu and the ZFS file system. I'm interested in btrfs as a replacement, but this is still experimental. ZFS has a lot of really cool features. One of the best is also in btrfs, and that feature allows stored data to reheal through checksums. This is in contrast to a RAID system which is focused on one or more drive failures. In my ZFS "pool", I have created the equivalent of a software RAID level 5 called RAID-Z. This requires that I use 3 hard drives and can tolerate a failure of 1 hard drive at a time without losing data.

This setup has (un)fortunately been tested. When I built the array, I purchased three hard drives at the same time. This is generally not-advised, as the drives therefore come from the same batch and are therefore more likely to fail at the same time. This particular batch did have problems, but I was lucky to lose one drive at a time over the course of a year. At no time did I lose any data, although I did come close, mostly due to my own misunderstanding of the problem at the time.

Due to my use of /dev/sdb, /dev/sdc, etc naming, the drive order changed and I repartitioned the incorrect job when I already had a failed drive. I learned the hard way to use disk ids when assigning the drives to the ZFS pools. However, I learned more about ZFS and came up with another way to reduce the recovery time in the event of a loss of the array. Now my physical drives have printed labels on the outside containing the disk id so if a failure occurs it's easy to determine the correct drive to yank from the system.

ZFS has a feature called snapshots, which are excellent for marking (and maybe reverting to) a point of time of the system. Since ZFS is a COW filesystem, snapshots do not take disk space until you start to change data. To limit the damage should I get hit with ransomware, I had already setup weekly snapshots on my ZFS. I don't change a ton of data since the setup is mostly for pictures and videos of the kids, so I stayed with weekly. However, snapshots have another great use. You can "send" and "receive" deltas of your data between ZFS pools without having to resort to any synchronization software. Armed with this knowledge, I purchased a USB drive with enough storage space to hold my data, created a ZFS pool with the single drive (this isn't about redundancy - this is about minimizing down time in a catastrophic loss to the main array), and I can now send my deltas to the external drive. I do not have this on a schedule yet, but I should get this cron job up shortly.