Eliminating single points of failure

Many years ago, I worked as the IT director for a school here in Massachusetts. It was a multi-faceted job that included maintaining a file server, a backup server, well over 100 machines and, finally, a help desk for about 125 people. I have some amusing stories from those years, as well as an important lesson: never have a single point of failure.

Redundancy was the name of the game in my previous job. For example, our file server was connected to something called an “uninterruptible power source,” or UPS. A UPS provides electricity in the event of a power outage. That way, if a storm knocks power out, I still had time to get to our computers and shut them down properly.

I also ran a backup server that saved its daily and monthly backups to several locations. If one of those backups failed for whatever reason, I could rely on one of the alternates to provide what I needed. What does this have to do with daily life? Plenty.

As Leo Babauta once said on Zen Habits: “I’ve seen people pay $1,000 to hear speakers at a conference and only have one pen to take notes.” If that pen breaks or runs out of ink within the first five minutes, you’re out of luck. The simple act of bringing two or even three pens can eliminate a potential problem.

Consider where there might be a single point of failure in your life right now. I did some brainstorming of my own, and came up with this list:

  1. More than one flashlight. Here in semi-rural Cape Cod, we lose power at the drop of a hat. Keeping three inexpensive flashlights in the closet eliminates some stress.
  2. Car keys. Most new cars are sold with a pair of keys. But that’s not always the case with used cars. If you’ve only got one key, spend the money to get a second.
  3. Charger cables. These things aren’t really built to last longer than a couple of years it seems, yet we don’t replace them until they become a frayed fire hazard. Keep a fresh one in a drawer so you can swap it out with the original before plugging it into the wall becomes an act of pure optimism. Additionally, having multiple charging cables in different locations (such as one at your home, one at your office, one in your briefcase) means that you don’t ever have to worry about forgetting a cable when you need it most.
  4. Important documents, like birth certificates, marriage certificates, social security cards, etc. My practice is to put the originals in a safe deposit box and keep photo copies on hand. If I lose/damage the copy it’s no big deal, and I can always retrieve the original if I need it.

Finally, and you probably saw this coming, I’ll say please make multiple backups of your important digital files. A solution as simple as Dropbox makes it very easy to have files both on your computer and safely on their servers. Additionally, Carbonite and Crashplan will back up your computer in its entirety. (Erin wants you to know she’s a fan of Backblaze.)

Make a list of the single points of failure in your life right now, and see if you can fix them. Someday you might be very glad you did.

7 Comments for “Eliminating single points of failure”

  1. posted by Liz on

    1. Different types of lights – candles/matches in a central spot, crank flashlight/radio, solar-recharged lights.

    2. An inexpensive tire compressor that will plug into the 12 volt in the car as well as a bigger compressor that will jump start the car, air up things and charge phones, tablets, kindles etc. I also bought a compatible solar panel that will charge the charger!

    3. A “go bag” in case of fast evacuation needs (flash flood or wild fire or even house fire). What’s in it depends on your other preparations.

    4. Food, water , meds and other essentials for x number of days – the number depends on where you live and how comfortable you are in being able to get supplies before & after a disaster. We’ve all seen pictures of empty shelves as storms approach.

    5. Since external hard drives are getting cheaper and flash drives go on sale around the start of the school year, it’s silly not to have a hard backup. The external HD can be taken to your safety deposit box. I have enough flash drives that they are labeled by backup day, i.e. Sunday.

    6. Also important is to keep the files logically named and put into folders to make retrieval easier. As you upgrade programs, review the old files and update to the new version. I’ve been reviewing my old files and discovered that I cannot read them since they are too many versions old. So, I have to either find the appropriate software to update the data or just hope that I won’t need it in the future.

    7. A “control journal” that has copies of all of those important papers, phone numbers, etc. As one ages, it is important to have such a book in case of illness or death. My dad had such a book which he kept updated and it helped when he passed away suddenly.

  2. posted by Geri on

    very true, bought a NAS server for home backups and it gives me incredible piece of mind everytime my computer takes longer to start or whatever (lost once an about 50k mp3 collection of pure gold, my spotifyl list today is below 200 songs..).

    another true life saver in the physical sense is having multiple cards while travelling and always leaving at least 2 at a fixed location (usually hotel). Was stuck twice without money in China having to go through huge hurdles to call people over skype, ask for call backs, negotiating with hostels to pay after without any deposit…

    always good to setup backups when ever something comes to mind

  3. posted by Gail on

    Birth certificate from 1958 was not accepted by DMV on my 9th VA drivers license renewal – they wanted a computer generated form not the fountain pen fill-in-the-blank form. True story. Anyway, after weeks of this mess, I got 3 computer forms, kept 1, gave 1 to 2 other family members( we live in different towns). So I will always have access & when I die, my family will have certificate.

  4. posted by Pat Reble on

    1. A trusted family member (perhaps the executor of your will) needs to have a way of accessing your computer passwords, especially for things like bank accounts, Paypal etc. If you deal a lot with overseas companies on line, this may be their only way of accessing important information to manage your estate.
    2. Similarly, everyone needs advance directives about health and welfare issues in the event of sudden disablement or mental impairment, so family members can step in to help. A will only covers after death issues, it can’t address things like resuscitation orders or the ability to manage financial affairs.

  5. posted by Ms Hanson on

    Documents? Save pics to Dropbox AND another service. (This will be important, as you will see.)

    AWOL bag? Includes those charger cables and medicine, lives in the car WITHOUT paper documents. (Better a thief makes off with your gear than your ID. I know.) This bag was a sanity saver when the washer quit with the week’s worth of soapy laundty in it. Mine was the only clean laundry in the house. And the laundromat.

    Final word: 2 incidents of ID theft taught me a lot, primarily that a banker (or 3) who knows your face and uour voice on the phone trumps documentation. Make a lobby transaction once a week as insurance against this all-too-common problem. And those document pics you uploaded? Now worth gold!

    Great article.

  6. posted by jon on

    multiple geographically separated storage of important files in peer-to-peer topology
    multiple internet connections via different mediums.
    multiple sources and modes of transport, power, water and food
    multiple trained family members on how to wield all of this stuff
    multiple sources of income and skill sets for all
    multiple groups of friends who’s abilities compliment your own, ie mutual aide.

  7. posted by Gina on

    A good rule of thumb for maintaining digital files and photographs for a long time is 3-2-1. That’s 3 copies on two different media (HDD, flash, cloud, etc.) with 1 in a separate geographic location in case of disaster.

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