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Tuesday
Feb082011

The dangers of using the bin to store things you want to keep

When you build IT systems and you put limitations on how they are intended to be used, it goes without saying that people will try to find ways of getting round those limitations. In my organization, we've always been fairly liberal about what users can do with our systems, but there are some times that we have to put limits in place. For example, we don't have an unlimited amount of disk space, so we have to put quotas on storage capacity for each user's email and files. 

It turns out that some people try to work around these quotas by deleting email messages or files that they want to keep and take advantage of Outlook/Exchange's Recover Deleted Items feature and the shadow copies of home directories on file servers (seen as Previous Versions in Windows Explorer). Some people may get away with working like that for some time, simply recovering the content during the retention period and then deleting it again so that it doesn't impact their quota. 

As a way of working that's about as safe as storing your important paperwork in the bin and hoping that you're always there to take it out before the cleaner comes along to empty it. From time to time, routine maintenance on the file servers will result in shadow copies being lost - it's not that we're being careless with them; that's just the way it works. If your mailbox has to be moved from one Exchange mailbox store to another, you'll lose the ability to recover your deleted items. We try to keep these instances to a minimum because those features are useful for quickly recovering when accidents do happen, but sometimes they are necessary in the course of keeping the systems running as reliably as possible. 

Throwing things away and then hoping that the bin doesn't get emptied is not a solution. If there are legitimate reasons why your quota isn't big enough, then the IT departments of most organizations will have solutions in place - they are, after all, there to service the IT needs of the business. We have a system for requesting increases to home directory quotas and an archiving service for infrequently accessed data (which we require to be compressed), and other solutions for even bigger data requirements, such as large sets of research data. We also have an Exchange archiving system to store larger amounts of old mail. If none of those meet the specific need, then we're happy to help our users to find a solution that works.

I find it amazing that in so many companies the IT department are viewed as the police and that some people in IT view their users as potential criminals, rather than being on the same side. IT people should have a healthy awareness of security issues, and that probably can't be expected of every member of every organization, but it's possible to be careful without being obstructive. In most cases, IT is a service department, enabling other parts of the business to do the things that make money. If people inside or outside your IT department don't see it that way, then I'd suggest that your business is probably not working as efficiently as it might.

A user is likely to get a much better response if they can demonstrate that they've already taken steps to help themself as much as they can. That's not unusual - you are more likely to give to a charity if you can see that they're spending money wisely; less likely if you see all their staff are rocking a Sony Vaio or MacBook Air. If you're asking for a couple of extra gigs of storage, but you've already got half a gig of mp3 files in your home directory, then it's not going to be taken as seriously; like that Twilight audiobook that you helped your colleague download to his iPod and forgot about.

The best tips that I can offer users to better manage their quotas are these...

Email:

  •  The biggest quota hogs in mailboxes are attachments. Find them quickly by sorting your email by attachments. If you are keeping messages with attachments you don't need, remove the attachment or delete the message (whichever is appropriate).
  • If you do need an attachment, look at saving it somewhere outside your mailbox - if you're likely to forget where you put it, reply to the message (just to yourself) with the details of what the attachment was and where you've stored it. That way, when you need to find it and you've found the original message, you can look for related messages and find your note-to-self.
  • If you have sent a message with an attachment, it's likely that you already have that file saved elsewhere. Think about whether you need another copy of it taking up your mailbox quota in your Sent Items folder. If you don't, remove it. Again, you can reply to the message, to yourself, with a note of which file you removed.

 Home directory:

  •  Use a tool to visualize the contents of your home directory. The tool I use for this is WinDirStat which shows files by relative size, with different colours for each file type. It only takes seconds to click on a few of the bigger blocks to see which files are taking up the most room and deciding whether you still need them.
  • If you have files that you don't need to access frequently, consider compressing them. Use ZIP compression if you're restricted as to what you can install or may need to open the file elsewhere or share with others. Otherwise, I recommend 7-Zip, which you can carry around as a portable app (7-Zip Portable), and 7z compression.
  • Note that compressing the newer Office files like docx, xlsx and pptx won't gain much space as they are already a ZIP archive. Don't believe me? Change the file extension to .zip and see for yourself.
  • Try to avoid extending your home directory by copying things onto a single external USB hard drive. Don't make yourself responsible for the only copy of a valuable file. If it's data that is valuable to the business, make it a priority of the company to ensure that it's stored safely and securely (preferably using the 3-2-1 rule: keep 3 copies; use 2 different types of storage media; keep one copy offsite or at least offline).

 

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Reader Comments (2)

Now please tell me how much a 1T disk cost and why I should spend a lot of time to save the IT department that money ........

February 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterIan

@Ian,

You are right - on the face of it, a 1TB drive isn't very expensive these days. However, that's not the whole story if you want the data to be safe and highly available, especially when you're talking about an organization with thousands of users.

Typically you want to have the active data on the server mirrored or stored in a RAID array, so that there are redundant copies to protect against disk failure. That disk is typically going to be connected to a server that hosts the disk on the network. If you want access to be highly available you probably want to protect against hardware failure on that server, so you may have a server cluster hosting the disks. For high speed of access, you're likely going to build this out to a SAN with multiple server, multiple disk arrays and fiber-optic connections between them. Ideally you're going to have those servers and disks in two different locations, so you need multiple server rooms with redundant, continuous power and air conditioning.

Having multiple copies of data online is great for high availability, but doesn't help you if it gets corrupted, so you're likely to want to back it up to some other media that is going to be kept offline. Add in backup servers, tape libraries, tapes, fireproof safes and you've got a solution that will protect against all manner of problems, but it all costs money, and every component has a finite usable life and needs to be replaced.

I don't doubt that you, as a tech-savvy reader of blogs like this, would be able to manage your own data safely and cheaply using a couple of 1TB drives, some synchronization software and DVD/Blu-ray backups; sticking to the 3-2-1 rule. However, how many of your colleagues do you think you could say that for? How much effort do you think is going to be required across the organization to keep all the company's data safe, highly available and quickly recoverable in a disaster situation?

One of the key things to remember is that the data isn't yours; it's the company's and the greatest efficiencies can be achieved by having the company, through the IT department, doing it centrally and making it as transparent as possible for the users so that they can get on with doing their job.

In my IT department, we factored in all the costs for hosting 1TB of data, securely, with fast high availability, protected against losing an entire site, so allowing business continuity in the face of a disaster, with recoverability from even the most catastrophic circumstances, and it's roughly £1000 per year. It may seem like a lot, but compared to the cost to the business of losing that 1TB of data, it may not be much at all (bearing in mind that 1TB can hold a lot of IP!).

That's why I'd suggest it's not worth you keeping hold of a lot of unnecessary data. Someone's collection of music and holiday photos, stored quite innocently in their home directory, may be costing the company more than you'd think.

February 9, 2011 | Registered Commenterjonoble

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