Backups are just one of the many responsibilities of system administrators. IT Generalists have many areas to cover so they probably don’t take the time to make spreadsheets to measure the cost of data loss as they might in The Enterprise. However, investing time in trying to place a value on your backups can provide perspective on just what a terrific responsibility backups can be.

At Stack Exchange, I view our users and our user contributed content as the company’s most valuable asset. We have a lot of talent in the company, and our user contributed content isn’t even our direct source of revenue. However, if this data were totally lost (or a large portion of it) I have trouble envisioning how the company could bounce back from that. In addition to this, as a user myself I value this data as something we have created together that has intrinsic value for our professions.

Measuring Value

There are lots of ways to measure value. The obvious method is to use traditional business methods that put a dollar value on your company. When it comes to Stack Exchange some people somewhere put a big dollar value on the company which they call our valuation and in theory they don’t just make this up. If I accept that the loss of our user contributed content is the loss of the company, I could just say that our valuation is the value of our backups. The problem is that valuations tend to be pretty big numbers, and the abstraction there just doesn’t speak to me.

Also from a business perspective I can use the $18 million of VC funding we have taken and use that as a basis for value of our backups. That is a lot of money and I can’t help but start to feel the sense of importance of these backups. However, there is still a lot of abstraction there. The point of this exercise is to really feel the responsibility and not just be intellectually aware of it.

Another way to measure value is time. Our users and coworkers collectively have invested incredible amounts of time into our sites. I am user and know many of our users so I know that what we have created is important to us. I don’t have an accurate way to measure this, but I can do a back of the envelope calculation for Stack Overflow. To be conservative, looking only at the 1.4 million accepted answers on the total word count is about 100 million. According to Wikipedia people write about 19 words per minute, but I will assume people on SO are faster and can compose about 40 words per minute. That gives us 100,000,000 words / 40 words per minute / 60 minutes per hour / 24 hours a day / 365 days a year =~ 5 years of non-stop skilled work. Now I realized this calculation is perhaps, a bit, well, hair-brained, but it is reasonable for my purposes.

Another aspect to take into account is the profit generated by Stack Exchange. I don’t mean profit in the traditional sense, rather I look at what I call time profit. When a user answers someones question, they not only saved that person time but many other people who will eventually search for the same question and find that answer. This saves those people time. Because of this our sites like Stack Overflow are systems where the output is greater than the input. So in this sense of time profit, if our content was lost, future potential time profit would be lost.

We all have different ways of perceiving value. I value what our users and my coworkers have created, and when I attempt to measure just how much has been created, it becomes very apparent that safe guarding that creation though backups is an awesome responsibility.

  • Anonymous

    Backups have absolutely no value, or I guess undefinable value. Backups alone are like Schrödinger’s cat. Only until they are restored do they have or not have value. 🙂

    • I saw this article in my RSS feed and thought, “I have the perfect comment for that article”, only to find you’ve already made it! So 66% of commenters believe that backups have no positive value, but the restores may prove invaluable!

    • Jeremy Lukowski

      Nitpick, but we can find the value of a discrete proablistic event by multiplying the probability of each outcome by the value of each outcome.  So assume the events are mutually exclusive and a 0.001 probability of failure, 0.95 probability of timely successful restore given failure, and the system operation is worth $10 million per year to the company.  Then the value to the backup to the company will on average be 0.001 * 0.95 * $1 million = $9,500.00 per year.  As the probability of failure goes up, the value of the backup goes up proportionally.  

  • “I will assume people on SO are faster and can compose about 40 words per minute.” Typing composition speed won’t include the time spent working out what to write.   Maybe its more like 10 words per minute if you count the research that goes into the answers, for 20 years of non-stop skilled work.   Double it again to account for time spent in later editing of questions and answers, 40 years.

    Standard work year in US is 2080 hours out of 8760 (4.2x ratio of life hours to work-hours).   That gives 168 standard person-years of work.

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