How frequently and what methods one uses to backup seems to be a popular topic among computeroids. Special hardware and software is marketed to these groups to satiate every possible disaster aversion plan. As such, the less tech-inclined seem to think backing up is some mystical procedure that requires a lot of money and technical know-how. When really, all most people need to do is have two copies of everything! If you burned a copy of your resume to a CD, then congratulations, you just made a bona fide backup. File that sucker away and pat yourself on the back.
In the last 12 years, my data has changed. Some are still worthless files I could stand to lose. Some are synchronized with cloud services which have cropped up in recent years. Some are irreplaceable, like the gigabytes of photos I’ve shot in the past decade. Some are important documents, like invoices, tax forms and other “grown-up” annoyances that I increasingly find myself dealing with. But whatever the file, the thought of losing any of it is depressing and maybe even a little painful. High capacity hard drives, online services and even optical media are all so affordable that there’s very little excuse not to have – at minimum – two copies of all your data.
My primary machine for the past 7 years has been a first generation Mac Pro. It’s been a great machine and provides lots of flexibility with four bays for hard drives and two for optical drives. But even if I had an iMac or a laptop, my solutions would work just as well using external drives – perhaps even better since external drives are much easier to move around and replace.
I’ve always liked keeping everything I use contained on one primary drive – it makes backing up that much easier. Luckily disk technology has grown fast enough to keep pace with my growing needs (or perhaps my needs keep pace with technology? Hmmm).
I always have two backup drives in my tower – each the same size as the primary drive. The first backup drive uses the software SuperDuper! to quickly synchronize with the primary. This is done every other night automatically. The other drive is setup to use Apple’s Time Machine system. These two backup solutions cost me less than $30 to set up (not counting the cost of the hardware, but I think that’s a given – plus, you could skip the paid license for SuperDuper! if you don’t need all the paid features).
Both of these pieces of software provide different types of backup, which is important to me. Should something happen to an individual file or folder, I know I can count on Time Machine to have a version saved on my second backup drive. If something more catastrophic were to occur to the entire primary hard drive, I can then simply reboot using the SuperDuper backup and be no more than 48 hours out of date. It’s very reassuring.
But what if something were to happen to my entire computer, like a fire? Well, offsite backup can protect against that, but it’s often tricky, slow, or expensive (usually some combination of two of those three). I attempted to use an Amazon S3 solution for a short time, and while I felt some cool geek cred associated with it, it was ultimately difficult to use and unnecessarily expensive. It’s reassuring to see so many online backup companies putting their hat in the ring, if only because it’ll encourage more people to protect their data. Unfortunately, the thought of sending upwards of 2TB of data over my poor cable modem is unappealing. If you have just a few documents and photos, then online backup is probably a great solution.
What I ended up doing was decidedly low-tech, but it provides me with good peace of mind. I waited for a good deal on external drives, picked up a few and filled them with all my data (again, using SuperDuper!). I then FedEx’d them to some friends and family who had agreed to store them for me. Does this sound paranoid? Insane? Perhaps. But in my mind I was able to protect my data for about $150 and a few beers next time I visit my friends and family. Should anything truly awful ever happen to my computer, I know my photos, my music, my movies and everything else I’ve spent over a decade acquiring is safe. It’s just my way of providing insurance for my digital possessions – much of which is irreplaceable.
The second half of the equation. Failure will happen.
Backup is often touted as something you’ll be glad you have if your hard drive fails. In reality it’s something you’ll be glad you have when your hard drive fails. So while having a backup of your data is nice, you always need to have your eye to the future of your hardware. For the rest of our lives, we’re now going to be playing a never ending game of staying in front of hardware failure. Backups are a good solution if you experience a problem and need to recover, but the best solution is to stay ahead of the failure. The moment I begin to notice my hard drives beginning to age (glitchy file copies, S.M.A.R.T. status failing, slow r/w times), I begin looking for good deals on a new drive.
Perhaps someday we’ll have flawless SSDs which have 0% failure over 90 year lifetimes, but we’re not there yet, not by a longshot. So for now, we’re always going to be in a race against data loss.