Get Your Backup On

Today is World Backup Day. Now, before you start looking over your shoulder or throwing the car in reverse, keep in mind this means backing up your data.

As in hard drives.

The Problem

The fact that most people probably don’t really think about data when they hear the phrase back up doesn’t really bode well for such an awareness campaign. However, as more of our daily lives — even the non-geeks out there — become more digital than physical, it is important for all of us to think about this. How many photos of your vacations, videos of your kids, purchases of music and film, purchased software with download-only delivery, or important documents that are no where else but stored in a series of ones and zeros on a hard disk? I know that in our household, it is pretty much everything of any importance for almost the past decade.

As a result of all that digital content, we have an enormous amount of storage in our house. Among our three main computers — my iMac desktop, Angela’s laptop, and my work laptop — we have nearly 2.25 terabytes of storage1. That number alone is the sort of thing that would have sounded like pure science fiction a couple of decades ago. Today, it’s really not that much at all2.

What’s more, while today’s computers and their hard drives are fairly robust, these things do fail. Even when that happens, it isn’t the end of the world. Data can be recovered but it is far from cheap. In a world of Free, the price for data recovery is still dramatically high. It is much cheaper, much simpler, and less stressful to know that you have backups in place and that the data is just a couple of click away instead of waiting for something to happen and crossing your fingers.

Our Solution

The golden rule is that anything digital worth keeping should have three copies:

  1. one “working” (the one on your computer)
  2. one “local” (on a hard drive connected to your computer or on your home network)
  3. one “off site” (either a rotated hard disk system or backup online)

This provides physical separation of your backups and while this was the sort of luxury that only large companies could afford years ago, it is simple and (relatively) cheap today with the dramatic drop in price of large hard drives and high-speed internet connections.

We use a set of hard disks that I either purchases for this purpose or put together from old equipment for our local backups. We use a hodge-podge of software to manage these backups:

  • Time Machine on Angela’s laptop3
  • Shirt Pocket’s Super-Duper to perform a weekly backup of my desktop (physically connected). The main benefit of using Super-Duper is that rather than a file-by-file backup, the external backup is an exact clone. I use Super-Duper as a drive cloner anytime I need to swap internal drives on a mac, as well.
  • Maxtor’s Backup to perform daily backups of my work laptop (physically connected)

That covers our local backups, but it is extremely important to also keep a remote backup in case of physical disaster or theft. For that, we use

  • For both our home computers, we use Carbonite. It is dead simple and works constantly to ensure we have a remote backup. Additionally, Carbonite allows us to access our files from pretty much anywhere so it acts as cloud storage for pretty much anything. There are similar services available, but I don’t know of any that offer the ease of use couple with ease of retrieval.
  • For my work laptop, my company uses a similar online storage system. While I imagine it is even more robust, the interface seems needlessly complex and sluggish to me. However, it has saved my bacon in recovering some important work files and I’m very thankful that they provide this to all of us remote workers.

In terms of cost, our entire local storage system could be purchased for about $250 (going rate is around $100/ terabyte for external storage). Carbonite is $55 per year per machine, though it’s cheaper for longer periods and you can use some coupons to get a month or two for free. So, for roughly $500, it is possible to provide an extremely robust backup for our home computers (if your work doesn’t pay to back up your work computer, they should) for nearly the entire expected life of those machines. It’s far from cheap but the peace of mind and ease of use is really worth it.

Ask anyone who has lost even a fraction of their digital photo albums or music collection and I’m sure they’ll agree.

So, snap to it and do yourself a big favor.

  1. And, yes, over half of that is full. []
  2. I should also note that I’m excluding the additional 2.5 terabytes in TiVo storage in our house. While hard drive failure on one of these would be a pain and I’d hate to not be able to catch up on Fringe, it is far from catastrophic. []
  3. Time Machine on a Airport Extreme Base Station router is like magic. I cannot think of any easier to use and better performing local network backup system. The only drawback is that Time Machine requires a ton of space to keep backups for even a relatively recent backup time period. []