Back Up Your Data

10th of December, 2010 ·  4 Comments

Your hard drive will fail. It’s just a matter of time, and of chance.

Over the Thanksgiving break, my dad’s hard drive broke. It was less than a year old. His iMac wouldn’t boot, Disk Warrior couldn’t be run, it was a mess.

But he’s using a Mac, which has a built-in backup scheme, which he uses. All you have to do is plug in an external hard drive, tell it to yes please use this hard drive for backing up, and wait. He did this, thank goodness. A backup scheme you don’t use isn’t a backup scheme at all.

This automatic feature is available for Mac OS 10.5 and greater. If you’re using 10.4 or Windows or Linux, it’ll be a little harder to back stuff up, but the principles I’m gonna go over here apply to all those computers because they all use hard drives which will fail.1

Now, a while back, John Gruber wrote a really good piece about backing up your data. Merlin Mann wrote an even more paranoid companion piece. Between the two, you need to buy seventeen hard drives, a safe to keep them in, and an off-site vault for the safes. And an armored car to transport them in.

I think that’s all a bit much. Especially since none of us non-tech-pundits have any money. But your data is crazy-valuable. You can replace a computer, but not your data. Not your photos. Not the presentations you’ve made, the essays you’ve written, the work you’ve done. Your data is more important than your computer.

If you’re thinking about chancing it, look around you. Look at your physical enviornment a little bit. Do you live in an apartment? Do you trust your neighbors not to burn the complex down? Do you trust your neighbor’s crackhead cousin to not break into your home and steal all your stuff? How about your kids? You trust them not to find out if your iMac will float?

I hardly trust my oven not to burn a pizza. I think there’s a very real threat of my oven burning my house down.

The point is hard drive failure aside, there are a lot of threats to your data out there, many of which are out of your control.

what to do

First, you do need a hard drive. They’ve gotten pretty cheap, so I recommend getting one the size of your computer’s hard drive. If you have two computers which need backing up, get a hard drive the size of both the computer’s hard drives combined. If you have to round up, round up, don’t round down. More space is always better than less space.

I’ve been very happy with Western Digital My Book Essential, but there are a lot of other options. I’ve been able to restore data to three computers using these hard drives over the last couple years.

Hard drive in hand, run a backup. Once the backup’s finished, take the hard drive to work or to your parent’s house or something. Remember your crappy oven, your twacked out neighbors? If your house burns down with your computer and backup inside, all your data is is a melted puddle of sludge. If your house burns down and your backup is sitting in a drawer at work, your data is safe and sound and waiting for your insurance to get you a new iMac.2 At most, you loose a week’s worth of data.

My wife takes our backup to her work. She brings it home Thursday, we do our backup, and it goes back Friday, where it will stay over the weekend.

That’s it!

but wait, there’s more

There’s actually a lot more you can do to help safeguard your data, and everything I list here will be free.

  • Use webmail.

I use Gmail (and you should, too), but you can use Yahoo!, Hotmail, or really any service which stores all your email in the cloud. That is, it’s backed up on their computers, not yours. There’s a lot of good stuff about this: if my hard drive fails Friday evening, when my backup is locked away at my wife’s work all weekend, I still have access to all my email, new and old, on any computer connected to the Internet.

Using the email address you got with your internet service provider isn’t a good plan. You know, or It’s no good. First, it’s probably not backed up anywhere. Second, if you move or they go out of business or you simply switch providers, your email is gone. Switch to Gmail.

Any data you keep in your DropBox folder on your computer automatically gets synced to the cloud. If you install DropBox on your home computer and your work computer, they’ll both have the same versions of the same files in the DropBox folder.

This is especially good for current projects. Example: you’re working on a Keynote (or PowerPoint, fine) presentation. You need images, fonts, the Keynote file itself, reference works, and other stuff I can’t even think of right now. Slap it all in your DropBox folder on your home computer, and it’ll be there, ready and waiting, when you arrive at work and need to get things finished.

If your office burns down, you can still get work done at home because your files are synced to the cloud, available anywhere you want to get your work done.

Dropbox can also be used for extremely valuable files that you absolutely cannot afford to loose. Things like home-made porn you made with your wife that one time. Both drives die? You’ve got a folder of images safe and sound in DropBox. Probably in a folder titled misc.3

the bare minimum

You can always have more hard drives. You can have one hard drive that does weekly backups which lives off-site, and one that lives on your desk which does daily backups. You can switch those out daily or weekly or monthly or whatever.

You can pay for an online backup service which does all this via your Internet connection. You can get hard drives and clone them so if your drive does go kaput, you can boot on your backup drive and be up and running instantly.

What I’ve laid out is the bare minimum. If you’re doing less of a backup than this, and not storing the backup off-site, you’re not doing enough. You’re gambling all your photos that everything will be fine, and you’re trusting your neighbors not to get drunk and pass out, letting their lit cigarette (cigaweed?) light the bed and thence the whole complex on fire. For $80 or less, you can buy a drive to back your data up. And you’re going to work anyway, so you might as well take the drive with you, to protect it from unknowns at home.

I’ve got the tech know-how to help you out with this. Need me to suggest a hard drive specifically for you? Gladly. Need help setting up the backup? I’ll help out any Mac-using friend or family member. If you’re using Linux, you’re smart enough to have this backup stuff under control already. If you’re using Windows, you’re probably not actually my friend.4

Thanks for reading. Thanks even more for backing up your data and being all smug when (not if) your hard drive fails and you don’t lose a byte.

  1. This is a very good reason for Blaine to get in on our computer upgrade scheme: the 20-inch iMac available to him runs Mac OS 10.5, which comes with Time Machine, the automated backup I heart so much.
  2. You’d better have homeowner’s or renter’s insurance. Seriously, as of this writing,  I’m unemployed, but we can’t afford not to have it.
  3. If you get a Dropbox account, and you should, let ’em know I sent you. We both get a small, free space upgrade. My email is creigpsherburn at gmail dot com. Thanks!
  4. Pilot is a notable exception.

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