Backing Up Your Digital Media

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Fried to a crisp….

One of my first jobs that didn’t require asking, “would you like fries with that?” was as a computer operator for a bank. I know, you kids say “everyone operates a computer, what does that even mean?” This was in ancient times (roughly eleventy-bazillion years ago) when to actually touch a computer you had to clear two (sometimes three) levels of security to get into a large air conditioned room where only very special people were allowed. (I’m ignoring the fact that most of these VSPs knew how to ask if you’d like fries twenty different ways.)

I dealt with a lot of data backups in that job where losing everything would cost someone a lot more money than I had. I figured out a few rules about backups and what was really needed if you truly care about not losing your data.

1) One backup is never enough. Mr Murphy is always looking for ways to say “gotcha” and has no qualms about writing a corrupted backup file before crashing your main disk drive or making sure that electrical surge fries your main hard drive and the external one attached to the same computer with your only backup. Always have multiple copies of all files.

2) It doesn’t matter how many backups you have if they’re all in the same building that burns to the ground. (For that matter, if they’re all in the same city that gets leveled by a hurricane or earthquake, if you’re still around, you’ll be starting that book from scratch at Mom and Dad’s or a FEMA camp somewhere.) Always have at least one backup stored somewhere either in a place immune to natural disaster or geographically distant.

3) Files sometimes get corrupted without you realizing until much later. Files can get deleted, overwritten with a blank file, or you might delete a chapter or three and not catch it until days or months later. Sometimes you’re better off with an old version of a file. Have backups of multiple versions of all files.

Kat Brooks and RJ Crayton have had posts about Dropbox and Google Drive as tools that might help with your backup strategy.

Back in my computer operator days we had regular procedures. Certain files got backed up at certain points in the daily process. We had backups that swapped offsite, to the vault of another building (likely to survive just about any natural disaster intact). We had procedures to have old backups that are multiple days and even multiple months old. Odds are your backup procedures aren’t formalized or this extensive. Maybe they should be, but if they were what are the chances you’d actually follow them? I had a manager and a constant stream of auditors making sure I didn’t cut corners. You don’t. I’d like to propose another rule for backup.

4) Backup processes need to happen automatically without you having to remember to do them or have a chance to blow it off “just this once.”

My Mom had a saying that “the cobbler’s kids have no shoes.” This is the same phenomena that explains why your local car mechanic’s wife drives a car that runs rough, belches black smoke, and is 5,000 miles past due for an oil change. In my case it could be reworded as “the computer guy has no backup.” I’ve had a PC since before computers in the home had hard drives, always been lackadaisical about backing anything up, and amazingly, never had a hard drive crash. After narrowly averting losing everything (the drive crashed just after I did a backup because I suspected it was on the verge of giving up the ghost), I decided I needed to get serious. I had way too many things I couldn’t recreate in the event of a crash.

So I went searching for a solution. I knew they were out there. I’d seen ads around the web and heard them on the radio. I ended up looking at several, read some reviews and comparisons, and ended up choosing a service called Crash Plan. If you do a Google search on “cloud backup” you’ll find plenty to choose from. I made the choice I did due to a combination of price, capability, and that they were not the service advertising on the Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh radio shows. Your criteria may be different.

This choice fits all my needs and, based on how I have it setup, complies with my rules listed above. It periodically backs up files that have changed in the directories I’ve selected (I try to keep all my personal data in a single directory and its subdirectories). It maintains a history of the changes and does so in a space efficient fashion (essentially backing up pieces of the file that have changed). Once setup it backs up the files automatically, as long as I leave my computer on and I’m connected to the internet. I do a backup to an external hard drive, giving me a copy nearby with fast access and another to Crash Plans’s cloud servers. This last part is the main difference between the paid plan I have and the free plan they have available. However, both plans have an option to backup to a friend’s computer (and he or she would presumably do the same to yours). If you have an external hard drive with enough free space and a willing friend with the same you can get a backup solution that meets all my rules for the rock bottom price of nothing. That solution is hard to beat.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

16 thoughts on “Backing Up Your Digital Media”

  1. Sound words. Ignore at your peril. Richard Branson lost the only draft of his autobiography when his house burned down. (Now you think he’d know better!) I backup to external hard drive, to another pc in my home network, to usb sticks I carry with me, and offsite.

  2. Good advice. I’ve lost files I thought I had backed up. Since then I’ve become more careful. Personally I use a memory stick regularly and my hubby does a double for my stuff on his external hard drive.

  3. Thanks for this, Al. I’ve always felt safe because I do have backups, but “It doesn’t matter how many backups you have if they’re all in the same building that burns to the ground,” just opened my eyes! Not only are they in the same room, they’re within the same few feet. Guess I’d better check in to Crash Plan.

    1. Exactly, Melinda. My employer had to close the main office due to hurricane related flooding a few years ago. Had the offices been on the ground floor, it makes me break out in a sweat thinking about what would have been lost. Better to be prepared than figure it out after it is too late.

  4. Backblaze is another cloud backup service that has saved our asses more than a few times. I insisted my spouse get it on her machine about half a year before her hard-drive corrupted (she is a photographer and produces *huge* files). The unlimited size claim of Backblaze worked out nicely as did the background backups. The second time it died, I just got a restore and she was back to normal. Fortunately, hard drive failures three through five were also as easy. And then I got her a SSD so she stopped destroying her hard drives. 🙂

    Since I write using Git and Emacs, I have it spread out across seven machines normally. It works for me, but most people don’t write that way.

    I’m all for this, though, backups are key. Like tacos.

    1. Thanks, D. Moonfire. There are a lot of services out there and as far as I know they’ll all get the job done. The key, as you’ve found out, is having one. I’m very lucky not to have lost anything myself for as long as I was flying without a net.

  5. Excellent post. I’m going to back up my files onto my external hard drive right now. It is a good idea about cloud storage -You are right about what you could lose in case of fire, flood and here twisters

    1. Exactly, Elisabeth. And every geographical area has their own set of potential natural disasters. I think my worst case is the Yellowstone Caldera blowing in which case backup would probably be moot for me, but earthquakes and other things, even something as mundane as a frozen water pipe with me away from home could wipe out my hard drive and any on site backup.

  6. Sound advice, Al, and I do remember the computers you mentioned working on; not that I operated them, but I was responsible for looking after a high security facility, way back when computers needed an entire, large room to house just one of them.

  7. That is exactly why I have a backup source with my phone company. they do it off site and backup everything, not just documents. Thankfully when I did it, the backup was a life saver. I upgraded the computer to windows 8 from vista and well, lost everything. It wasn’t supposed to do that but it did. suffice it to say, I got everything back. pictures, documents, videos and all. we write stories so was very glad to get those back! love the article! thank you for the reminder~

    1. Thanks for the comment, Wendy. That’s a good point. There are a lot of things that can make you happy to have a backup.

  8. Now that external hard drives are so small and inexpensive, I have two 1-TB drives. I switch them every six months or so, and keep one in the safety deposit box at the bank. (If I remember.)

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