You’ve heard the commercials. “Your computer could explode at literally any moment. There is nothing you can do to protect yourself. Nothing except … purchasing our product.”
It might sound like overblown infomercial fear mongering – and the product might be garbage – but don’t let that sour you on the idea of backups. As the records of our lives shift from notepads, photo albums and VHS tapes to hard drives, thumb drives and DVDs, creating backups can make the difference between losing it all overnight, or just pressing “restore.” And they don’t have to be as difficult or as expensive as you might think. These strategies and tools can keep your data safe from even the most heinous events.
No excuse for no backups
People with good backup habits are often the same people who have been burned in the past by data loss. “Never again,” they say. They realize that the pain and heartache of personal files lost forever far outweighs the savings from avoiding proper backups.
Don’t lie: I know a lot of you readers aren’t backing up your data often enough. If you fall into this category, don’t wait for the first batch of files lost forever to reform your ways. It’s as easy as 3-2-1.
The American Society of Media Photographers outlines a backup method as simple as it is effective:
- We recommend keeping 3 copies of any important file (a primary and two backups)
- We recommend having the files on 2 different media types (such as hard drive and optical media), to protect against different types of hazards.
- 1 copy should be stored offsite (or at least offline).
Following this methodology can be easier than you think. All you may need is one local and one off-site backup. Various applications can make this even easier to manage.
Backup software: What to look for
I want a few things in a backup solution. First, it has to be easy or I’m not going to do it. Setup should be simple, and creating and updating backups should happen in the background without me initiating anything. I want my backups to be there when I need them, but the less I have to fuss with them, the better.
I’d like the backup software to be as inexpensive as possible, but there are a few features that I need. Access to my data via the browser and my mobile devices is very helpful. I also require a lot of space and the ability to store external drives in addition to the two I have in my computer. Further, I’ve found that backups over time can be a real lifesaver.
Your backup needs may vary. Luckily, there are a wealth of options available. These or similar tools can help you reach the 3-2-1 backup method.
If you’re not familiar with Dropbox, it creates a new “Dropbox” folder when installed. Everything you put in that folder is uploaded “to the cloud.” Install Dropbox on a second computer, log in, and everything in your Dropbox directory will be rapidly deposited into that second computer’s Dropbox folder. Install Dropbox on your mobile device and you can access much of the directory’s contents while you’re on the go. Changes made from any device intelligently propagate to all other synced devices.
Everything important digital file I have lives in my Dropbox directory. Access to those things from anywhere has numerous and surprising benefits. Plus I get the simple certainty that, no matter what, a current version of anything I care about is always backed up to a place I can access instantly.
Dropbox is available for Windows, OS X, Linux, and many mobile devices. Their free plan provides 2GB of online storage, which you can increase by advertising for the service. SugarSync is a good alternative, offering similar functionality and a free plan with 5GB of storage.
For those keeping track with the 3-2-1 method, Dropbox immediately provides an off-site data copy and, for my purposes, a second media type copy. Both Dropbox and Sugarsync offer useful free plans. What’s your excuse for not using them?
Time Machine has been a feature of OS X since Snow Leopard. It backs up everything on your Mac’s hard drive to an external drive. Better yet, it remembers changes in those files over time, providing backups of not just the files that are on your computer, but those that were on your computer as well.
Time Machine gives me a second level of security against data loss, with the bonus that it also preserves data outside the Dropbox directory. It requires a decent-sized external hard drive, but needs no oversight from me. Time Machine works quietly, tirelessly in the background. I don’t often need its backups, but they have really saved me a few times. No matter how seldom I use it, I’ll always maintain a Time Machine backup. External hard drives are increasingly inexpensive, and what price can you put on piece of mind?
With Time Machine it’s very easy for any Mac user to maintain an additional on-site copy of the data they care about. Unfortunately, there is no direct replacement for Time Machine on other platforms. Scheduled backups using a service like CrashPlan may be the best option for Windows users.
Backblaze, like Dropbox, is an application that stores files you want to protect “in the cloud.” Unlike Dropbox, Backblaze maintains a copy of anything on your computer, or on any drive connected to that computer. You can access them via a Web-based interface or, if required, Backblaze will actually mail DVDs or an external hard drive to you for a reasonable fee.
In my system, Backblaze is like a combination of Dropbox and Time Machine. Like Dropbox, it’s off site and constitutes one more type of media; like Time Machine, it manages an archive of all of my files quietly in the background.
There are many alternatives to Backblaze. Carbonite seems to have the biggest advertising budget, and may be a good option. Backblaze, however, is less expensive — especially if you want to backup external drives.
Consider what’s at stake
Think about your data. Think about how much you have, and how important it is. Educate yourself on the backup solutions available to you, including those above. Choose the options right for the scale and value of what you have to manage. Then, move forward with confidence that, when the stuff hits, you’ll be protected.
Future you will thank present you.