Backing Up Is Hard to Do

03/16/2011 by Jason M. Atwood (he/him)
A look at backing up in the age of cloud computing and internet storage and some strategies to help keep everything safe

One of the questions I get asked a lot from friends, family and clients who know I have more than a tad bit of technology pulsing through my veins, is "How do I backup?" It usually comes from someone who has lost a file or document and is now worried it will happen again. While a good backup strategy should be as custom as a good retirement plan, some of the principals and guidelines are good for everyone to consider.

Rule of Three

Taking nothing away from this blog post but this, "Nothing exists if it isn't in three places". That is to say that if a document, movie, music file or anything else isn't in three different places it is non-existant when it comes to being backed up. In a good backup strategy, make sure that everything exists in three places, the local machine, a local backup and an offsite backup. Consider things like application install disks as one copy, a hard drive as one copy and any back up as one copy.

Local Still Rules

The first, easiest and cheapest place to backup is locally. Using a external storage device and some backup software your entire computer, from operating system to preferences should be backed up nightly and be able to fully restore the entire computer from scratch. A local backup protects you against theft, damage or disk failure and allows for an immediate replacement. Say you drop your laptop in the East River attending a friends birthday bash, with a full local backup, a quick visit to the computer store, a hard hit on the credit card and you will be back in hours. If you want to go that extra mile use a local storage device that has redundancy like a Drobo or other multi-drived gadget. This will make sure that one drive failure doesn't get worsened by another.

My Cloud Life

Now that you are covered locally make a move to the clouds. Local backup only protects against isolated failure and not things like a house fire or flood that could wipe out not only the computer but any backups in the same room. To protect yourself against that, as the Microsoft commercial says "To the clouds!". Add a backup solution that copies the most important files to a cloud based, offsite facility. Using something like Crashplan, Mozy or JungleDisk all your important files will be encrypted, safe and secure should your local backup fail.

Another way to do this is to use a service like DropBox or MobileMe to store all your important files. These services automatically sync your files to the cloud. The trick is to make sure all your of your important files are stored on these services. Don't be afraid to backup a backup either. You can use CrashPlan to backup MobileMe or use another service to make sure all your files are locally stored as well. These services have lots of different pricing and options but generally are between $5 and $10 a month. You might want to factor in that recovering data from a dead hard drive starts at around $1,000 and goes way up.

Automate & Test

All of the best backup strategies in the world are useless without two key elements, they must be fully automated and tested routinely. Automation means that every part of your backup must happen on a schedule without anyone doing anything. It is way too way to easy to forget to run the special program or move that set of files, so just set it and forget it. The testing part is the harder of the two but is more important. Make sure you actually test your backup system by creating and deleting files and trying to restore them. This testing should also include full computer failure so try to restore an old computer or two before you sell them on E-bay. It is better to test something when you have a choice and the time than learn it doesn't work later.

My Scenario

I start with a very big Drobo (4.51 TB of space) partitioned into two drives one for Time Machine which I back up all the laptops the house and one for very large iTunes and iPhoto collections. I store all my files in my iDisk which is both local and synced to the cloud and other laptops in my house. All of my email is hosted either on Rackspace or Gmail and I use Dropbox to sync a few folders on my desktop that I access a lot (Inbox, Outbox, Downloads). I use CrashPlan to back it all to the cloud including the iDisk.

Backing up is not easy or fun, but if done well can prevent wide spread panic and lost time.

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