I spent a lot of time thinking about backing up my data yesterday.  Luckily, it’s not because I had a drive failure and I lost data.  No, actually the opposite.  I’m running out of space on one of the services I use for my backups.

Since it’s on my mind, I figure this would be a good time to talk about keeping your data safe.

Why you should care

When I worked at the IT helpdesk, I saw a lot of computer problems.  But no matter what the problem was, the number one question asked with tears was “can you get my files back?”  For most, your computer holds a vast majority of your life.  Sometimes I could offer hope.  Sometimes, I had to tell the awful truth.

Think about everything unique on your computer.  Maybe you have family photos, sitting somewhere in your user folder.  Maybe you have notes from your 4 years of Undergrad, or a dissertation from your Graduate school days.  Maybe a collection of perfectly legal copies of your DVDs because you don’t own a computer with a CD drive anymore.  Maybe the beginnings of a book you’ve been working on in your spare time, or antenna designs for listening to satellites passing overhead.  Whatever it is, you probably have something that wouldn’t be easy to replace, or at least a huge hassle to recreate.  The prospect of losing any of that can be … nothing short of dire.

Your data is fragile.  Hard Drives crash.  Solid State drives wear out.  Operating systems corrupt themselves.  Malicious coders infect computers and lock files around the globe.  Lightning strikes and surges fry components.  Water spills drown and thieves steal.

Hardware can be replaced, but files are often irreplaceable.

What makes a good backup?

Your data should never be compromised by a single point of failure.  Here are the three calamities a good backup structure should protect against:

1) Hardware Failure

This is typical stuff like if your hard drive fails, or your computer dies, or a botched update ruins your hard drive configuration data.  I’ve seen all three at my old IT job.  Typically, a reasonably competent computer technician can recover the files from the last two options options, but that can cost time and money.  If you have the right tools and an extra computer, you can sometimes recover the files yourself, but that’s all a hassle that can be easily avoided with a frequent backup plan.

2) User Error / Ransomware

Ever accidentally delete a file, and only realize after you emptied your Recycle Bin?  Even worse, has your computer been attacked by ransomware and your files held hostage?  Hopefully, not.  But these are real threats to your data that can be solved by keeping a copy of your files on a dedicated backup drive separate your computer.

3) Natural Disasters

Floods, fires, burglars, or other disasters that affect your whole property are a sure-fire way to wipe out every copy of a file in your area.  A good backup scheme will protect against these disaster by keeping a copy of the files off-site.

My backup structure

From the above list, backups should be frequent, should be stored away from your computer, and have an off-site component.  No one technology can do this cost-effectively, so I use a bit of a hybrid system.

1) Data that changes everyday should be automatically synced to a cloud service

For me, this includes all my research files, my OneNote Notebooks, and general documents (like drafts for this blog!). I use a combination of a personal Microsoft OneDrive account and a university Box account here.  The great thing about cloud-based storage is that as soon as I modify a file, the new copy gets synced to the cloud and instantly updates on all my other computers.

Cloud Storage is great.  First, your data is accessible everywhere with an internet connection and most services come with utilities that automatically sync your files.  An easy-to-use system that doesn’t need any intervention from you?  You can’t get more frequent than that!  Issue 1: Passed!  The cloud storage services I use all have a great versioning system that lets me revert unwanted changes and recover deleted files for up to a month ago.  Issue 2: solved!  Finally, “The Cloud” is just shorthand for “a whole mess of redundant datacenters across the globe”, meaning that your data isn’t stored in just one place.  Issue 3: sorted!

This Cloud stuff sounds great!  So, why do I have other storage methods?  Well, for one, I just have too much stuff.  Like, roughly 1.5 TB (1500GB) of photos, videos, and other files.  OneDrive is limited to 5GB for a free account.  Microsoft offers a $2/month plan for 50GB.  That’s not a horrible price, but 50GB still isn’t enough.  Looking elsewhere, Google Drive seems to be offering 2TB of storage (2000GB) for $10/month.  That’s too expensive for me.

But even if I felt like spending that kind of money, the other major issue is speed.  Transferring files over the internet is very, very   s l o w.  Copying all my files to Google Drive would take several days.  Getting them back after a failure would take just as long.  That’s simply not acceptable for me.

So instead, I limit my cloud storage to my everyday files, leaving my other archives for more traditional backups.

2) All files get copied to a large external hard drive every month (or after a particularly good photoshoot)

I have a 3TB external Hard Drive that is dedicated to backups.  It only gets plugged in when I’m copying files.  This prevents any ransomware from getting to those files or me accidentally wiping the wrong hard drive.  Being a physical device next to my computer, file transfer speeds are nice and quick.  And by waiting a month to do backups, I can “go back in time” to a month ago and recover an older version of a file, if I need to.

3) The Backup Hard Drive gets copied at my Parents’ house at least once / year

When I go visit my family next week for Christmas, I’ll be bringing my backup hard drive.  I’ll copy my files to my Dad’s hard drive, and I’ll update my copy of the family photos archive.  That way, if my computer gets swallowed by a tornado, I’ll still have my photos, notebooks, and software tools waiting for me when I’m ready to rebuild.

4) Optional: System Image every 6 months

Now, just a fair warning, this one might be a bit overkill.  In addition to copying my files, I also make a bit-by-bit copy of my Operating System SSD.  Should my computer’s SSD ever fail, I can get a new one and restore the system image and get all my settings and programs back exactly as they were.  I’ve never needed to use this, but it seems like a good thing to do.


Backups are an important part of computer literacy.  A backup gives you control even if your computer breaks.

A good backup should protect against hardware failure, user error, and natural disasters by being frequent, separate from your computer, and off-site

Cloud storage is great for small amount of files: it constantly updates, keeps old copies, and is accessible anywhere with an internet connection.

Traditional External Hard Drives are more of a hassle, but are great for high storage density and high transfer rates.

The best thing to do is a mixture of Cloud Storage for frequently-changing files, and a External Hard Drive for archives.


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