Most of us have come to rely upon the information on our hard drives.  Email, calendars, contacts, family photos, financial information, our music collections, and so much more.  So as we begin another new year, let’s take a moment to consider if our information is adequately protected.

Here’s a simple test for home and small business users:  Shut off your computer and pretend it is gone.  What have you lost?  Do you still have your grandmother’s address?  Your MP3 collection?  Your family photos?  Can you pull out a DVD and access the data from another computer, or would you be frantically trying to find someone who does forensic data recovery?

While hard drives have become much more reliable, they do fail.  Computers also get stolen and infected with nasty viruses that destroy information.  It’s sad to think that while some of this generation’s special moments could live forever in electronic form, some won’t survive longer than their owner’s hard drive – about five years on average.

So what are your best options?

Most computers sold these days come with a DVD writer, and if yours didn’t, you can buy a USB DVD writer for about $100.  I’m a huge fan of DVD media because it is has become dirt cheap and if you choose standard DVD-R or DVD+R media, once it is written it can’t be accidentally modified.  (I advise people to avoid RW media for backups – using media that can be overwritten defeats one of the biggest advantages of using DVDs in the first place.)  I burn all my original photos to DVD.  But there is a disadvantage:  We really don’t know how long they will last.  Our best estimate at this point is that quality media will last about 50 years.  Of course within about 10 years we’ll probably be able to copy all of our old DVDs onto some new disk, so as long as we keep that in mind, we’ll be fine.

Another great option is a USB hard drive, just connect it to your computer, copy your files onto it (either manually or using backup software), and then, most importantly, disconnect it and put it somewhere safe. While today’s high capability USB drives make it an attractive option, there’s one catch:  Many people have lost data when a “bad” copy of a file is copied over the “good” one on the backup.  For example, if a virus corrupted a few thousand of my digital photos, and my only backup scheme was to copy them to a USB hard drive, I might end up copying the corrupted versions over top of the good versions.  And that defeats the whole purpose.  So while USB hard drives can be great, you might want to use backup software that keeps older versions of files.

Of course you can combine these two options into a rock solid backup system – burn important files to DVD and also back up your system to a USB hard drive.  Some people also create a second DVD and store it at an off-site location to protect their data in the event of flooding, fire, or natural disaster. But what about those of us who “know” we should back up our files, but never seem to get around to it?

Several companies offer automated Internet-based backups.  For example, you might have seen the Carbonite ads on this web site.  Carbonite is one of the leading Internet backup services because it’s very simple to use:  You install their software, tell it what files or directories you want backed up, and for about $50 per year you can have your computer automatically back up your important files across the Internet.  Network-based backups take longer, both for the backup and subsequent recovery.  But if you want something completely automatic that runs in the background, this is it.

More technical users looking for Internet-based backup should also check out JungleDisk and the Amazon S3 service.  In summary, you can open an account with Amazon and get access to data storage for $0.15 per GIG per month, plus some data transfer fees.  JungleDisk ($20) allows you to mount S3 storage space as a drive letter and it also provides backup functionality.

One Response to Backups: A resolution you can keep

  1. Evolving Squid
    Jan 05, 2009

    From experience, I can say that there is a bigger problem with DVDs (or CDs, or BRDs in the future) than how long the physical disk will last. It’s a new version of a problem that floppy disks used to have.

    Back in ye olde days of, say 1987, you’d write a 360kB floppy. Floppies were good for a couple years if you didn’t stick them on the fridge with magnets. By 1988, 1.2 MB high density disks came out, and they were backward compatible… sort of. You could write a 360kB floppy and it would work in an old drive (sometimes) and similarly you couldn’t always READ an old floppy. This was because the tolerances were tighter on the new drive – your old disk may have had data smeared across it by the older drive. Thus, it wasn’t compatible with a new drive.

    I’ve already found this with some 3-5 year old CD backups. I check my backups periodically (everyone should do this!). I started noticing that I couldn’t read my old CD backups in my new DVD and BRD drives. Ultimately, I got an old machine with a CDROM to read them, copy the data over and burn them onto a new disk. The old machine had no problem reading them. I can only conclude it was a sort of engineering tolerance issue again.

    It’s critical that people validate their disk backups periodically. Additionally, you may wish to migrate your backups to newer media every few years – particularly if formats have changed.

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