You’re a few days into your new computer and you are getting used to how it works. Probably you’ve figured out where all of the controls are located in terms of look-and-feel, so by now you’ve been able to personalize it (wallpaper, colors, mouse/touchpad behavior, and so on) and make it “yours.”
If you save data locally in your computer, whether it’s photos, documents, or data related to a local application, the longer you keep your data just on your computer, the more at risk you are of losing your data should something go wrong.
There are a lot of ways to lose your data, and if your data is at all important to you, then you should sit up and pay attention. Sooner or later, you’ll find some or all of your data has gone missing. A few of the ways this can happen are:
- Stolen computer
- Hard drive failure (this can happen to SSD’s too – you’re not immune)
- Operating system or application malfunction
- User error
Rather than describe specific tools or services, instead I’ll describe the general methods that can be used to back up your data, as well as some principles that will help you make good decisions about how to back up your data.
Backing up your data means simply this: making a copy of it, from time to time, for safe keeping, in case something goes wrong.
Available methods for backing up your data include:
- Copying to a thumb drive, external hard drive, or a CD or DVD
- Copying over your network to another home (or office) computer
- Time Machine, if you use a Mac
- Copying to a cloud-based storage provider such as Mozy, Box.net, Dropbox, or iBackup.
- Copying to backup media such as magnetic tape
Let’s talk about the location of your backup data. This matters a lot, and you have some choices to make here. The two main choices for location are:
- Near you and your computer. When you keep your backup data close by, you will be able to conveniently recover any data that you might lose for most any reason: accidental deletion, updates you wish you didn’t make, hardware failures in your computer, or software bugs that helped to corrupt your files. Do be aware, though, that if you only keep your backup data near your computer, then certain events such as fires, floods, or theft may result in your computer and your backup data being lost. For this reason you will want to consider keeping your backup data away from you and your computer.
- Far away from you and your computer. When you keep your backup data far away from you, it may be slightly less convenient to recover data, but the main advantage is that most types of disasters that may happen to you (fire, flood, theft) is not likely to affect both your original data and your backup data.
One thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have to make an OR-type decision about where to keep your backup data. There is no reason why you cannot do both: keep backup data nearby, and keep backup data far away. This will help to protect you from events like accidental erasure as well as disasters like fires or floods.
Out of your control
One important matter to keep in mind is this: if you are considering use of any of those cloud-based data storage services, then you have to understand the risk of another type of data loss: a compromise of the security used by the data storage service, which could lead to your data being exposed to others. Many cloud based data storage services describe mechanisms such as encryption that they use to protect customer data. But what may seem like solid protection may instead only be window dressing. Depending on the sensitivity of the data you are considering keeping with a cloud-based storage service, you might consider encrypting it yourself before copying it to the storage provider, or you might consider using a different storage provider. Unless you are an expert in data security, you may need to consult with a security expert who may be able to better understand the effectiveness of a storage provider’s claims of safety and security.
My own methods
Being Mac users, we use Time Machine for automatic incremental backups that occur on an hourly, daily, and weekly basis. I rotate two different external hard drives for my Time Machine backups, and usually keep the other hard drive in a safe or take it to work. I also use an Internet based data backup service and regularly back up my most important current information to the service (such as book manuscripts I am currently working on).