On Backing Up Your Computer

This is a guest post from my friend Geof Morris.

If I walked up to you right now, put a gun to your head, and stole whatever computing device you were using to read this, what would you do after I left?

After filing a police report, you’d work with your insurance provider to replace the lost computer. However, we both know that you’d never replace the memories that your computer stores for you: photos, videos, voicemails, letters, what have you. Insurance can only replace the tangible things.

Backups are cheap insurance for the intangible things.

If you’re reading this on a desktop device, you are almost assured to have a spinning disc that does all the storage. If you’re using a laptop, it’s about 50-50 these days. Phones have solid state storage — really, carrying a hard drive around with you sucks, as any old-school iPod user can attest — but all of those can fail.

A hard drive can just … stop. A solid state drive can have a bad filesystem error that corrupts everything. Both of those have happened to me in the last four months, but at no point was I worried, though, because I have backups.

Bryan’s said this before: today, you are one day closer to your hard drive failing. In fact, when Bryan had a crisis a while back, he linked to a piece that I’d run in 2011. I’ve since updated that post, but while that one’s long and technical, I don’t want your eyes glazing over, so this will be friendlier.

At a minimum, you want one copy of your data. That protects you against your hard drive giving up the ghost. But this copy needs to be routinely refreshed and full of everything, and that means that it has to be automated.

In my latest piece on backups, I mention a woman with whom I’d discussed backups. She told me that she was using an external drive “some of the time” and that she kept “the really important stuff” on a “flash drive”, but that she knew that she needed to do better. Are you cringing? Does that sound like you? Does it sound automatic or comprehensive?

What you need are nightly, cloned backups. On the Mac, my go-to for years has been Shirt Pocket’s SuperDuper! On Windows, I’ve gotten very good results with Second Copy. Both of these can be set to do things automatically: nightly backups at 3:30 a.m. works great for most everyone.

Is one copy enough? Probably not. (Okay, it’s not.) Anything automated is likely attached to your computer, so a fire or a burglary will wipe out your backup, too. You should have an online backup. Bryan and I both use CrashPlan, but Backblaze, Mozy, Carbonite, iDrive, and others are great services, too. Do your homework to find out what works best with your operating system, setup (one machine? three?), and budget.

Should you have just one local copy? If a budget is a concern for you, the answer is, “no, but it’s okay.” I personally keep two local copies: one run by SuperDuper! and the other by OS X’s Time Machine. Each have their own uses, and I consider it a belt-and-suspenders approach. It’s served me well, too.

You need at least one backup. You deserve three: two local copies and an offsite one.

If you can afford just one, go with a clone. Two? Add online backup. Software licenses, external hard drives, and yearly service charges are cheap compared to losing all of your data forever.

Backups are cheap insurance.