On this Friday the 13th, I thought it would make sense to talk about how to avoid the most unlucky computer threat, data loss. I’ve heard it said, “There are two kinds of people in the world: those who backup, and those who wish they would’ve.” Anyone who has had that sinking feeling that their data is gone knows what I’m talking about. Just think about everything you care about on a computer: documents you’ve created, tax forms, resumes, pictures of your family, music you’ve accumulated, and other files that may or may not be able to be reproduced. Some data, like business accounting information, could be reproduced, but the time and money cost would be so much that it would take days or weeks to recreate everything. Backing up your data is a concept everyone should be well aware of, and something we should do regularly.
So first, let me define what I mean when I say backup. A backup of a file is a duplicate of that file put somewhere else on the drive, or on another drive, or online. This creates data redundancy that is fault tolerant in case of theft, data corruption, virus attack, or catastrophic disaster. Moving all your pictures to an external drive is not backing up, because you have no redundancy. That backup drive could die on you just as easy as your internal drive, if not easier, since it’s not enclosed and protected inside a computer chassis. Remember this: Backup is creating a copy of a file to create redundancy.
There are a couple of ways to backup your data. The easiest way is just to work online. This is why I push for my customers to use the Google docs or Microsoft’s Skydrive. If you work online on documents or other files, they are kind of already backed up. I say kind of because there still does stand the chance that Microsoft of Google might lose your data, but this should be a small chance. Many times, this can be a free option and also can allow for collaboration with other people on those files. This is my favorite backup solution.
Cloud based services for backup are also out there, such as Mozy and Carbonite. With these programs, your data is grabbed off of your local computer and dumped on the internet in an encrypted blob. With your password, you can decrypt the data and get your files if something should go wrong on your computer. This is definitely the next best way to backup data if you can’t work in an online application. Mozy runs automatically when it detects your computer to be in a low usage mode, such as when you’ve stepped away from it, and uses that time to copy your files to its secure online database. This is nice because you have a backup of your files that is catastrophic, meaning that if your computer were to get stolen, burn up, or flood, your data is safe somewhere else. This has to happen in a business environment and should happen in the residential setting as well.
Most people consider copying their files to a flash drive or an external hard drive backing up. This is an acceptable method of backup and has been what people have done for years. Before everyone had broadband internet, this was the only way to backup. If you’re going to use an external hard drive for backup, you should move this external backup to a fireproof safe, a bank’s deposit box, or just another location that is away from your computer. That way, if something happens and the computer gets hit by lightening or flooded or stolen, you’ve still got a copy of everything somewhere else.
The frequency of your backups is also important. Backups can be daily, weekly or even monthly. The way to asses the frequency you need to backup is to ask youself, “How much data am I willing to reproduce if I have to?” If you backup daily, you should only be out a day’s work if you have a disaster. If you backup weekly, say on Friday the 13th, and your computer goes out on Thursday the 19th, you stand to have to somehow recreate that 6-day span of data, which is the most recent and probably the most useful. I recommend daily backups if you care about your data. For pictures, you could probably get by with a monthly backup, unless you’re a photographer and have other peoples’ pictures you are responsible for.
If you’ve made it this far, then you deserve a prize because I know this isn’t the most exciting topic of conversation. It is however very important and something every computer user should understand and practice. The worst thing I ever have to do as a computer technician is tell someone that their data is gone. Don’t make me have to do that; Backup your data.