Backup Strategies for Hard Drives

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2746, 2009-11-13, as the cover article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 5-7) and their website.

Many years ago, there was shown a television special that focused on earthquake risks and safeguards, and it was ably hosted by a fireman who was also an expert in the field of earthquake preparedness. He had a friendly appearance, a pleasant disposition, and a good sense of humor — the ideal qualities for a party guest. In fact, he often was invited to parties… but never invited back. Can you imagine why? It's because people naturally would ask him what he did professionally, and he would briefly explain the dangers of earthquakes and the importance of securing one's home. That was the problem. The host and/or hostess didn't want to be reminded that they had heard his well-meant warnings months earlier, had recognized their own lack of preparation at the time, and yet still had done nothing about those dangers since the previous party.

People oftentimes behave similarly when it comes to computer security and preservation of their personal data against potential loss. Some of them naively believe that hard drives and other computer media never fail. Or they think that because theirs have yet to fail, there is nothing to worry about. (Perhaps they think that they will "cross that bridge" when they get to it. That will be difficult when the bridge has burned down.) Or — and this is even less excusable — they are well aware of hard drive mortality, but prefer living in denial, hoping that nothing will go wrong.

If you much prefer learning life's lessons the hard way, then you may as well stop reading right now, because, like the fireman mentioned earlier, I'm going to encourage you to think about the unthinkable: complete and instantaneous data loss, with no prior warning (perhaps with the exception of this article).

Hard Drives Die

That's not to say that your hard drive necessarily will die. But it is a nontrivial possibility, especially if the drive has been in frequent use for many years, or has inadvertently been subjected to impact or high temperatures, or came from a fault-prone batch of hard drives with higher-than-normal defect rates. Some of these factors you may be aware of or have control over, while others you don't.

Data loss can also result from theft of your computer. The risk of this is increasing all the time, as more people switch from desktops to laptops, and begin toting those laptops around in restaurants, college libraries, coffee shops, and other public places frequented by thieves. Another source of data loss is human accident, such as when a nephew, without your knowledge, decides to experiment with the FORMAT command. Even experienced computer professionals can receive a visit from the data Reaper: I was testing a highly-touted partition resizing tool a few years ago, and it failed spectacularly. Fortunately, all that data was restorable from multiple backups.

Regardless of how the data is lost, these computer catastrophes usually occur at what seem to be the most inopportune moments — such as after some important documents, music, or data have been saved to the computer, and prior to the computer owner getting serious about doing backups. That's why it is critical to prepare in advance. Another advantage to prior preparation, is peace of mind you gain, because you won't be worrying about the potential of something going terribly wrong with all the information you've been storing over the years.

Save Your Data and Sanity

The health of your data is like the health of your body — prevention is the best cure. In the world of hard drives, that prevention takes the form of backing up all of the important data from the drive, to some reliable repository. Depending upon how much data you need to backup, such a repository could consist of nothing more than a USB flash drive, or a small stack of optical discs, or a second hard drive, or an online data storage service.

Consider the case of individuals who largely use their computers for accessing the Web, or they have a fair amount of personal information but most of it is stored online, in Web-based e-mail accounts and perhaps additionally in online productivity services, such as Google Docs. For people with minimal local data, a simple USB flash drive (a.k.a. thumb drive) should probably be more than sufficient — especially now that the data capacity of those drives has increased dramatically, currently topping out at eight gigabytes.

Another option is rewritable CDs (CD-RWs), since just about every PC nowadays has a built-in optical drive that can write to CDs, and oftentimes DVDs, in the case of later models. Prior to the advent of USB flash drives, these optical discs tended to be a popular and reliable backup medium, and they are quite inexpensive, easy to store, with excellent data retention.

Some of the older media used for backing up data — such as diskettes and tape drives — can still be found in use here and there, but have mainly fallen out of favor, having been supplanted by rewritable optical discs and flash memory, to say nothing of much cheaper hard drives. When choosing your backup media, pay attention to industry trends, to see which type of media may be the first to disappear into technological oblivion.

For maximum reliability and ease-of-use, you can utilize a second hard drive — either internal (for desktops) or external (for laptops and desktops). This is the best option if you have a large amount of data, such as eight gigabytes or more. Copying data from one hard drive to another is much faster than copying it to a USB flash drive — especially if you have SATA hard drives, and not the older IDE drives. Backup speed would probably not be an issue if you intend to start the backup process to run at night or some other time when you are away from your computer. But if you prefer backing everything up and then shutting down your machine, before retiring for the night, drive-to-drive is the way to go.

If you have a lot of data and for some reason you don't want to make use of a second drive, then consider signing up for one of the many Web-based backup services (i.e., saving in "the cloud"), which allow you to upload all of your data securely to their servers, which themselves are regularly backed up. This approach has the convenience of less hardware cluttering up your work area. It may be the only approach if you are traveling frequently, but are still able to access the Internet through high-speed connections wherever you are. The downsides are the monthly service fee, the possibility of data theft from the service's computers, and the much slower transfer time, since your files have to be uploaded over the wire, rather than copied to a local device.

Backing Up Is Easy to Do

Data preservation shares another trait with personal health: While the key to physical flexibility and strength is the consistency of one's workouts, frequent backups are far smarter than just the occasional one. That's because once that hard drive goes, all you will have left is everything saved on the most recent backup, and you will have lost all of the work you saved since then.

If you modify files frequently, and at least occasionally need older versions of those files, then you should perform rotating backups, which means that instead of overwriting the same single backup repository each time, you have multiple repositories. For instance, you could have three thumb drives instead of one, and rotate through them for your daily backups, so you would be able to access the version of a document two or three days earlier, and not just yesterday's. For any data for which there is a possibility that you might want to access older versions at some point in the future, then it is highly advisable to maintain backups from different days, weeks, and even months.

Ideally, you should have multiple backups, on different types of media (e.g., hard drives and thumb drives). At the very least, your most critical files should be backed up onto a second medium immune from the same physical danger threatening your primary media. For instance, if you do daily backups to a second hard drive, at least have everything important saved on a large USB drive, in case both hard drives are damaged by a natural disaster.

Furthermore, your backups should be stored in separate locations. Having everything saved on a second internal hard drive, and nowhere else, won't do you any good if you were to lose the entire computer to theft or household fire. For any data stored off-site, be sure to use a strong encryption program, so thieves cannot gain access to your confidential data.

Hard drive backups are like fire insurance and earthquake preparedness: You hope you never need them, but when you do, they are absolutely critical to recovering your data quickly and inexpensively.

Copyright © 2009 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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