thinking about backups

When a friend on twitter this week lost 3 hours’ work to a USB thumb-drive failure, I was encouraged to write a quick post about backups. If we’re honest, we don’t tend to think about backups until it’s too late.

To further labour the earlier analogy about touch-typing as driving a car, if using technology is like driving, then having backups is wearing a seatbelt. It can restrict your movements, and you need to keep remembering it each time, but when a crash comes, it can save you.

There are a few different things to remember when thinking about backups, and if you’re curious, I’m happy to go into some more detail in a future post, but here are the main things.

  • If the computer I’m working on crashes *right now*, how much work will I lose?
  • If the computer I have my work saved on crashes (or is stolen), how much work will I lose?
  • If I lose my USB key (or it’s stolen, or it stops working), do I have another copy of my work somewhere else?
  • If my laptop bag is stolen, is my other backup copy of the file also stored in my laptop bag?
  • If I accidentally delete a file, is there a copy of my work somewhere else?
  • If I accidentally save a document and replace a more important one, can I get a copy of the more important one back?
  • If I’m hoping to get my document back from [some kind of backup system], will I be able to?

With large web-based email accounts being available for free, it makes sense to be emailing yourself copies of important documents so that you have a backup copy in “the cloud” – but again, don’t make that your only copy. What happens if your account is hacked, or you forget your password?

The key to backups is to have a lot of copies of documents in different places. It’s time consuming, but it is much better than re-doing a lot of work!

Do you have any backup advice or horror stories you’d like to share?

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  1. And, in the IT world….

    if you get X stolen, can thief get in without a password (ouch!), or crack it easily (probably), and how do you change passwords before giving away something like access to a user’s database or ftp. (reminder to encrypt passwords).


    use a version control system eg. Subversion or Mercurial to store your important files and back up, then back up off-site (or sync). this is one-time pain.

    use a password vault (or your head) and keep ‘rings’ of passwords, eg. most secure for internet banking, least secure for overclockers forums 😉

    try a restore (at least once a year)

    gmail accounts have a history of being hacked (especially in the pre-SSL days), so I’d look to your own owned hardware or a VPS as a place to store your data.

    if you’re using a Mac, don’t think Time Machine goes far enough, unless you make sending a hard disk home with a friend a part of your routine.

  2. A long time ago I was taught to consider how much it would cost you (tangible and intangible) if you lost your data, and spend that amount making sure it doesn’t get lost. Good rule of thumb I think. I automatically back up to four different places, including the cloud.

  3. I’ve started using dropbox for file sharing with clients, but now use it for backup too. It lets you work locally but sync across multiple machines, has versions and undelete. Free accounts let you have 2Gb of space or you can get a paid version. It covers my files but I still use time machine and mobile me for address book and calendars.

    And for the security conscious it’s over SSL and stored in the cloud encrypted. Sure I don’t store my internet banking password there though.

  4. I’m happy to report that I’ve just backed up all important data to the main server at work. Plus I’ll be running a full disk image backup over Christmas.

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