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What's your backup plan?

The golden rules for backing up are to do it frequently and not put all of your eggs in one basket

If I could give one piece of advice from my last 18 years in the IT industry it would be this; all of your files and photos can be lost in an instant, either by theft, accident, fire or hardware failure. But with a bit of simple planning, you can save yourself the digital trauma by backing up your data properly.

Each new generation of data storage devices has larger capacity, both in MB and its ability to get loads of cash from unsuspecting buyers with ease. Users these days want more MB in smaller devices. The danger is that most of these devices are in some way flawed and have limited lifetimes. The average time in hours a gadget has to "live" before failure is estimated by engineers as the Mean Time Before Failure (MTBF) rating system. This applies to every tech gadget you buy, especially storage devices.

I've seen many different contenders pitched as being the saviour of personal data backup, each with their own issues. Floppies had alarmingly quick failure rates due to friction and magnetism. Rewritable CDs and DVDs have "rot" and "rust" issues with the liquid inside the plastic layers. Removable hard drives are often of questionable quality with low MTBF ratings. Hard drives have liquid bearings that last five years on average. Modern Flash drives have very low MTBF ratings due to manufacturers adding more and more data into smaller spaces. Multi-level cell flash drives cram three times the data into the same area as a single value per cell flash drive from 2008.

But enough of the technical mumbo jumbo (which I learned in the '90s at Tamworth TAFE). You don't need to be a geek or spend loads of money to get a better MTBF rating.

So, what can you do today to backup reliably?

  • Backup to three different places.
  • At least two of the backup locations need to be on different media.
  • One of the locations needs to be offsite.
  • The golden rules for backing up are to do it frequently and not put all of your eggs in one basket. You also need a random test restore every now and then to make sure your media and restore process is working.

    Mac computers have automatic backup called Time Machine. Just buy a removable hard drive, plug it in and follow the prompts. The key is to leave the removable hard drive plugged in when you use your computer or plug it in once a day or week.

    For Windows, automatic backup is a bit trickier. Windows XP has next to no backup feature. Windows 7 had a Backup Your Files feature hidden in the control panel and Windows 8 has a File History feature but it requires complex setup and doesn't give much feedback.

    The simplest backup method is one that you're in control of. Buy a removable hard drive and flash key and spend 10 minutes every Friday backing up your files.

    A simple and automatic backup solution for Windows, Mac or Linux users would be to use a free/commercial program from http://www.crashplan.com. No subscription is necessary. Just install the software, plug in a removable drive and have CrashPlan do the rest.

    A journey's first step is often the hardest. If you start your backup journey now, hopefully you won't have to retrace your steps recreating lost documents.