Backup before you lose everything!

Last week my aging computer went belly up with the completed manuscript of my first book, and my partially written second. Apart from not being able to write (or anything else) for a few days, I managed to fix the issue and now I’m back in business, unscathed. I didn’t lose a single word of writing, hence this topical post about Backups.

Historically, backing up is a chore that most users never bother with. Until the last decade, backup programs were often expensive, manual and so overly complicated that even geeks would shudder at the thought. Why go to all that trouble when nothing bad has ever happened to you? Like buying flood insurance, I guess. “I haven’t had a problem for 10 years so it will never happen to me.” Technology is incredibly reliable these days, but isn’t infallible. I’m not sure I could bear having to rewrite tens of thousands of words, should I lose my WIP.

I’m certain you are all responsible users who back your data up, right? Right? And I don’t mean once a month. You can, hopefully, write a lot in a month. Here’s a quick look at just how easy, and cheap, backups are today.

Mac

Apple totally revolutionized backups with Time Machine. By flicking one switch to on, it will happily back up your entire machine (and any attached drives) every hour of every day. It does incremental backups every hour and then rolls them up into daily snapshots, weekly snapshots, etc., and will automatically delete older backups depending on the amount of drive space you have allocated. Drives are so cheap these days (2TB for a little over $100) that it’s a total no-brainer to buy a 2TB drive and just let Time Machine get on with it. Not only is your writing safe, but your iTunes library, your photos, your entire digital life.

Furthermore, restoring from a backup is a breeze with the snazzy visual interface of Time Machine, allowing you to flick back through time, hour by hour or day by day, seeing your drives and folders at each point in history. Backups have never been so easy. The more hours a day you leave your computer on, the less work Time Machine has to do each time.

Apple even sell a dedicated external drive called Time Capsule, specially designed to work with Time Machine, but this isn’t necessary. You can back up to any drive.

Microsoft PC

The PC world still lacks the elegance of Time machine, but backups have come a long way. Every version of Windows comes with some kind of basic backup utility, though it might not be intuitive to find it. Typically, you can find an icon for it in the Control Panel. It varies with the version of Windows. Again, you can schedule regular backups and choose which drive to copy your files to.

There are also many 3rd-party Backup programs, but these will cost you anywhere from $30 to $80. NovaBackup seems to be a popular one at present. Often the best deal is to utilize the free backup software that comes with most external drives. This software comes pre-installed and ready to go.

Which drive to backup to?

Common sense should dictate that you not backup to a drive inside your computer, since it is likely to suffer the same catastrophe should you lose your computer. There are a plethora of good external drives available with any type of connector you should need, usually USB or FireWire, or now the new Thunderbolt standard. Should your computer fail, your external hard drive should be safe, and it has the added bonus of portability. You can share it between multiple computers, allowing you to back them all up (if you don’t mind putting all your eggs in one basket). If you get a fire or a flood, just pick up the drive and take all your data to safety.

You might elect to use a NAS drive for easier sharing between computers. This provides the option to keep your backup drives in a different room from your computers. You can either plug it into your home network via Ethernet, or choose a wi-fi enabled drive for maximum convenience. Now you can back up your laptop from your couch. Time Capsule is such a device.

Should you back up to CD or DVD? This type of media is dying out and really doesn’t provide enough space for modern data like hi-res photos, movies, and MP3’s. It’s still adequate for text, so you might decide to keep additional copies of your manuscripts on disc. Neither type of disc is indestructible however, so frankly I don’t trust them any more. A practical use might be to hold published manuscripts off-site, assuming that future computers will have the capability to read them.

Online Backup

This has become very popular in recent years, and there are numerous services out there, comparable in pricing and options. Just like Time Machine on the Mac, simply set them up, typically with a small, free, download, and forget them. Popular contenders include Carbonite, Mozy, and Backblaze. Some offer a free trial, and thereafter cost around $5-$8 per month, but make sure you research their data limits. I was very happy with Mozy until they stopped doing unlimited data, and my $5/month price would have risen to $18/month. I have been using Backblaze for over a year for $5/month and have had zero problems.

My Advice

Purchase a suitably sized external drive – USB is fine – and schedule daily or preferably hourly backups to it. For the sake of $5/month, set up an account with one of the online backup services too. Now your data is going to two places, and one of them is remote from your home. The peace of mind is worth it. At the very, very least, please backup to DVD.

Though both forms of backup are autonomous, don’t blindly trust them. Once a month, or whenever I remember, I pop into the status panels for Time Machine and Backblaze, and confirm that yes, my files are being backed up and are up to date. Now and then they will get a little behind, depending on how many hours your computer is on a day and how often your files change.

I hope this helped de-mystify backups, and may your data “live long and prosper”.

3 Responses to Backup before you lose everything!

  1. Mark Landen says:

    Great post Graeme. There are many different viable options to have a good backup system in place as you’ve shown here. I thought I’d share mine.

    My “workstation” computer functions as a development computer, file repository, and media server. It has an inexpensive APC brand UPS to provide some power protection and a large capacity internal drive. Norton Ghost provides a daily backup of the entire computer, so at any time I can roll back the operating system (it has saved me countless times). I’m also using a free program called SyncBack, scheduled on a daily basis, to copy the development files, the file repository, and media to the same internal drive. Since backup programs such as Norton always fail at some point (even enterprise level programs), SyncBack performs a standard file copy and paste which has saved me on several occasions. Then once a month I have an external drive to which I perform a Norton Ghost and SyncBack backup. This external drive goes into a small, inexpensive fire-resistant safe, then that small safe goes into a larger, more expensive fire resistant safe.

    On my laptop computer, the one I write on, I simply run SyncBack to copy my writing to a USB drive. Then on occasion I copy the laptop files to to my workstation computer. I’m in the process of improving my laptop’s backups, however.

    Spending many years in IT with one of my duties as backup administrator, the biggest lessons learned is that every backup strategy can be improved upon, and all it takes is money to have better protection. Someone also needs to take in consideration of “acts of God”, meaning catastrophic failures from electrical, fire, and flood. The systems I have in place at home have weak points, but for the money it’s a decent setup.

    I think you’ve listed out some great points in this article that many people can learn from!

    • Graeme says:

      Thanks for telling your backup story, Mark. I’ve heard a lot of people swear by Norton Ghost. Since I don’t operate in the Windows world anymore, I can just leave everything to Time Machine. You’re right in that you can always buy security, and online backups are a very cheap solution.

  2. J.M. Frey says:

    I often email copies of the manuscripts to myself when I feel like I have a significant revision that I want to ensure I’ve backed up. That way I can work on it anywhere, from any computer, too.

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