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David Chandler's Journal of Java Web and Mobile Development

  • David M. Chandler


    Web app developer since 1994 and former Developer Advocate with Google now residing in Colorado. Besides tech, I enjoy landscape photography and share my work at ColoradoPhoto.gallery.

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A comprehensive PC backup strategy

Posted by David Chandler on November 21, 2009

“The Saturday Evening post”

Have you ever thought about exactly why you make backups? What are you trying to protect against? Fire? Thieves? Accidental deletion? A few months ago, a friend’s desperate Saturday night phone call vividly reminded me of why I make backups. “David? Um, my daughter was finishing her 200-page novel that’s due Tuesday, and our computer has just died. As in won’t boot. Is there anything you can do?” Of course, they had no backups.

I don’t have the data in front of me to prove it, but experience suggests that the most likely reason you’ll ever need a backup is hard drive failure, with malware /virus infection probably running a close second. Here’s the strategy I’ve developed over the years:

  1. Put all your data files in one directory structure so you can easily copy it. I use a folder named “C:\@My” with subfolders for documents, music, pictures, etc. The @ causes it to show up first in alphabetical directory listings, which is convenient. In Windows Vista (and maybe XP?), you can use this system and still retain the convenience of your Windows user home folder (containing Documents, Music, Pictures, etc.) that shows up in all the standard file dialogs. Simply right-click on, say, David\Documents, click Properties, select the Location tab, and point it to  C:\@My\Documents instead. The reason I don’t just back up my Windows user folder is because Windows stores the whole user profile there, including a lot of stuff that’s not really data per se.
  2. Forget about backing up all your applications. Just keep your original CDs and serial numbers somewhere you can find them. The PC is expendable–your data isn’t. I’m sure there are solutions that will backup the whole operating system and all installed software, but for me it’s not worth the extra time or space it takes to run backups. The exception is applications you’ve purchased via download. I keep these in @My/Downloads along with a text file for each containing the installation key (or find it in Gmail, since it was likely emailed to me when I purchased it).
  3. Each year, less and less of my critical data exists solely on my PC. Nowadays it’s on my iPhone or GMail. I moved my iTunes folder under my @My directory so the phone gets backed up–see Edit | Preferences | Advanced, and I trust Google not lose my mail, though I’m not completely sure why–what if someone hacked my account and deleted all my mail?!?!#@? I guess I really should set up the POP3 account for Gmail with a local email client like Outlook and back that up, too.
  4. At any rate, let’s get to backing up. I back up smaller files like Quicken data (be sure to move this under @My, too), documents, and photos, on a nightly basis using an online backup solution, iDrive.com. With iDrive, I can store up to 2GB for free, and it’s only $50/yr for up to 150 GB. This is my first line of defense against hard drive failure. My data goes off site every night, and I don’t have to think about it.
  5. For larger files like RAW photos and video (as well as small ones), I backup the whole @My folder to an external hard drive every few days using Karen’s Replicator as I blogged about last week. The name of the game here is speed, and for that, you’ll want a hard drive (and computer) with an eSATA interface. I’ve been very happy with my LaCie 1TB external drive. On a recent typical backup run, Karen’s Replicator processed 62,702 files and copied 400 new or modified files totaling 5.5 GB to the LaCie in 8.5 minutes. Most HP and Toshiba laptops now have an eSATA port. You could backup RAW photos and other large files online, too, but DSL upload speeds are so slow that it may be impractical depending on how much new data you create each day.
  6. For large items of sentimental value like photos and videos that are not backed up online, I burn a DVD once a year and drop it in my bank’s safe deposit box in a Ziploc bag (think sprinkler system malfunction). That way, even if I lose both my PC and external drive, I won’t lose more than a year’s worth of digital memories.

Following this strategy, all your data except RAW photos and video always exist in three places: your PC, external hard drive, and in the cloud (online). For extra peace of mind for larger files not backed up online, you could get a second external hard drive and always keep one in your bank’s safe deposit box in a Ziploc bag (think sprinkler system malfunction).

As of this writing, all of my accumulated digital assets take up 168 GB. That already fits easily on a portable hard drive (though I haven’t yet found one with the faster eSATA interface). Within a few years, it will fit on a USB flash drive, I expect. In fact, it would almost fit on this kind of flash drive today. Buy a couple of these along with an eSATA hard drive enclosure from Fry’s and you’ll probably spend more time swapping backup drives at the bank than you will backing up your whole file system every day…

By the way, my friend’s story had a happy ending. I dropped the hard drive containing the novel into a USB hard drive enclosure I bought for $13 at my local Fry’s, plugged it into the USB port on another PC, and recovered all the data. External hard drive enclosures are cool. Fry’s is cool, too.

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2 Responses to “A comprehensive PC backup strategy”

  1. perwiklander said

    3.
    How about signing up for some other email service and have Gmail forward everything there? Or as you say sync the data locally and back it up yourself. I like Google and their services but I would not trust them to keep the only copy of anything that is important to me. I would not trust any one (including me) to do that.

    6.
    Do you trust those DVDs to work in ten years? Do you take them out and test them / copy them to new media once in a while (like when you go there to put the next one in)?

  2. perwiklander said

    Looks like I’m becoming a regular here 🙂

    Here’s my strategy. A bit long, yes. Perhaps I should get my own blog 😉

    1. RAID1

    My workstation has two 500GB drives configured in RAID1 (mirror).
    This is not at all to be considered as backup since it does not
    protect against accidental deletion and both could die at the same
    time if the mobo chooses to die) but it protects against at least one
    day of downtime (getting a new drive, installing all software) in the case
    of a single drive failure.

    2. Time Machine

    I’m using time machine on my Mac with an external drive. Even though
    Apple has put a fancy name and a fancy GUI on it, it’s just a
    glorified rsync+hard links
    (http://www.mikerubel.org/computers/rsync_snapshots/#Incremental).

    This runs every four hours and a 500GB drive holds backups of about
    400GB of data with two months of weekly, two weeks of daily and 6
    hourly snapshots. Since only the changed files are copied and
    Spotlight (the file indexing thingy) knows which have changed, it is
    super fast.

    I’m mostly creating text files so the total amount of data does not
    grow that fast. When I produce larger things, like importing RAW
    photos, the amount of data will grow at a faster pace. I’m considering
    getting a different drive for those since I don’t need to keep older
    versions. I do edit the photos, of course, but the edits are stored
    (with history) in the meta data so the RAW data never changes.

    The paranoid (or smart) person would combine the above with one or
    more drives that are switched and moved to an offsite storage (bank
    vault, mothers hosue, whatever) on a regular basis. Having two months
    of backups on an external drive at home, next to the computer, doesn’t
    do much good if the house burns, but it does help if the drive in the
    computer fails.

    3. Besides the above, some data gets extra backups.

    All of my written source code and related artifacts goes into a
    repository on a server that has a backup scheme of its own
    (hourly local rsync+hard links and daily offsite).

    Important (like business) documents are backed up to dropbox
    (http://dropbox.com) where I can share them with clients as
    well. Since the business drop box is shared with (replicated to)
    others in the company, all files are in several places as well as on
    the dropbox server.

    One problem with backups (that I’ve chosen to ignore, *LALALA*) is
    that the original data could get corrupted in one way or another and
    then your backup would be a perfect copy of the corrupt data. Not
    good. Thats why backups should always be tested on a regular basis and
    compared to some known (non corrupt) state, but there are limits to
    what a normal person will put up with.

    Phew… sometimes I wish I had chosen a non digital line of work
    (or life).

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