Monday, February 15, 2010

Computer backup

Computer backup is one of those things that everybody knows they should do but very few people do it. It is not until a hard drive fails that they realize that they can never get all those pictures back, or that one important file, or whatever. Hard drive failure is not uncommon; I expect that everybody knows somebody close who has lost data to a failure.

Since we all know we are supposed to backup, why do we not do it? There can be several barriers to entry, mostly around price and time (of course, since time = money these are essentially the same thing). I'll talk about the options I know about. Hopefully you can pick one that works for your backup needs. At the very end I'll talk about some options for data recovery if you do not backup!

  • The obvious first pass is to have an extra hard drive (external or internal) with the data on it. I have never gone this route myself, but (thanks to programs such as Apple's Time Machine) the intimidation factor is relatively low. Even just copying files over without fancy software is better than nothing, and in most cases is sufficient for personal backup protecting against a hard drive failure. Remember, though, that an electrical surge (such as from lighting) can wipe out your connected extra hard drive at the same time as the rest of your computer!
  • My backup method until recently was to use physical media. That means burning CDs and DVDs of the data. I will still do this occasionally, but the process of setting up the burn is a bit tedious. Physical media still doesn't necessarily protect against catastrophic loss, either: if your house burns down, your computer and DVDs are going with it. That can be mitigated by putting physical media in an alternative location (such as a safe deposit box) but that adds additional complication to the process.
  • There are several free options for online backup. Online backup has the advantage of not being connected to your physical location (catastrophic loss and easy access). An easy approach to this for non-sensitive documents is just sharing the files. Putting pictures on services such as flickr can let others see them, but should also allow you to pull them off should the originals get destroyed. I have never tried this, though, since I have not had data loss since using flickr. Flickr and other web 2.0 sites will help for some types of data, but for others a more private and secure solution is necessary.

    There are several solutions for free online data storage. A few that I know of include Google Docs, Dropbox, and Mozy. Google Docs is VERY manual, but the other two work fairly automatically. Dropbox is also a great sharing tool. The drawback of free online data storage is always the size. Each service only allows for a gigabyte or two of online storage. This works for documents or choice files, but completely backing up a modern photo or collection requires a different approach.
  • Most of the free online data storage solutions also offer a paid option for online backup. Dropbox can go up 100 gigs and Google can go up to 16 terabytes. The right price point for me is found by Mozy or Carbonite (I use Carbonite). Both Mozy and Carbonite offer unlimited and automatic online backup for about $55 a year. Setting up and running Carbonite has been very easy. I hope to never need it, but I view it as insurance.
    This Week in Google #28 from February 6, 2010 has an ad for Carbonite where if you sign up for the free trial and then purchase from the trial using the offer code twig then you get two months free. Most excellent.
Now you will all use some form of backup, right? None of the above approaches are absolutely catastrophe-proof, but something is always better than nothing.

What happens if you do not backup and experience data loss, or if you do backup but didn't do so as rigorous as was necessary? In some cases it may not be a total loss. Although a normal operating system and/or program may not be able to read the disk, there may be an approach to get the data off:

  • spinrite is a tool by Steve Gibson. It basically gives you low-level access to the disk and then attempts to fix it. It is a somewhat geeky tool. Here is a wikipedia article about it. It costs about $90 for a new user.
  • The really geeky solution is to boot off a linux thumb drive. This requires using linux and may not work any better than your actual normal operating system. Since it is linux, it is free!

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