Saturday, November 04, 2006

Backing up your digital life

As we all build our collections of digital content, from digital photos to multi-GB ripped music collections, we are placing a substantial burden on that little piece of hardware in our computer (the hard drive) that is one of the more likely components to fail. This failure, especially in the case of digital photos where you usually have but one copy of them on one drive, can lead to a substantial, irrecoverable loss of priceless moments of our lives.

What surprises me is that the subject of backing the data up is not heavily discussed in the documentation that comes along with those wonderful digital cameras, or those fancy MP3 players). Before you suffer from one of these losses, I strongly suggest that you take a few easy steps to protect your data.

When considering backup solutions you need to think in terms of normal day-to-day backup and recovery (such as getting back a file or directory that you accidentally deleted) and about disaster recovery (such as when your house burns down or when a power surge takes out all of your electronics -- both of these have happened to families I personally know in the past couple of years).

The backup options available today make this process much easier than it has been in the past and at a very low cost. These include:

  • External drive backup. Today you can buy external drives with automated and/or pushbutton backup which will backup your data directly to the external drive. Solutions include the Seagate Pusbutton Backup, Western Digital My Book and many others. This solution protects you from system failure, virus attack (as long as the virus doesn't also attack the external drive) but does not generally provide a good disaster recovery solution given that whatever damaged your computer will likely have damaged the external drive as well.
  • Online backup. There are many online solutions providing remote backup where the costs are extremely reasonable if not downright cheap. These include the likes of Xdrive (5GB for free, no clear option on more) AT&T Online Vault (2GB for $5.95/mo + $2/GB additional (to max of $17.95/mo)), Media Max (25GB for free, 100GB for $4.95/mo, 1TB for $29.95/mo). These are very cost effective, easy to use and once you get the initial data upload over, very efficient and automated. This is an excellent disaster recovery and a pretty good day-in/day-out recovery solution, but can be slow if you need to restore a substantial number of files.
  • Tape backup. For the most part, this isn't a necessary solution except for the enterprise (office) and even then, the diving cost of hard drive storage is making tape a think of the past.
  • Server Backup. Only for the geeks out there, but it is what I do. Backup of your data to a personal server. I've set my own server up such that I can backup my laptop from any location (home, office, on the road) but this solution isn't for the weary. In a future article, I'll explain my configuration and the software I use to support this model.

My recommendation is to use a combination of backup models. First a local backup to an external drive with disaster protection provided by one of the low cost online backup solutions.

My personal solution to date has been a local backup to a raid-5 drive that is mirrored to another drive (providing a very high reliability local storage) and I have the entire data set periodically backed up to an external drive that I keep in my office in Oregon (my disaster recovery solution). The research for this article has led me to decide to change over to using an online backup system for my disaster recovery solution.

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