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Backing up Your Data

Imagine that your computer (or phone, or tablet) suddenly stops working. What happens to all of your data? Your family photos, your budget planning spreadsheet, that novel you've been working on? For too many people this would mean that everything is gone, and getting it back may be impossible. Backing up your data is like having an insurance policy on it: if something goes wrong, you have a chance to recover.

Recently I suffered a drive failure on my computer. Thankfully, it was only a mild inconvenience rather than a catastrophe, but all too often people hope for the best rather than being prepared for something going wrong. Part of the reason for this is that there's a lot of options out there for how to protect yourself, which can be daunting.

Here I'll give you some pointers to help you choose a backup strategy that works for you.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Computer hardware, generally speaking, is pretty reliable these days, which can lull you into a false sense of security. Don't be fooled though: things can still break unexpectedly.

There's two broad categories of disaster that can occur:

An internal failure typically means you simply need a backup copy of your data somewhere.

An external failure could be more devastating, because whatever it is could affect your backups as well. It is not uncommon for people to keep a backup drive in the same place as their computer, so if there is a fire or a flood or some other major disaster, everything could be lost. This is where storing a backup "off site" in a different physical location can be a good idea.

What Should I Back Up?

First, you should get an understanding of what you want to back up. For example:

You may want to back up all or some of this data. Identifying what is important to you should give you an idea of how much data you'll need to store and how often it changes.

Depending on how replaceable the data is, or how often (or rarely) you change it, you could choose different approaches to backing up the different types of data.

Choosing Your Backup Strategy

There are many ways to protect yourself against data loss, and they can vary greatly in terms of ongoing effort, cost and robustness.

There are some questions to ask of each approach:

Let's look at some of the options and how they stack up:

In the Cloud

This is probably the easiest for most people: once it's set up it will rarely need any intervention. There are several free services (such as Dropbox) that can be used for backing up your data. Once you need to store large amounts of data, you usually need to subscribe to the service.

The Cloud is completely off-site, so even in the event of a big disaster, you data will be safe.

Cloud backup typically does not have multiple versions of files saved.

Remember that "the Cloud" is really "somebody else's computer," which can spark privacy, security and reliability concerns. It is not unheard of for free services to stop operating with short notice, and it's practically impossible to know whether they are snooping on your data.

Note that smartphones and tablets are well suited to cloud storage backup.

An internet connection is required to synchronise your backup.

External Drive(s)

This option applies more to desktop/laptop computers than to tablets and smartphones.

Modern operating systems (e.g. Windows and OSX) come with a backup program included; these are aimed at consumer-level users. There is also third party software out there to help you save backups. In both cases, these can put your copies on external drives (typically NAS or USB drives).

When backing up to external drives, you can subsequently take them off site, which keeps your data safe. However this means either having two (or more) back up drives that you cycle between or periodically bringing the backup drive on site to update it (and remembering to take it away again). Note that you usually need to tell the backup software when swapping drives over. If you're backing up large amounts of data, multiple drives may be expensive.

Many of these programs have a built in versioning system, so you are protected from accidental or malicious modifications to your data. This is even more robust if you have many backup drives.

The backup software in your operating system may allow you to back up your entire system, including installed programs and settings. While these are fairly replaceable, this may be a huge convenience.

It is unfortunately common that this sort of backup software fails, and often it does so fairly quietly, so it's very important to check that the backups are indeed working.

Redundant Drives (RAID)

I've included this for completeness, but it's rare for home use: RAID is a fairly pro-level approach to backups, requiring specialised hardware and software. RAID can also give a performance boost to your computer (in fact some RAID setups are purely for performance and offer no data protection, but we'll ignore these variants here).

The idea is that you have several (usually more than 3) drives in your computer working together to ensure that data is backed up at the time it is written. RAID arrays will continue to operate when a drive fails, and with the right type of hardware you can "hot swap" a drive in to replace the failed one.

RAID does not give you any benefit for getting your data off site, nor does it give you any way of fetching previous versions of files.

Social Media

Social media sites (like Facebook, Flickr and YouTube) seem similar to cloud storage and could be used as some level of backup, but generally there's not a lot to recommend them.

Typically photos and/or videos are the only files that they store.

Often the stored files are (re)compressed, degrading their quality.

Often it is difficult to recover the files in bulk from the service.

Some people do think of these sorts of sites as their backups, but I would recommend treating them as platforms for sharing, rather than storing.

Burning to Disc

This is a fairly old fashioned and low-tech approach to backups (here for completeness). These days it is only suitable for modest amounts of data that doesn't change often. This approach is fairly slow and labour intensive.

Passwords and Encryption

Many backup solutions include (or require) passwords, particularly online services.

Make sure that any passwords required for accessing your backups are either memorised or kept somewhere different to the computer being backed up; there's nothing worse than being locked out of your own backups.

Some backup solutions include encryption. As with password protected backups, you need to take care of the encryption key. These are impossible to memorise, so need to be stored somewhere electronically.

For many users the added complexity of using encryption outweighs any benefits. Encrypting your files when using cloud services can make some sense, but if you're concerned about privacy I would avoid online services altogether. If backing up to external drives (or other media), someone needs physical access before they can get hold of the data, so usually encryption is overkill in this situation.

If your computer has encryption turned on, your backed up files may be encrypted as well. This makes it vitally important to ensure that the encryption key is kept safe as well. It is also important to ensure that the backed up files are recoverable from a different computer.

Ongoing Checks

I know an ex-photographer who did all the right things with her backups, and still managed to loose all of their photos. Why? All of her backups had failed.

Apart from being devastating, this is also frustrating. Doing all the right things and still ending up no better than having done nothing is pretty awful.

No matter what backup strategy you choose, you need to check that it is actually working as intended.

A good way to do this is to occasionally restore some files from your backup. Picking a couple of old files and a couple of new files at random and restoring them (to a new location) and then checking that they contain what you expect is a common approach to doing this kind of check.

It's easy to forget about this sort of thing, or to keep putting it off. You could use reminders in your phone to tell you when backups are due to be checked.

In Conclusion...

Backing up your files is important and it's easy to be overwhelmed by the options.

The first step is to recognise how precious your data is. From there you can start thinking about how to protect it.

If you are not sure what to do, reach out to tech-savvy friends or look for professionals who could help set you up.

Once you have a backup strategy in place, be diligent and ensure it is working as expected.

Whatever you do, don't simply hope for the best.

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