Home Computer Data Backup

Today I am replacing the external drive on my main home computer. Did it break? No. Am I out of space? No. The drive is 4 years old. Most hard drives have an expected lifetime somewhere in the neighborhood of 2-3 years. That doesn't mean the hard drive won't last more than 2-3 years. I've had some last as long as 6 or 7 years! But statistically speaking you can't expect a hard drive to last more than 2-3 years (if even that long). The hard drive I am replacing is not a backup drive, which means this hard drive really needs to work. I keep my iTunes library as well as all the old home movies we have taken over the years on this device. I do not want to lose what is on this drive. The internal hard drive on my main home computer just isn't big enough to hold everything, hence the need for this external hard drive. So I am proactively replacing the hard drive, and while I'm at it I also upgraded from 2 Tb to 3 Tb. I have also setup a reminder 2 years from now to replace the hard drive again so I don't accidentally wait 4 years and risk losing the drive.

All of this got me thinking...I've never written a post about backups. Over the years backups have saved me many times and failed me too. Several years back my work computer backup failed me and when one of my Outlook .pst folders got corrupted I lost 5 years worth of email data because I couldn't pull that .pst folder from a backup (because the backup wasn't there, it had literally failed). So what kind of backup strategy do you need to protect your home data? It's actually quite simple. You need a minimum of two backups of all of your data, one on-site backup and one off-site backup.

On-Site Backup

This is a backup of your data that is in the same location as your primary data. I am running Macs in my house, so the easiest way for me do to an on-site backup is to run Time Machine. If you are running PCs or a mix of machines in your house then you will need to look at other options (and since I gave up PCs a long time ago I'm not a good person help you in this area). Whether you are running Macs or PCs, the most important aspect of your on-site backup is that it be automatic. That's what I like about Time Machine. It doesn't require me to do anything. Once I set up Time Machine it does everything else automatically, including overwriting old backups when the hard drive starts to get full. If your primary backup requires you do to something for it to work (i.e. hook up a drive or physically start up and application) then you are now a potential source of failure. Take yourself out of the loop and have your primary data backup occur automatically. I have two laptops as the main computers in my house and a Mac Mini that is both a personal computer and a home server. So for me the best solution to have an on-site backup of all these devices is to use Time Machine on a Time Capsule. Time Capsule is an Apple wireless router that has a hard drive built-in. This allows you to do a Time Machine backup of a computer that isn't physically connected. This is very handy for computers like laptops that are not always in the same location, making it difficult to keep an external drive connected to it for backup purposes. So all 3 of my home computers backup wirelessly to my Time Capsule and this is how I perform my on-site backups. Back when I used to just have a single iMac as the home computer I just had an external hard drive connected to the iMac and used Time Machine.

Off-Site Backup

The 2nd part to having a good backup strategy is to also have an off-site backup. You might think this is a little bit of overkill at first blush. I mean, how many backups do you really need? The reason to have an offsite backup is two-fold. One, your on-site backup is co-located with the original data. If something happened at that location (theft, fire, flood, power surge, etc...) then you have lost both the original and the backup all at once. The other reason to have an offsite backup is that it also doubles as a 2nd backup. Backups do fail and when they do it is really nice to know that you have a second backup that you can go to in order to get your data. Offsite backups don't have to be as automatic as your onsite backup, but they can be. The easiest way to have an offsite backup is to again use Time Machine. Get a 2nd external hard drive and connect it to your computer and use Time Machine to backup to that hard drive (in addition to the on-site hard drive you are backing up to). Time Machine can backup to more than one hard drive at a time. Just name the hard drives something different and Time Machine will automatically backup to that hard drive anytime it is attached. Several years back this is how I used to do offsite backups. I would use a 2nd external hard drive would take that hard drive into work and leave it there. Once every 2-weeks I would bring the hard drive home and connect it up to the computer to back it up and then take the hard drive back into work. Instead of leaving it at work you can also use a friend's house or a family member. Make a deal with them that you will store their hard drive if they will store yours. This also serves as an extra reminder. When they ask for their hard drive it reminds you that you need yours so you can do a backup as well.

There is an easier solution to offsite backup than a physical hard drive and this cloud-based backup. There are quite a few options out there that provide cloud-based backups for a very low monthly cost. I currently use Backblaze, but there are many other services out there from which to choose. Backblaze costs $5 a month per computer and it backs up everything on your computer, including any hard drives that are physically attached. Backblaze also has no size limits on how much you can backup. If you need to access a single file or all of your files then you can simply download the file through the web interface. Backblaze also has a few other really nice features. If your computer totally crashes and burns and you need to download EVERYTHING, Backblaze gives you the option of having your data shipped to you on an external hard drive overnight. Downloading large amounts of data (if you were to truly lose everything) could take weeks or months depending on your internet speed, and you may not have that much time. Backblaze also has an iOS app that gives you access to all of your data from your iOS device. Think about that. It's like carrying around your home computer in your pocket! CrashPlan is another cloud-based backup that I have used in the past. The nice thing about CrashPlan is that there is a feature that lets your computer be the off-site backup for a friend or family member and its free to do this. This is really nice option if your friend or family member doesn't have a lot of data and doesn't want to pay or mess with a cloud-based option. Once you download CrashPlan on your computer it sets up a folder on your your computer where it can backup data from other computers. You can send an invite to the person whose data you want to backup and once they install CrashPlan on their machine they will start automatically backing up to your computer.

In summary, don't fall into the trap of not having a good backup strategy. If you have data you don't want to lose then you can afford spending a little bit of time and money making sure you NEVER lose that data. Go buy yourself a couple of external hard drives and/or a subscription to a cloud-based backup service and backup your data. If you lost all of your family photos and home videos how much would you pay to get them back? If you look at it that way, $5 a month and buying a new external hard drive every couple of years all the sudden doesn't seem all that expensive anymore.

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