Let me start with a confession. I am a total paranoid schizophrenic when it comes to losing my data. It isn’t so much that I believe that my neighbours are plotting to burn down my house to part me from my data; it is that the harm in case it happens is so great that I can’t help but entertain the notion.
Backups have always dominated my thoughts, but even more so after I became a nomad. Before, the main risks to the data on my stationary desktop was hard drive failure, burglary and the aforementioned pyromaniacal neighbours. Now, however, all my precious data is on my laptop, which I bring to coffee shops or leave in dodgy hotel rooms. It is just a matter of time before it goes AWOL, and then I need to be prepared. So do you!
This is a longer post than I normally write. You will feel like quitting half-way through. Sure! Go ahead. Just remember me when you sit by that empty bottle of vodka, crying over the photos of your son’s first bicycle ride and the almost finished manuscript you’ve worked on for years, all lost when your hard drive crashed.
Remember me then…
The Ideal Backup Solution
Before we start looking at specific backup plans, let’s take a moment to consider what would be the perfect backup solution. Such a utopia should have the following features.
- Cost: You get paid to use it.
- Procedure: Fully automated. Setup and forget.
- Preconditions: None! Backups are created even if your computer is turned off.
- Speed: Both backups and restores are instantaneous.
- Incremental backups: If you add a smiley to a text file, only the smiley is sent.
- Secure: Before transmission, all data is encrypted with an unbreakable encryption.
- Versioning: Pick a day and time and your backup solution returns the state of your files at that exact moment.
- Selectivity: Total control over what to back up.
- Location: The backup is held in a remote location, so even if your neighbours burn down your house, the backup is safe elsewhere.
- Duplication: There are infinite amounts of copies of the backup, so any number of them can be destroyed without data loss.
- Limits: None! Back up your entire video library if you like!
- Single point of failure: Of course not! Your backup doesn’t rely on a single person, technology or company.
Remote Backups (CrashPlan)
It is important to back up your data remotely. If you keep your backup close to your main data then whatever destroys your main data has a good chance of getting your backup at the same time. As a nomad, the obvious risk is theft, the thief stealing both laptop and backup in the same raid. Theft is of course a risk for geo-static suburban professionals too, but they are — falsely — lulled into a sense of safety by their stable home. And then there is of course the matter of your potentially pyromaniacal neighbours. (You can’t prove that they are not, can you?)
By far the coolest backup software I’ve found to date is CrashPlan. It works like this. You sweet-talk some friends into giving up part of their hard drive space for your backups. After installing CrashPlan, you designate your friends as backup destinations. (You can reciprocate if you are feeling fair.) Finally, you select which files and folders you want to back up.
From now on, whenever both you and your friend(s) are online, CrashPlan will back up your files. Only the changes to your files are sent. The data is encrypted before transmission and kept encrypted on your friends’ computers, so you can safely back up that picture of you, the pig and the tutu without risking its release onto Facebook where it would surely go viral and destroy your life.
The initial backup can take an awful long time to send over the internet, but CrashPlan has solved this rather cleverly. You can back up your data to an external hard drive and then move it to your friend’s computer via a fast USB cable. Future backups are done normally over the internet, sending only what has changed since that initial backup.
CrashPlan will also version your files so you can restore them if you accidentally delete or modify them. CrashPlan keeps daily versions of your files for 90 days, weekly version for up to a year and monthly versions for earlier years.
How much does this piece of awesome cost? Nothing! It is as free as the air you breathe. Sure, there are some ads and you can upgrade to a pro version that will cost you a monthly fee, but all of the above is gratis.
CrashPlan is as close to the utopian backup solution as I have found. It does have three weaknesses though. The first is a minor point. To make a full recovery, you would either have to have your friend send you an external hard drive with your backup on it or download it through the internet, both of which is a bit slow, but manageable.
The second problem is that you have to be online at the same time as your backup destinations (a.k.a. your friends). This isn’t that much of a problem, especially if you perfect the art of drawing out Skype conversations until the backup completes. (“Oh, wait, hold on! I haven’t told you about my flight yet! It will approximately take 3 minutes and 12 seconds to tell.”)
But the deal-breaker is that the files are stored in a format that only the CrashPlan software understands. What if, despite all trials and verifications, the software simply doesn’t work when you need it? It is a small risk, but still, it is a single point of failure. Since we are paranoid, this is entirely unacceptable and we need at least one more backup plan.
The Cloud (BackBlaze)
The cloud is a mystical dimension existing in the space between thousands of distributed, faceless computers. Backing up your data to this ephemeral cloud is all the rage lately.
There is a lot of misunderstanding around what ‘the cloud’ is. First of all, there isn’t one cloud; there are several. Each company own their own network of computers which make up their particular cloud. When you back up your data to one of these companies, you basically trust that they will do a good job harnessing all those distributed computers to keep your data safe, i.e. backed up.
CrashPlan offer cloud backup as a paid extra, but we are looking for a compliment to CrashPlan, so we must look elsewhere. There are many good players to choose between, and I’ve chosen to highlight BackBlaze.
BackBlaze is a breeze to setup as it assumes that you want to back up everything apart from system and temporary files. You can manually exclude certain folders, if you wish. (For example, your podcast folder. You’re not planning to keep those anyway, so why back them up?)
Simplicity is also where BackBlaze trumps CrashPlan. There is no messing about with friends and other free radicals; just install and go to sleep. However, it does come with a monthly fee of $5/month, but that does buy you unlimited backup space.
Local Backups (Windows/Mac Built-In Software)
I sleep quite well knowing that it would take the simultaneous failure of two large companies and their software/hardware for my backups to be lost. However, they both suffer from the slow download of a full restore. Another weakness of the remote/cloud backup is that you need to have access to a good internet connection for them to work. If you travel through the (dwindling) parts of the world where there is no such connection, you run the risk of losing your most recent data.
All of this can be mitigated by buying an external hard drive. Both Windows and Mac come with great backup software built in, so there is no excuse not to make local backups. They also allow you to create restore points in case your operative system becomes corrupt.
(Alternatively, you can use CrashPlan, which in many ways is better than the built in software. However, since you already use CrashPlan for remote backups, it is better to get yet another degree of safety by using another unrelated technology.)
With a local backup, you can quickly back up your data everywhere, even on board a nuclear sub-marine. You can also restore your files to a new computer without having to explain to the Kazakhstani hotel manager why his internet supplier is yelling at him over the phone.
Of course, the weakness of a local backup is that it is just that: local. To minimize the risk that you lose both backup and computer simultaneously, follow some simple advice.
- If you stay at a hotel, then place your backup in their safe. If not, hide it.
- When travelling, keep your computer in your travel bag and the backup in your main luggage or vice versa.
- If you are in a sensitive country, encrypt your hard drive! You do not want to explain that pig+tutu picture to the Saudi police.
A line in the sand (Copy’n’Paste)
If you’ve done all of the above, then the following would have to happen for you to lose your data.
- The theft, corruption or destruction of your laptop.
- The failure or theft of your local backup or the loss of your decryption key.
- The corruption of the BackBlaze cloud or the failure of their restoration software.
- The destruction of all your friends’ computers or the failure of CrashPlan’s restoration software.
I know what you are thinking. It could happen!
That is why I have also created a local backup, using simple copy-and-paste, to an external hard drive, which I keep in a fireproof safe stuck in a disused lavatory at an undisclosed friend’s cellar with neither light nor staircase reaching it. There may also be a sign saying, “Beware the leopard.”
Since the hard drive only gets used once a year (when I make a new backup), it receives very little wear and tear and so should, hopefully, still be functional if/when all of the four failure points listed above occur simultaneously.
This is my line in the sand. If everything else fails, then I should be able to fall back on this low-tech solution to recover the majority of my data.
Did I mention that I take this topic very very seriously?