Back everything up, everywhere, all the time

Looks fun but it isnt. Click for source.

Looks fun but it isn't. Click for source.

Beware – lightning does strike twice and before you lose your data, back it up.

In which Brendan obsesses about backing up

I’m writing this post at my laptop. Nothing unusual there. But what is unusual is that I have two 1TB USB drives attached to it. One of them is copying the operating system images and data from my laptop, work PC and multimedia PC to the laptop’s C drive. The other – an exact mirror – is copying them to the laptop’s D drive.

Count the backups: four in total. That’s not counting the exact same backups I just made to the multimedia PC and work PC in turn, which means three more lots of backups of operating systems and data. One of the USB drives will be stored offsite, while the other will be hidden somewhere in the house. In this way, on every machine, I have a backup of everything. If any/all of them are stolen, I have onsite backups. If the house burns down, I’ve got it all stored in a locked drawer in an office somewhere in London.

I even have a nifty little 8GB USB drive on my keyring for occasional copying.

Is this overkill? If your house hasn’t been struck by lightning – twice, like mine has – then probably yes. But given that insurance has always been based on perception of risk, then a recent nasty incident means I don’t consider this overkill. I think it’s practical. I think it’s essential.

Lightning does strike twice

I recently moved into a lovely listed building near the Chilterns. This is great. The Chilterns are very pretty. Unfortunately they seem to create their own weather systems which means you can get fairly violent thunderstorms as the hot air spins off them and hits the cold air of Buckinghamshire.

I actually quite enjoy these events. So about a month ago I spent some time in the garden admiring how the little swirly weather cells lugubriously stirred around with small whisps of smoke-like cloud hanging down from them. When it started to rain, I came in. When the lightning started I got even more excited, like a small child. Everything felt crackly.

But when a bolt struck what looked like the small patch of grass five feet outside the window, well, dear reader, I nearly shat my pants. After peeling myself from the opposite wall I noticed that all the electrics were out. I think we had just one small bulb still working in a broom cupboard under the stairs.

Given that I’d only just moved, I didn’t know where the Big F*cking Switch was to turn it all back on. I finally found it, then started to worry about my computers. Thankfully everything was ok, and even more thankfully I noticed the laptop was disconnected from the mains, so even if the others had fried, that one had stood more chance of remaining unharmed.

I didn’t learn my lesson. A month later, the same thing happened. No, really. This time, as the skies darkened and the finger of God started poking around the vegetable patch, I suddenly realised I needed to make sure everything was backed up, and quickly, so started fumbling around for a USB thumb drive. And before I found it, the lightning hit again. Everything died.

This time, I was midway through a big job. When I got the PC back up and running, I noticed with horror that there was no autosave. And I hadn’t backed up for a couple of days. I’d lost at least four hours’ worth of current work, and who knows what other work-in-progress.

There are monsters

The backup I had was sufficient to get back to speed without too much trouble and, more importantly, to the same standard and by the deadline. But I learned the lessons this time.

They are these:

  • Back everything up. You can copy data using simple copy n’paste. But back up your operating systems too. Norton Ghost is a candidate and I’ve used it in the past with XP but it seems to have troubles with Vista. I now use Acronis which does the job well.
  • Back everything up everywhere. If you have spare disk capacity, use it. If you run out of space you can either get more, or cut back on the multiple backups. As I say, I’ve got onsite backups I can quickly access if I do something daft. If one PC dies or I lose the laptop in a bizarre gardening accident, I’ve got the same stuff on others. I’ve got a USB drive stashed away in case someone nicks everything. And I’ve got an offsite mirror so that, if the worst happens – that is, if we get struck by lightning yet again and the house burns down, with me emerging blackened and smoking like something from a Tom and Jerry cartoon – then I’ve still got my data which, in a very real sense, is my livelihood.
  • Validate your backups. They’re usually ok but most backup software will also check that it worked properly. Don’t depend on anything you don’t know for certain you can later rely on.
  • Partition your hard drive. If you fancy playing around with hard drives, then partition yours so that you have the operating system and data on separate partitions. It just makes backing up easier. Even better than that, have separate drives altogether.
  • Beware the Chilterns. They’re pretty, but volatile. I know people like that and I wouldn’t trust them with my data either.

There are other measures you can take. Some services offer to backup everything offsite by uploading your data (I would list some but my broadband isn’t working either – I’m currently using a 3G widget – but that’s another story). I’m not sure how well they would work if, like me, you’re storing many gigabytes of data but you could try them.

For ad-hoc infrequent backups of individual files, attach them to a Gmail and send them to yourself, or upload them to Google Docs. Leave Google to worry about storage.

You can also look at surge protection and uninterruptible power supplies. I’ve got the former but I’m now considering the latter too.

And dragons. And wolverines. And stalking trees. And flying lepidopters.

There’s an old adage that data which isn’t backed up has no value. Now I’ve backed mine up seven times in total, and counting, I’ve made sure it retains as much value as possible. All it takes is a click of the mouse to copy stuff. All it takes is a freakish event to lose it all.

So now, If a tiger emerges from the bushes  – or even seven tigers, come to that – and ruins everything, it won’t get my data. If a herd of unicorns tramples the vegetable patch, my data is safe. If the horsemen of the Apocalypse, and their friends, knock on the door, they can take my freedom but they’ll never take my data.

I now need to calculate the probability that I’ll be hit by lightning again. Perhaps I really do have a little black cloud hanging over me. If so, I inherited that from my father. I’ll call it the Cooper Cloud and no, unlike cloud computing, it doesn’t aid productivity.

One thought on “Back everything up, everywhere, all the time

  1. i too am a semi obsessive backer-upper, after I suffered a double disk failure and lost a lot of stuff. I also like the online backup services. the one I use (mozy) gives you 2 gb free, and the full unlimited service is only $5 a month. I use this to augment my “offline” backup schedule – and use it just to backup my “documents” & digital camera pics. You can also configure it to just backup files that are less than 6 months old or something, so you can continue with your backup to DVD, removeable disk and so on, that you do on less regular intervals, but you know if you delete a file that you created just a day or two back, you can always get it back. also useful to restore a file you need, say, in work, from home. done that before. anyhoo – use my referral link and we both get 256mb of extra free storage – everyone is a winner. try it out:
    “belts and braces. and another belt.”

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