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Thinking About Backups

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I suspect that many of you, like me, are the unofficial IT support for your neighbours, family, extended family and anyone else they fancy recommending you for.  This means that you are probably constantly either telling them to backup their data or trying to restore an ‘really’ important photo/document/thing from barfed disk drive.  

If this is the case then you might want to point your ‘supported users’ at this post in order to try and get people to think about backing up sensibly.

What would you save in a fire?
It turns out that in a survey of this question laptops come higher than pets. And just check out how many people included their precious slabs of plastic and silicon in these photos of what some people would save. But it’s not the physical thing that we care about, it’s the memories that are contained on it - all those photos, the downloaded music, films and software would take weeks to recollect.  

How much for your memories?
Exactly how much is that worth?  If you’d just lost the lot,  forever, no chance of ever getting them back, at all - and I offered to get them back for £200.  I suspect you’d bite my hand off.  what about £400 - I’d still have a queue, even at £1000 I suspect I’d have a few takers who’s realised that they had no other photos of a relative who passed away or of a special holiday. and you’ll never be able to take those baby pictures again will you.

Not if, but when?
Computers fail - especially disk drives.  All that spinning at 7200rpm is bound to wear them down eventually.  In fact, there’s an industry term to express it - MTBF - mean time before failure.  I just randomly picked a diskdrive manufacturer and model and googled Samsung Spinpoint MTBF and found an article from 2006 stating the MTBF for a Samsung SpinPoint to be 600,000 hours.  That means that about half of the those disk drives bought when that article was written will have failed by now.  Like tossing a coin, heads you win, tails you lose (all your photos).

Backup now and now and now
How often should I backup and when? It seem a reasonable question, but the answer is you should never backup because you should always be backing up.  If you decide to backup every month or week then the photo you store on your computer today will be just as gone tomorrow  if your computer fails tonight.  Instead look for a backup solution that backs up new and edited files as it goes.

Don’t ignore the warnings
Okay, so the services that perform the filesyncing (like Dropbox, Google Drive and box.net are a little more expensive than the scheduled backup solutions (like jungledisk, Zipcloud and my favourite, ElephantBackup). If you decide that you’re willing to run the risk and backup regularly, you should backup as often as possible - like daily. Pick a time when you know your computer will be on and schedule the backup then.  Try and set a time when it’s on but not under heavy use, like first thing in the morning when you switch on and then go to make a cup of tea.
The big down side to daily scheduled backups is that you get so many backup reports that after a while you simply switch them off or start ignoring them.  This is bad!  If you turn off or ignore the reports you will never find out if there has been a been an error. I’ve seen (on nameless relative’s PCs) where the backup has failed for months and gone unnoticed.  Rather than let yourself get bored of successful reports, set up a filter on your email that put successful reports into a folder and highlights failure reports to you.
This won’t help if the backup software doesn’t run at all of course.  I’m sure someone, somewhere has created a backup service that emails you if if doesn’t receive a backup from you within a specific time period. Kind of the backup equivalent of peering through the letterbox to check the post has been picked up.

So, there you go, points to remember:
  • your computer will fail at some point - be prepared
  • remember how much your data is worth to you
  • backup all the time
  • if you can’t, do it frequently
  • make sure you notice if it fails

And if you need any more help with your PC, I would like to refer you to the XKCD Tech Support Cheat Sheet:
thinking about backups

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