Backup basics – how to store your precious data

Robb Moore
17 May, 2010
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We’re often getting asked for information about backing up at Australian Macworld. It seems many readers are unsure exactly how to approach keeping their data safe. Setting up Time Machine on your Mac to backup to an external hard drive is one of the simpler solutions, but it may not be the safest. Robb Moore, founder of ioSafe takes a look at some of the options:

What’s the best place to keep your backups? While this may seem like an easy question, the answer is not as much of a no-brainer as you may think. But let’s take a step back for a moment and start with an explanation of what backing up really is.

Wikipedia states that backing up is the process of “making copies of data so that these additional copies may be used to restore the original after a data loss event”. Of course, “copies” is the critical word here. If you’ve only got one copy of your data, you haven’t got a backup.

It doesn’t matter whether the data is stored on CDs, an external hard drive or online, you’re not protecting it properly unless you have more than one copy of it. The reason for this is that no single method of data storage is completely foolproof.

So, back to the original question. Let’s assume that the first copy of the data is stored on your computer’s internal hard drive: where should you put the second copy? There are a number of options, each with various pros and cons:

  • CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays make for a relatively inexpensive backup destination but are not as convenient as other solutions (spanning a backup or system image across multiple disks or locating a particular backup on those disks can both be a time-consuming process). Testing the integrity of your backups presents another problem: the only way to tell whether your backup is still good is to insert the disk into your computer.
  • Online backup is convenient but per-year/per-gigabyte fees can make it an expensive option if you have a large amount of data. Additionally, the more data you have, the less practical online backup becomes. While you may be able to upload a few megabytes reasonably quickly, uploading gigabytes or terabytes of data can take weeks or even months – and, of course, restoring it would take equally as long. Also, some people may not be entirely comfortable with the privacy implications of putting their data online.
  • External hard drives provide plug-and-play convenience and, with per-gigabyte prices continuing to drop, are more affordable than ever. The problem with external hard drives is that most people leave them sitting right next to their computer and, consequently, a fire or flood could take out both your computer and your backup. Whoops! There are certainly workarounds to this: you could, for example, use a couple of external hard drives, one of which you store away from your home at a friend’s house or in a safety deposit box. Or you could disconnect the drive at the end of each day and move it into a fireproof safe, if you have one. Neither option, however, is particularly convenient.
  • RAID deserves to be mentioned here simply because some people mistakenly view it as an alternative to backup. It isn’t. From Wikipedia: “RAID is not a good alternative to backing up data. Data may become damaged or destroyed without harm to the drive(s) on which they are stored. For example, some of the data may be overwritten by a system malfunction; a file may be damaged or deleted by user error or malice and not noticed for days or weeks. RAID can also be overwhelmed by catastrophic failure that exceeds its recovery capacity and, of course, the entire array is at risk of physical damage by fire, natural disaster, or human forces.” Not good.

I know, I know… this still hasn’t answered the question asked at the outset: what’s the best place to keep your backups?

The fact is that there is no easy or definitive answer. If you only have a small amount of data that needs to be backed up, then maybe CDs, DVDs or online backup may be a good option for you. But what if you have more than a small amount of data? As internet transfer speeds can be 100x or more slower than USB.2.0 speeds, using an online backup service simply may not be practical.

Even if you back up to an external hard drive your data is at risk from fires and floods; unless you rely on one of the inconvenient workarounds mentioned above. It’s worth noting that moving your drive into a fireproof safe each night may not do as much to protect your data as you would think. External hard drives can withstand temperatures of up to about 160° F (71° C) but, during a fire, the temperature in a safe – even a fireproof safe – may reach 350° F (177° C). While that’s not hot enough to ignite paper, it’s more than hot enough to toast an external hard drive and any other electronics that are in there.

An option which may work for some people is to use more than one backup method – for example, backing up only your most important files online while keeping a local backup of absolutely everything on an external hard drive. Such a solution would not provide absolute protection for your data, but it would ensure that you don’t lose what’s really important.

A better option may be to use a fireproof and waterproof external hard drive such as the ioSafe Solo. The Solo has been engineered and tested to protect data from fire (up to 1,550° F (621° C)) for 30 minutes and from full immersion in fresh or salt water at depths up to 10 feet for three days. In other words, it’s tough enough to protect your data from both a typical house fire and the water from the fire department’s hoses.

When deciding which backup solution is right for you, there are a couple of points you should remember:

  • Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket. Ever. Yes, I know that I’m repeating myself, but this point is well worth repeating: no single backup method is completely foolproof – every hard drive will eventually fail and even online backups can become corrupted. Consequently, you should always have more than one copy of your data.
  • The road to hell is paved with good intentions. And so is the road to data loss. Pretty much everybody knows that they should be backing up their data, but a considerable number of people choose not to do so – which can result in data loss. Create a backup strategy and stick to it. When disaster strikes, you’ll be glad that you did.

[Robb Moore is the CEO and founder of ioSafe, a leading manufacturer of distaster-proof storage hardware. Robb has a 20 year track record in developing aerospace, consumer, medical and computer products for Fortune 500 companies. He has a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California. He is a published author and primary inventor for multiple US patents.]

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