Please Backup!

The one thing I want you to remember from this post is that ALL hard drives fail, it’s not if they will fail, it’s just a matter of when. I guarantee it and the manufacture rates it.  Hard drives come off the assembly line with MTBF (Mean Time Before Failure) numbers which is a statistical model to describe when they will fail. Yup, thats right, they tell you up front they are going to fail.  If you don’t have a backup, when your drive does fail, you will be running on Hail Mary luck to recover your photos and data. If you don’t already have a backup of your photos and important documents, stop reading this and go do it now.

1 TB Western Digital External USB Drive

Storage is cheap.  Your photos and data are not.  I work in hard core IT and have been doing it for years.  Everything breaks and you have to have a way to deal with it.  You may have been lucky so far, but when you have been dealing with thousands of servers over many years, you notice how often drives fail and mistakes happen.  RAID systems, SAN storage, “the cloud” all fail.  People fail and make mistakes.

How do I backup?  I’m a little paranoid, but I’m trying to archive all my photos for the next 100 years.  That has its own unique set of problems, because technology changes and with billions of bits of data and years of time, errors creep in.

First backup to multiple locations and technologies.  Don’t rely on a single backup on your desk connected to your computer.  A single lightening strike, theft, flood, fire, you name it, and its all gone.  All of it and for good.

Generally I use three main backups and rotate them.  One in the house, the most recent, and two in other different locations.  I’m mostly using USB hard drives as they have become incredibly cheap, especially if you watch for sales.  I only connect the hard drive when I’m actually backing stuff up.  A disconnected powered off hard drive is much safer.

Each hard drive is encrypted so I don’t have as much to worry about if the drive is lost or stolen.  A great free open source program is TrueCrypt.  Its highly reliable and has very strong encryption.  Unlike a failed drive if you loose your password, you are totally out of luck, there is no back door.

I use two different backup systems.  The first is Acronis True Image, its a fairly decent backup program that does full backups, differential and incremental backups.  The only issue is all your data gets packed into their files and file format – if there is a problem, you have to hope Acronis will actually help you.  Its good and I use it because you end up with versions and easy backups, but it’s not what I want all my eggs in.

The second is to simply copy all the files over to a hard drive using Windows file copy.  I also use SyncBack Freeware to make keeping those drives up to date a lot easier.  SyncBack allows me to only copy new and changed files over and not a full copy each time.

Finally all your backups are worthless if you eventually rotate through them and have errors in you data that gets pushed out from your primary hard drive to those rotations.  For example a bad sector on the hard drive that doesn’t get noticed and you duplicate that out to your backups. Over time you overwrite good data with bad data.  You need to periodically keep an eye on the actual data.  To make that easy, I use a checksum program called FastSum that creates checksums in an open format that can be used by other programs such as MD5Summer.  I just run it every few months and it tells me all the files that have changed.  I know I’m not making changes to old photos, so if they show up on my list I know something is wrong.  This really works and I’ve found photos that have become corrupt over time and restored them before the data was lost forever.

My system may sound complex, but it’s really not.  My software consists of four programs, Acronis True Image, SyncBack Freeware, Fast Sum and TrueCrypt.  All purchased for less then $40 (I bought Acronis on rebate).  My hardware consists of several hard drives – each about $60.  I then form a mental plan to keep stuff rotated and I rotate based on how much work I’m doing and I also keep my rotations out of my house.

Before you get all complicated, simply buy a cheap external drive on sale, do a file copy of all your photos and data and slowly work your way up to a full solution.


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