BitDepth 640 - August 12

Backup should be easier, given the pain you’ll have to go through without a good, reliable copy of your data if your hard drive fails.
The backup story, again
Now that flash drives are evolving from utility to fashion accessory to near invisibility, having media to backup to is becoming more of a no-brainer. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

A month ago, I had another drive fail completely in my working computer, for a total of two in less than eight months. In both cases, there was no warning at all, just a system that became unresponsive and finally would not restart.

Anecdotal evidence gathered from calls to a few folks in the repair business suggests that while prices for drives have fallen as fast as capacities have been rising, quality and reliability have also been taking a perceptible dip as well.

There's only one thing you can do about a hard drive that's likely to fail (these days, it seems to be all of them at any time, particularly in laptops) and that is to maintain a reliable backup of your files and software that you can recover from quickly.

Regular readers of this column will know that I've reduced this to a chant, best muttered quietly at the end of a working day; backup, backup, backup.
In planning a backup regimen, there are some factors you'll need to consider...

How much work are you willing to lose?
Your backup frequency should cover the amount of work you don't want to reconstruct. I lost three days worth of work when I tried to recover data after the most recent failure, including a major writing project that I was emailing when the system collapsed. It took more than six days to get back to square one, and it became clear that a weekly backup frequency wasn't cutting it anymore.

Use software and reminders
Backup is exactly the sort of thing that software excels at. You might spend half an hour rummaging through a folder trying to figure out what to copy, but software designed for backup can do it in seconds. More usefully, the best software can be set to do incremental backups, adding only changed files to your backup stash. The best backup software can also be set to do its work on a schedule, but even if you don't choose handle things that way, the idea of clicking a button and waiting a few minutes is infinitely more appealing that dragging files and folders around.

Plan multiple backups.
A backup needs to be in two places at once, otherwise, you just have a copy. For my most important files, I like to have quadruple redundancy, with one copy on entirely different media and one in an entirely different place.
Backups here are now made twice weekly to two different hard drives, once a month to DVD media and once every two months to a hard drive that is kept at another location.
The schedule isn't kept as rigorously as I'd like, but I think of it in tiers, with the twice weekly backups an absolute requirement on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Plan your media strategy
Like safe sex, it doesn't matter what you use, as long as you use it all the time. A good rule of thumb is to gather your working files into a single folder and to keep backup media handy that's at least four times larger than the size of that work folder.
Some folks who work regularly with a lot of small files may find hard drives and optical media a pain in the butt for daily backups. Those users might find a pair of spacious flash drives used in rotation to be the best bet.
My key backup solution spreads three terabytes across four drives and maintains two current copies of my photography files.

Use it
Invest the time to set up a backup system. Mac users can take advantage of Time Machine in Mac OS X 10.5 or the free
iBackup. Windows users have a range of backup solutions, but small business and noncommercial users might want to start their investigations with NTI's Shadow. It takes a bit of effort to set up a good regimen and reminders to stay on track. I have "appointments" to backup set in my calendaring software. But the payoff in the worst case scenario is huge.

Read more about Mac backup solutions and my own solution to overheating drives
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