Backup Strategies For the Paranoid

When was the last time you backed up all of that precious data you carry around on your laptop or have stored away on the desktop? What if your house or office burned down — would your backups go up in flames, too? For many of us, making backups is like making a will: we know we’ll eventually need one, but we don’t really want to think about it, so we keep putting it off. It sometimes takes a catastrophe before we get our act together and come up with a backup strategy.

I started my career as a UNIX sys admin, so I know the importance of having good backups, and I’ve seen so many horrible things happen to good data. As a result, I’ve learned to be pretty paranoid about backups. I even had my own little catastrophe a few years ago, when I was using Mozy to back up my data. I was taking frequent backups, and I had even tested my solution by restoring a few files; however, when it came to doing a full data restore, Mozy failed me. I was eventually able to get my data out of Mozy, but it wasn’t an easy process, and it took too long to get my data back. Now I have a two-pronged backup strategy that even the most paranoid among us should appreciate: a combination of on-site, full system, incremental backups, coupled with cloud backups.

On-site, Full System, Incremental Backups

Your full system, incremental backups should be a way to quickly recover from a complete data loss due to hard drive failure, computer theft, flying computer knocked off of a tall table or porch, small child who dumps a whole glass of orange juice into your laptop, etc. Since I have a MacBook, I use Apple Time Machine to back up to a terabyte hard drive sitting on my desk. It does hourly backups whenever I am at home and hooked up to the drive. This is my solution for when I need to do a full restore of my entire computer. By having it on a local hard drive that I control, I can quickly do a full restore without having to wait for anyone else to find my data or deal with any network-related slowdowns.

However, this solution has some serious limitations. If I have a home disaster (fire, flood, volcano, earthquake, etc.), I could easily lose my computer and my backup at the same time. I’m also highly mobile and often working on local files from business trips, vacations and coffee shops between meetings, so I don’t want to rely on a hard drive at my house for backups when I’m on the road.

Cloud Backups

Now that the full backups are taken care of, you need something that will back up all of those critical files even when you are away for a week at a conference, at a client site, or even just working remotely from coffee shops all day. My second backup solution is using JungleDisk, which backs all of my important files up to Amazon S3 every six hours. I only back up my documents and a few other critical files. In a pinch, I can restore my operating system and applications from other sources, so to keep costs down, I only back up the things that I create and that could not be easily recovered by some other means. Because I’m careful about how much data I back up to the cloud, the whole solution only costs me a few dollars a month and only takes a few minutes to complete. In addition to being able to save my data from some terrible catastrophe, I can also save myself from silly little mistakes even when I’m on the road. If I accidentally nuke a file, I can still get an older copy from my backup.

Yes, I could always be a little more paranoid, but I have a backup solution that is practical, relatively easy to maintain and seems to cover all of the most likely data loss scenarios. On the other hand, I also find that backups are becoming a little less important as I move more and more of my information into the cloud. Gmail and other online data storage mean that I have less on my hard drive, but what I do have is important, and I want to be confident that I can recover it.

How do you back up your valuable data?

Photo by Flickr user gregw66, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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