Backups: Pain Avoidance Made Easy

Backup, backup, backups!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 30 years and close to 20,000 data recoveries, it’s that everybody doesn’t back up their data sometimes.
Nobody backs up their data all of the time, most people never back up their data, and hardly anyone ever checks to see if their backed-up data will restore.
Have you?
Didn’t think so.
Furthermore, while computers may be kind of dumb, they seem to know when you don’t have your data backed up — because that’s when they break. Don’t let your computer fool you — back up new data daily.

What can I make a backup on?

There are a lot of options for backing up your data. When I wrote the first version of this article, I talked about floppy disks, zip drives and tapes – and external hard disks cost hundreds of dollars. Today I’ll mention the Cloud, but that will change too. As of this writing, most new PCs still come with DVD-burners. Nearly all have USB ports for flash drives and external hard disks. And of course, the Cloud.

External Hard Drives

External hard drives keep getting bigger (by the GB) and smaller (by form factor) and cheaper (by the dollar). One of the earliest data recoveries I did was a 20MB (yes, that’s megabytes) external SCSI drive for the Mac that sold for $1200. Today the local office supply store had a 2TB external drive for a hundred bucks. That is a decrease in per-unit storage of 2.5 million times. External storage is cheap. Back then, external drives came with backup software and they do today as well.


It’s likely that your computer has a DVD burner and built-in software for copying selected files or for doing backups onto this optical medium. The advantage is that these disks cost only a few cents each. The disadvantage is that daily backups leave you with a lot of plastic Frisbees about. DVDs are useful for occasional backups, but not for dailies. Also, bear in mind that while some DVD drives give you the option of using rewritable disks (DVD-RW), it can be too easy to overwrite a previous backup using a DVD-RW. Use the write-only version (DVD-R or DVD+R). Heat, bending, and scratching are the enemies of DVD disks. Incidentally, while it’s hard to do DVD recovery, it is possible.

Flash Drives

Flash drives, or thumb drives, are also cheap and getting larger in capacity. As I write this, there is a 64GB flash drive on sale for $50 at that same office supply store. The dropping prices of these drives continues to amaze me. They are sturdy – I accidentally let one go through the wash in my shirt pocket. After it dried out, it still had my data on it (don’t try this at home – it failed the second time I washed it)! While we’ve been successful performing recovery on flash drives, it wasn’t even necessary in this case! They come in sizes up to 128 GB (this number will be outdated soon). They can be shared and used on PCs and Macs without reformatting.

Alternate Your Backups

Whenever possible, keep alternating backups. This means to have one disk or thumb drive labeled “EVEN” (for even-numbered days) and one labeled “ODD”. Eventually, something will go wrong with a backup and when it does, you’ll be prepared. It is also useful and prudent to have a copy offsite in case of a flood, a fire, or an “inside job.”

The Cloud

There are many online backup and file storage services available. Your Macintosh comes with a year of iCloud, Microsoft has SkyDrive; there’s Google Drive, DropBox and a host of others that provide free – but limited – storage. After a certain period of time or a certain amount of data, it starts costing you. There are widely advertised automated backup services that also provide a certain level of free storage and larger amounts for a fee. These services can be highly convenient. It is important to note, however, that most of these services are not responsible for much if they somehow lose your data. Each has a EULA or terms of service that should be read carefully before entrusting your data to these services. Do they back up your backups? Is the data encrypted? Have they been hacked or lost customer data recently? Can they change their service agreement without telling you (probably)? If someone buys them, does the new owner have to conform to the terms you signed up to? Good things to check if you value your data.

Trust but Verify

Over the decades, I would estimate that in about 5% of the data recovery cases we’ve seen, the client believed they had a backup. Something seemed to be backing up, at least! But in these cases the backup wasn’t checked to be sure that all the files they needed backed up were, in fact, backed up. And in some cases, although the proper files seemed to have been backed up, they wouldn’t restore once the originals were lost. Verify: on a regular basis, make sure you can restore a sample of the files you believe were properly backed up. It’s good to know, so that you aren’t one of the 1-in-20 that found out too late.

Well, what does the author use?

I do a few things with the files from the computer on my desk. I use a Mac and have an external drive that Time Machine uses for backups. I have another external drive for daily file copies of new customer data. I use iCloud for certain files (like current writing projects or my calendar) that I want to share across devices. I sometimes carry an extra copy of current projects on a good-sized flash drive when I travel or need them in other locations. Every so often, I make a new image file of the entire hard disk onto yet another external. I periodically check file copies to make sure they work. I velcro my belt and suspenders.

Back Up Your Data

It can’t be said enough. Everything breaks. Be sure that when it does, it doesn’t break your business, or family memories, or eternal BitTorrent download, or all those mp3s – whatever form it takes, back up the files that are important to you. Back them up regularly.

Now is a pretty good time.

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