Friday, 17 August 2012


You know you haven't been doing it, and it's inexcusable!

No, it's not your mother here talking about eating greens (although you probably should do, more than you are now - and no, green Jelly Babies do not count). What you're much more likely than not not doing is making backups of your digital possessions.

But you should, and religiously so.

Hard disks do break. Computers do fail (especially because they do not take easily to red wine and similar gunk you will eventually pour into them).

On the other hand, you will never go on your original honeymoon again. You can never have your first child again. Said child will never go back to being a baby and make those first steps. And so on, and so forth, ad infinitum, and ad nauseam.

So, because you do not (yet) posses a time machine (and most likely never will - nor will, for that matter, your children, and their children). And, I am sure you do not print out every single photo, and transfer every single film onto DVD/CD/VHS/Betamax/Super-8/whatever. So, with all these facts in mind, pray tell, why do you not do regular backups?

In my experience, people usually quote two reasons: time, and cost. Let's tackle them in turn.

Cost (who said it's going to be that turn)

To qualify for the admonition being administered here you will need to at least have a computer of some description, which is connected to the Internet (don't tell me you bought the book?), and also some means of recording your memories in digital format, i.e., a digital camera. The combined outlay for the kit will likely be in the order, or even excess, of £500, especially when you take into account the running costs of Internet connection. I will show you that you can have extremely reliable home backup setup which will cost you less, and probably much less.

Let's not consider the outliers like yours truly with photo collections which run into almost four digits for the number of photos, and hundreds of gigabytes (yes, gigabytes) in terms of storage required. Let's instead make a conservative estimate of your photo collection being in the mid to high thousands in number. In fact, for argument's sake, let's say you have 5,000 (yes, five thousand) photos. At a humongous estimate of 5MB for each photo, that's around 24GB of storage. So, a storage medium of 32GB will be more than sufficient to hold a copy.

A quick look on Amazon informs us that a 32GB USB memory stick will set you back the whole of between £10 and £15. For less than £50 you can also find 320GB USB hard disks (that's ten times what you need). Personally, since it'll also help you back up other stuff you have, I'd recommend you getting at least one external USB hard disk of capacity to at least equal the size of your main computers hard disk. For argument's sake, and since that seems to be some sort of a low end standard these days, we'll assume you need 320GB to match your main computer. Getting a couple of USB hard disks of that size will set you back around £100 (less, if you shop around - also, for added redundancy, make them different make or at least different models).

This, my friends, may be the only thing you need to spend money on to have a very good home backup system - a one hundred pounds. Probably less than you paid for your point-and-shoot camera, too. So, I claim the cost is not the problem, especially since what you're saving with a £100 investment is otherwise irreplaceable (irreplaceable is a better way of putting it than priceless).

Now to that other pesky obstacle:

Time (and here, time is not money)

It can be easily shown that you, in fact, do not need almost any time to do regular backups. Yes, there will be an initial investment of time, but once set up properly, your backups will need little, or even none, of your time.

If you are using a desktop computer, or a laptop which rarely, if ever, moves then you should keep both your USB hard disks plugged in all the time, thus ensuring you can't forget to plug them in. Tuck them in safely behind something (tape them to the chassis?) and they won't even be an eyesore. Now you just need a decent piece of backup software, and you're on.

I am reliably told even Windows these days comes with some sort of backup, and that said backup application can be set to run at regular intervals. So, if you are in a sad and unenviable position of running a modern flavour of Windows just browse around and set things up so that all your important data is backed up to both of your external hard disks at least once a week (I recommend once a day, best at the dead of night). And that's it! If you want something more fancy, Google for backup software. There's a decent selection of both free, and cheap-as-chips solutions (I recommend SyncBack PRO).

If you're running Linux, and are of an ascetic predisposition, I need say only two words: rscync, and cron. If you need some hand holding, you could do worse than trying LuckyBackup. Of course, if you need, or want, something less basic there's plenty to choose from on Linux, too. Plus, most of it will also be free as in beer.

Finally, if you're running Mac OS you probably have enough money to pay someone to do all this for you, so you actually wasted your time reading up to here, really. I have stopped short of saying you have more money than sense. This is because it is eminently sensible to choose a nice OS in a nice box. The only question is - is it really, I mean really, worth the money. But then, you already have an answer to that question.

So, ladies and gentleman (yes, you in the back row): this is how you spend a £100 (or less) and make pretty damn sure that at least one copy of your irreplaceable memories will survive, and won't be more than a week out of date.

Now, you are surely asking if making a cloudy backup is not just as good, even if in some cases it may be a bit more expensive. Well, no. Actually it isn't. You can't get to your cloudy backup in Elbonia (or most of rural England when it comes to mobile broadband, for that matter). However, you can take one (or both) of your external USB disks and both have a secondary source of data, and the capability to continue your backup schedule uninterrupted.

Next, you may also ask about the horrible misfortune of your house burning down with all you data and the backups in it. For that, I have to answers: one is to use a cloud backup as well, the other to practice off-site backup. The latter means you use one external drive for daily backups at home, while you keep another in the office (or with in-laws, or Fort Knox, or wherever not in your house). Then you just need to remember to swap them weekly (or so). You may also consider investing in a third external hard disk for this purpose, rotating it with one and then the other of the two you keep in home.

To sum up: I hope I have convinced you that, for the cost of a budget point-and-shoot digital camera, you can have three or for times redundant backup of the stuff you can never otherwise replace. Or, as they say in mathdom: QED.

Oh, before I go (and provided you haven't left already): do I practice what I preach? You bet I do!

For your perusal, here's my backup setup. Read it and weep:

  • Two NAS drives, each at least the size of my main laptop's hard disk (i.e, 1TB or larger), receive a nightly backup of all my data (cron and rsync, with a little help of LuckyBackup).
  • Two USB hard drives of 1TB each, which get connected whenever I remember (but at least once a week), receiving the same all-data backup as the NAS ones.
  • One USB hard drive constantly connected to the laptop, on a similar schedule to NAS drives.
  • Dropbox for the core few GB of documents (no photos or videos - I'm cheap).
  • CrashPlan+ receiving the all-data backup for true cloudy storage/backup solution.
  • A 500GB external hard disk for my music collection.

The amount of time I spend on all this? Almost none. Maybe a few minutes a week for the second item above. The cost? Well, a bit more than the basic setup described earlier, but then, still a fraction of the cost of my camera and computing kit, and of course, not obtained all in one go! Last, but not least, I do probably have many times larger collection of digital memories (and music now difficult to come by!) than most of you.

And in reply to your last (if unvoiced question), am I certifiable?

(but in a good and cuddly way)

Inspired by these two articles on The Economist web site.