Safeguarding Your Data: A Guide to Effective Backups
When it comes to protecting your data, I can’t stress the importance of backups enough. I have a deep appreciation for backups and feel for those who haven’t backed up their data when disaster strikes. In our increasingly connected world, the amount of information we produce and share is growing exponentially. Gone are the days when our photos and videos were stored on film or VHS tapes, with only a limited number of copies. Back then, if a photo were torn, burned, lost, or thrown away, it was lost forever. We took measures to protect those precious memories - storing them in photo albums or climate-controlled rooms for preservation.
Today, digital copies have made things much simpler and easier to recover or share. The photos we share on social media or with family are instantly duplicated as secondary copies, and we often take it for granted. With the remarkable quality of smartphone cameras and the ease of taking numerous selfies within seconds, the sheer volume of personal data we possess is mind-boggling. Even more, we assume that these photos and videos will last forever. That may not be the case.
Losing your phone, experiencing a hard drive crash, or worse, facing a house fire, are all very real threats that can lead to data loss. It’s a somber reality, but an important one. We often joke that the internet is forever, but that’s not necessarily true. Therefore, it’s curicial to create a copy of your data, just in case you ever need it.
Benefits of Regular Backups
How many of us occasionally (whenever we remember) copy our photos from our phones to our computers? How many of us use iCloud or Google Photos or similar services for automatic syncing?
While syncing your photo library with your computer is not a backup1, it’s a good practice to ensure your photos are regularly copied to an additional location.
One common mistake I see people make (aside from not having any backup at all) is when they claim to have a backup, but it turns out they only copy their data to a flash drive or external drive every now and then. While it’s definitely a step in the right direction compared to having no backups, copying data off only once a week, month, or even a year(!) means that any changes made since the last backup would be lost.
The beauty of regular backups, whether they occur daily, hourly, or even constantly, is that you never have to worry about remembering to back up your data. Just set it up and forget about it! When devising your backup strategy, it doesn’t have to be complicated or involve manual processes. A good backup strategy involves determining your Recovery Point Objective (RPO) 2, identifying what data you want to back up, and deciding where to store those backups. Complexity arises only when you aim to minimize the risk of data loss further.
Choosing the Right Backup Method
As mentioned earlier, syncing alone does not constitute a backup, although it can assist in facilitating backups. In the past, I took advantage of the affordability of external storage and utilized a desktop system as my primary device at home. I attached a 4TB external drive and connected all my cloud services for syncing. I would download my entire OneDrive account, Dropbox files, and store original copies of my iCloud photos. In this setup, I only needed to back up that one desktop. I considered it the authoritative source of my data.
This backup method essentially aligns with what businesses strive to achieve in terms of simplifying organizational needs and backups. By centralizing their data onto one source and backing up that source, they gain control over data sprawl (where files are saved haphazardly) and reduce backup costs by only backing up the centralized location.
Now that I have a laptop wtih limited storage capacity and don’t want to carry an external drive everywhere, I’ve had to modify my backup strategy to maintain the same goals.
Options such as external hard drives, cloud storage, and network-attached storage (NAS) are all valid choices for centralizing your data and providing a reliable backup location; however, selecting the right backup method is only half the battle.
Best Practices for Effective Backups
One widely accepted method for effective backups is the 3-2-1 backup strategy3. This strategy entails having at least three copies of your data: two local copies stored on different media and at least one copy stored off-site. In practice, this means your data (Copy 1) is backed up to an external drive or NAS (Copy 2), and that copy is further backed up to a cloud storage or a friend’s house (Copy 3 - Off-site). In the event of a hosue fire, the off-site copy becomes your only means of data recovery. While this strategy may be more expensive than simply creating a single copy of your data, it provides protection against accidents. If your primary backup were to fail suddenly, your local copy would be the sole remaining copy without redundancy.
Ultimately, the goal is to reduce risk. You must determine your acceptable level of risk and evaluate the importance of your data if it were to disappear forever. Once you establish your risk threshold, you can assess the associated costs of achieving your desired level of data protection.
Another curcial practice I advocate for is regular backups, as mentioned earlier. Find a solution that runs automatically, regardless of whether you remember its existence. Let the computer handle the task of initiating backups while you focus on other activities, like enjoying your favorite Netflix shows.
I’d like to introduce a concept I call “Schrödinger’s Backup”. The premise is simple: you don’t know if your backup is valid until you test it.
Testing your backups is as important as creating them in the first place. Imagine losing an external drive containing irreplaceable memories, only to realize that your cloud backup solution hasn’t been running for the past six months. Even worse, what if the backup copy is corrupted?
This is where assessing your personal risk comes into play. While it might be reasonable to assume that successfully restoring one file ensures the ability to restore all files, you might also consider randomly testing different files each time you check your backups. The choice is yours, but the crucial point is to actually test the recovery process to ensure it works.
Fortunately, most common backup providers for consumers and businesses help mitigate this risk by incorporating health checks during backup operations. These checks verify the integrity of the backed-up files, either as a part of the backup job or as a separate scheduled task. By running these checks, the backup software ensures that each backed-up copy is healthy. Therefore, during a restoration, your main focus is to confirm that your backups have been running successfully and that you know how to restore them.
There is a wealth of information covered in this post. It’s easy to skim over the details4 and move on, but we can summarize everything into a few fundamental points: back up your data regularly, establish a schedule, and store your backups somewhere secure.
By following this simple practice, you significantly increase the chances of recoverying your precious memories, irreplaceable documents, and any other data you hold dear in the unfortunate event of a computer or phone failure. Consider it an insurance policy for your data.
Syncing via Dropbox, OneDrive, Box, iCloud does copy your data, but it’s a mirror image of your source. If you delete a photo on your phone, iCloud sync will delete that photo everywhere. ↩︎
Recovery Point Objective - simply put, this is the amount of data you would be comfortable losing between backups. A 24 Hour RPO means that you could potentially lose up to 24 hours of data - and you’re okay with that. ↩︎
There’s also a 3-2-1-1-0 and 4-3-2 strategy that gets promoted. These are intended for further reducing your risk by adding concepts such as air gapped or immutability to your backups. Certainly valid, but outside the scope of this post. ↩︎
We didn’t even get to talking about ransomware protections, cyber attacks, data integrity - there is a deep dive worth of information pertaining to having a copy of your data somewhere. ↩︎