The Importance of Data Back-Up

You have probably heard it before but you need to hear it again: Data you don’t back-up, is data you don’t care about.  By data, we mean those 10-years of precious family photos, that important business presentation, or the final draft of your doctoral thesis. Yes, that data.  Twenty years ago we stored these items in safety deposit boxes located in a steel bank vault.  Today they often reside on the same computer your kids (or roommate) use to watch YouTube or play Club Penguin.

Regardless of your data’s real or perceived value, almost all consumer PC’s store this information on a device known as a Hard Disk Drive (a/k/a Hard Drive).  These technological marvels are generally about the size of your hand (a child’s hand for a laptop) and contain one or more circular platters typically made of aluminum or glass.  The discs are mounted on a central spindle and rotate between 5400 and 7200 revolutions per minute (RPM).  For a frame of reference those of you old enough may remember that favorite KISS album spun at 33⅓ RPM.

The data is written magnetically by drive heads that “fly” above the disk surface with clearance of as little as 3 nanometers (the average human hair is about 100,000 nanometers wide).  Since most drives write data to both sides of the platter, a typical device might have six heads operating in unison.  Truly amazing when you consider the average 500GB (gigabyte) hard drive can be purchased at your local Wal-Mart for less than $100.

However this article is about data back-up so the point is this: eventually, ALL DRIVES FAIL.  Not always the same way; some over time, some catastrophically, but in the end the result is the same – your data is gone.  This brings us back to the first statement, if you care about your data – YOU NEED TO BACK IT UP – TODAY.

Back-up by its very nature means just that; there exists an ADDITIONAL copy of the data that resides somewhere other than the original.  Transferring your photos onto an external hard drive isn’t backing them up; it just means they are not stored on your computer.  And external hard drives are simply hard drives stored in a plastic enclosure.  And what do all hard drives do? They eventually FAIL.

The good news is there are plenty of excellent, inexpensive options for backing-up your data.  From burning it on a CD or DVD to storing it with a cloud-based (on-line) storage service, they all offer a level of protection that is better than doing nothing.  Answering these three simple questions should help you decide what type of back-up process to pursue: 1) how much data do you have, 2) how much time can you dedicate to backing it up, and 3) how much money do you want to spend?

By ranking each of these in order of importance we can quickly arrive at the best solution for your particular needs.  Let’s describe three common scenarios and suggest a back-up solution for each.

1)      Users with an average amount of data (between 25GB – 100GB) that don’t want to be bothered by remembering to back it up should consider using a secure on-line storage service.  These companies access and encrypt your data using a small utility that runs in the background on your computer.  Most offer a reasonable amount of storage for a low annual fee (e.g., $60 for up to 25GB).  After the initial set-up, which takes about 10 minutes, you rarely need to think about it again.  Not only does this solution safeguard you from catastrophic drive failure, it also protects against theft of your device or other types of hazards (fire, hurricanes, etc.).  Data recovery from a cloud-based service can be done from any internet-connected computer or even your smartphone in most cases.  Two of the more well know providers of this type of service are MozyHome and Carbonite and both support Windows and Mac operating systems.

2)      Users with a large amount of data, or those without a broadband internet connection should consider purchasing an external hard drive and use it to copy their important files.  However, once this is done it is extremely important to physically locate it somewhere other than the site where the original data resides.  Having a duplicate copy of your data on an external hard drive is good, but if it is sitting next to your computer and the house burns down, you are out of luck.  Take the device to your office, a relative’s house, or that safety deposit box we talked about earlier.  Just remember to periodically update it so any new or changed files get backed-up as well.  For most users, once a month is plenty.

3)      Users that don’t want to spend any additional money for back-up can take advantage of the many “free” cloud storage services currently available (e.g., Google Drive).  Most limit you to 2GB – 5GB of space but this is often enough for many people.  Just be prepared to deal with the inevitable ads, continual upgrade offers and/or privacy issues that come along with the use of a no-cost product.

Regardless of what path you decide to follow for you back-up needs, please “remember an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.  The cost to professionally recover data from a dead or damaged hard drive can easily exceed $1,000.

This article was originally published in the Technically Speaking column of the July 2012 issue of I’On Life magazine.