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Backup: The Most Important Thing Your Computer Can Do

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Click for photoTaking a break from your regularly scheduled focus program for a public service announcement about backing up your computer.  Chances are good your computer isn’t backed up… and for some reason, you’re not the least bit worried about that.

My job is to make you worry.  So please stop all your focusing, getting things done, sleeping, and goal setting to read this, and then backup your computer right now.

Let’s start with the basics of your situation:

  • Your memories (baby photos, loan documents, and old music from college) are stored on a hard drive.
  • Hard drives fail every second of every day.  There’s nothing “safe” about a hard drive.
  • When your hard drive fails, chances are solid you’ll lose everything with no way to recover it.
  • It happens to everybody at some point.

Having a hard drive fail must be every bit as bad as having your house burn down was fifty years ago.  Every photo and song you own, every scan you’ve made, all of your personal documents and emails… this stuff is no longer stored in cardboard boxes in a dark attic… it’s all stored on a super-complex piece of mechanical equipment with a seriously bad failure rate that is by no means inversely correlated with its importance.  For many people reading this, your entire livelihood is being held together by little screws.  Crazy.

To be clear about why backup is important: it’s not a matter of IF your hard drive someday dies, it’s a matter of WHEN.  And it’ll probably happen without warning, like an earthquake or major power outage.  Eventually they all fail, and chances are it will be the day before you decide to backup.  50% of people have lost data from their computer at one time, and many, many people have experienced the nuclear meltdown of full data loss… that moment when the guy behind the counter tells you there’s nothing he can do: IT’S ALL GONE.

Your data is as good as gone if you’re not paying attention to it.

My Horror Story

Like a trip to the emergency room, everyone has a story.  If you’re sitting there saying, “well, I’ve never had to to go to the emergency room” – to that, I say “just wait”… exactly what I say to those who think their hard drive will never fail.

In July 2001, some weird things were happening with my computer.  Files were throwing errors when trying to copy, and things were running at a glacial pace.  I realized that I hadn’t done a backup in a few months, so I started getting ready to backup all the data on my hard drive to an external drive by formatting the external drive (mistake #1) to prepare it.

Just after the long, full format process, my computer started making funny noises from inside the case.  <click> <click> <click>.  I freaked out and turned the machine off, waited a few seconds, and then turned it back on.  It said just one thing:

– Error: Hard drive failure –

My heart started racing, realizing that my backup drive was completely empty.  I turned off the computer again and started over.  Same thing.  I did this about 15 times (mistake #2 since that can make things worse) to no avail.  What I had were warning signs (slow performance, strange errors, clicking noises) but right here, right now: I’d reached the point of total failure.

After hours of research, I came to the conclusion that I only had one option: calling a data recovery service. 

In theory, the data was safe on the hard drive platters but the drive itself would need a new read/write head in order to retrieve the files.  In other words, software couldn’t solve the problem; I needed someone with specialized equipment. 

It would cost a small fortune, take at least a week, and there was still no guarantee that anything could be saved.

Long story short: some teenage kid showed up at my house in a beaten up old car, charged me $800 on the spot, and took my computer away with him.  I didn’t even catch his name (mistake #3 – luckily it turned out OK).  After the longest week of my life to that point, my data was mostly recovered (all but 16 random files) and my computer was returned to me with a new hard drive.

I realized then and there that I needed to be maniacal about “data insurance”.  I needed my files to be safe no matter what.  Since then I’ve had no fewer than FIVE hard drive failures, and the stakes have gone way up for me – I have a family now and tens of thousands of family photos.  I’ve scanned and shredded all of my important documents.  And I work in high-tech, so everything I do all day is stored digitally. 

I now sleep soundly every night knowing that it would take an all-out global disaster for me to lose my stuff at this point.  And if that actually happens, I have bigger things to worry about.

Getting Started Right Now

Here’s how you need to think about this starting today:

  • Nothing is safe until it’s on at least three different drives, in at least two different physical locations – and it’s updated all the time.

Sounds like it could be a lot of work, but it’s not at all.  There’s a little bit of money and effort upfront, but the cost of ongoing maintenance is so minimal as to not even be noticeable.  Trust me, if I can do it, you can do it.

I’ll break it down step-by-step so there are no excuses 😉

  1. Buy one, two, or three external hard drives depending on how serious you want to be about this.  Go to and get the biggest drives you can afford.  Western Digital 1TB drives are less than $100 these days, and for most people, that’s more than enough space.  Alternatively you can determine how much space your stuff takes up on your current hard drive and add 25-50% for future growth.
  2. Do a complete backup of your system using Windows Backup or CrashPlan on all of the drives.  To setup Windows Backup, just type “Backup” in the Start menu and open “Backup and Restore”.  CrashPlan is a free backup program that’s also really easy to use.
  3. Enable Bitlocker on all drives if you have Windows 7 Ultimate (optional).  To enable Bitlocker, just type “Bitlocker” in the Start Menu and go to “BitLocker Drive Encryption –> Bitlocker To Go”.  This will make sure that no one can see your files if they happen to get a hold of the drive.  Note: Make sure to keep your recovery keys for Bitlocker in a safe place too.
  4. Place the first drive in a fireproof, locked media safe somewhere in your home.
  5. Place the second drive someplace other than your home (optional if you have a second drive… but recommended).  You could put it in your office, at your sister’s house, or in a safety deposit box at the bank.  Whatever you do, you want to make sure it’s not in the same place as the first drive just in case of burglary, earthquake, Terminator attacks, etc.
  6. Leave the third drive connected to your computer for continuous, onsite backup (optional if you have a third drive… but recommended).
  7. Rotate backups for the first two drives not connected to your PC.  Using whatever reminder system you have, make sure you have a reminder set to backup each drive every 30-60-90 days.  Alternate which drive you backup so you aren’t doing them both in the same month.  Note: incremental backups take just a few minutes so there’s really no excuse!
  8. Sign-up for CrashPlan Central.  For $50/year you get unlimited, offsite, encrypted, continuous backup.  If you have no idea what I just said, don’t worry: your stuff will be stored in a place that only you can access and will be backed up all the time.  This will take a long time to finish depending on your Internet connection, but it’s worth it.  Trust me.  This is the most important step in the plan.  No, CrashPlan doesn’t pay me a dime, I just love it.  Learn about it here.

The process may take some time, but there’s less than 60 minutes of your time required to get the entire backup system in place.

Once you’re finished, you’ll have an immediate backup onsite, an immediate backup offsite, and ways to get back to files you may have deleted months ago.  This strategy has saved my hide more times than I’d like to count.

And yes, if your files aren’t that important to you, then even this level of investment may not be worth it.  But at least do steps #1, #2, and #8 with a single external drive if you’d be at all upset to one day wake up and have to buy a new hard drive and start from scratch.

Good luck next time you have a total hard drive failure.  I’m sorry to say, it will happen.  When it does, you can check out the 5 stages of data loss grief on Gizmodo to see what’s in store!

Written by Mike Torres

March 23rd, 2010 at 8:19 am

Posted in Tools

Tagged with , , , , ,

  • greasergrrl

    I thought I was paranoid having 3 hard drives (one offsite) and mozy! Now I know I'm not the crazy one 🙂

    • You're crazy like a fox. Most would say that those who don't backup are the crazy ones!

  • greasergrrl

    I thought I was paranoid having 3 hard drives (one offsite) and mozy! Now I know I'm not the crazy one 🙂

  • You're crazy like a fox. Most would say that those who don't backup are the crazy ones!