Do You Know Where Your Data Is?

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o, I am not talking about Brent Spiner, I am talking about all those 1s and 0s that live on your computer.  Today I am talking about how do you take care of all of your important, digital information?  Is it protected?  I don’t know about other people but EVERY photo of my daughter since birth was taken with a digital camera and thus lives on the computer.  No negatives and very few have ever been printed.  I bet many people of my generation are in the same boat.  Digital photography has taken off over the past 5 to 10 years and uncountable terabytes of photos have been taken.  I wonder, however, how much of those photos are protected from disaster.  Think about your own photos.  Would you lose everything if your hard drive crashed?  How about if your house was destroyed by fire?  By flood?  Would the only record of little Johnny’s first steps be lost?  How about that last birthday party for your grandmother?  The digital video of your wedding?  The sad truth is that most people don’t think about the worst until it has already happened and then, sadly, it is too late.

For a long time I felt the first line of defense was an external hard drive.  It worked great.  I had a second copy of all of my data that could be restored to any computer.  I was protected.  Right?  Not so much.  Having that second hard drive was better than nothing but it didn’t protect my data from the aforementioned fire, flood, or other act of nature.  In truth, all I would have then was TWO completed destroyed copies of my data.  Then there is the concern of viruses ruining everything connected to an infected PC INCLUDING the backup drive.  Having an on-site copy of your data can certainly be useful but obviously it is not an effective backup strategy.

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It was then that I decided that I should also burn copies of everything to DVD.  Surely I would be protected then right? I could make the DVDs and send them to work or to my parents’ house.  Off-site backup would be perfect!  Right?  Wrong again.  While backing up to DVD and putting those disks off-site is an improvement, there are problems.  How long does a DVD remain readable?  There have been some studies into the degradation of optical disks, nothing has been proven.  Some disks last mere months while others can last years.  The fact remains that optical disks do degrade and fail.  Imagine losing all of your data at home only to find out your disks are unreadable!!!  All those wonderful shots you took of little Ann Marie’s first day at school would be nothing but memories.  Optical disks also have the inherent problem of obsolescence.  Who knows how long the optical disk will be around.  Probably some time yet but there is clearly a time in the future when computes will no longer have optical drives.  How do you restore all that backed up data then?  I know this is a minor concern but ask around and see how many people backed up to Zip Disk only to find Zip Drives discontinued.  Finally, when it comes to backing up to optical disk the worst part is how much of a pain it is to actually do.  It is complicated to setup automatic backups to optical disk and they are limited in size.  Yes, even Blu-Ray disk will eventually fill up.  This kind of backup requires more time at your computer.  Not fun for a geek and darn near impossible for anyone else.  Have hope though, there is a better way!

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Online backup has become affordable if not cheap and is my recommended backup of choice.  There are many services out there for online backup and while I don’t want to recommend any one service over another I personally choose Jungle Disk.  Online backup has many advantages over the other methods listed above.  1.  It is completely off-site.  2.  It can be setup to run automatically.  3.  Size will never be an issue.  4.  With most services you can access your data from anywhere and at any time.  5.  You don’t need a particular drive or media reader to restore the data.  Overall I think online backup provides the best protection for critical data as well as making the backup process dead simple.  Online backup solves all the issues discussed previously and adds features not possible with other backup strategies.

Of course nothing is perfect and using a cloud type service does have some downsides that one needs to understand.  The first issue is upload speed.  Broadband connections vary in their upload speeds.  The first backup can take days, weeks, or even months to complete depending on how much you are backing up and your upload speed.  Once the first upload is complete, the incremental backups are much faster.  The second issue is related but concerns how fast you can download the data.  If you need to restore a lot of data in a hurry online backup can be troublesome depending on your connection to the internet.  Generally data will download faster than it uploads, but completely restoring a dead PC could take some time.  It is also important to think about how critical it is to be able to access your data at moment’s notice.  If your internet connection is down will this be a problem?  Since we are just talking about backup, I doubt internet connectivity up-time is a concern for most people but if your needs require backups to be available 24/7 be sure to consider this possible gotcha. 

Another issue is the reliability of the backup service provider.  You are entrusting your data to a third party and there is really no way to know what they do with the information.  Most services use encryption and other methods to keep your data secure but there is always the chance someone could crack into your data.  I feel this is a minor concern but it is worth pointing out.  The best thing to do is pick a reputable provider and be sure you understand their privacy policy as well as their security options.  Picking a reputable provider is also important because companies do fail.  What happens to your data if the company shuts its virtual doors?  Finally there is the issue of the monthly fees.  I don’t like the growing trend toward monthly services fees but there is little one can do in this case.  Shop for rates and be sure you are clear on costs for uploading and
downloading data as well as the monthly storage fees.  Again, picking a reputable provider that fits your needs is critical.

Given all the options for backup, I like a two pronged approach.  I backup locally to an external hard drive first.  This gives me a backup on hand if I need to restore something quickly.  Secondly I backup online.  My online backup covers me in case the main copy of the data and the external hard drive fail or are destroyed.  It also provides the additional benefit of being able to access my data from any internet enabled computer OR certain mobile devices like the iPhone.  Regardless of your backup needs, however, I highly recommend incorporating online backup.  Many plans start at under $10.00.  Don’t wait until after you have lost everything to think about protecting your digital life.
    

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