A GUIDE TO BACKING UP YOUR DIGITAL LIFE

People are generating content at a faster rate than ever these days. It’s no surprise since technology has made things a lot easier. Our cell phones make it easy to record high quality photos and video on the go. Electronics have got cheaper over the years and the quality has also gone up. Even the budget point-and-shoot cameras these days are capable of high megapixel images and video. Anyone and everyone can become a vlogger on YouTube with a few hundred dollars in gear and some spare time. All of this content means one thing – more data. All this data requires more storage and it’s not just about cramming it all on one hard drive, you have to back it up too. If you’re as unfortunate as we’ve been at times in the past, you’ve lost some data to a hardware failure and didn’t have the right (or any) backup strategy in place to save you.

Today we’ll discuss some easy options to ensure that precious data is backed up. We’ll cover different hardware, software, and cloud solutions available to everyone from the new parent that’s documenting their new baby’s life to the professional photographer that’s traveling the world and only home six weeks out of the year. Let’s break this down by hardware, software, and cloud products and review some of the basic details behind each.

HARDWARE

When discussing the hardware your data is stored on we can easily break it down into a few categories. We have the “live” storage that you actively store your information on, such as the place you dump your memory cards to or have registered with your Lightroom library. This live storage can be in the form of an internal hard drive in a desktop or laptop computer, or in some cases your live data may be stored on an external USB hard drive or network storage device that all computers in your whole home or office can access. The other category is backup storage which most commonly comes in the form of an external USB hard drive attached to your desktop or laptop. To keep things simple, lets focus on internal and external hard drive scenarios for desktop and laptop computers and leave network storage for another blog.

·         Desktop Hardware – If all of your photo editing and data storage is conducted on a desktop in your home or office then you are typically storing all your live information on your internal hard drive and backing up that data to an external hard drive. This style of data management is the most common and protects against hardware failure or accidental deletion of data.

o   Internal – These days SSDs or Solid-State Drives are more common and have come down in price. A SSD can significantly increase the overall speed and performance of file access on your computer but SSDs are still trailing behind in overall storage capacity compared to traditional mechanical hard drives. The amount of data you need to store will help you decide if an SSD or mechanical hard drive make sense to use. It’s important to treat this hardware as if it could fail at any moment to help keep you on your toes and manage backups accordingly. There are other internal hard drive solutions that can provide additional redundancy such as RAID but we’ll leave that out for now.

o   External – In a desktop environment your external drive is likely the drive that you backup all of your data to. Your backup software manages the continuous or scheduled backup of your information to this disk or disks and you do not store new live data manually to these locations as they are strictly for backup purposes. Companies like Seagate and Western Digital offer very high capacity USB 3.0 backup hard drives for under a few hundred dollars. At the time this blog was written Seagate offers an 8TB external desktop drive.

·         Laptop hardware

o   Internal – Internal laptop drives, just as internal desktop drives, are usually used for storing your live information. There are however some limitations with certain laptops and your total data may not fit on the internal disk. In this case you’ll need two external drives for your laptop, one to store your live data, and the other to house the backup.

o   External Live Storage – I found myself in this situation for a few years. I was on the go a lot and it made sense to store all my primary digital data where I could access from my MacBook Air while on the go. The problem was the SSD in my MacBook was far too small to hold all that data. I chose to buy a 2TB external laptop hard drive that is powered over USB 3.0. While some may complain that this isn’t as fast internal storage, which is true, it was never a major problem for me.

o   External Backup Storage – In the scenario I outlined above, I needed another external hard drive to backup the information on my internal drive as well as all that important media on my external drive. Ideally you want a drive larger than the sum of your internal drive capacity plus your external live storage drive.

SOFTWARE

Backup software can be broken down into two categories, software for Apple devices and software for Windows devices. Regardless of platform, backup software all serves to solve one goal – backup your data on a regular schedule without requiring any interaction on your part while also providing a report or alerts of some kind to tell you if that schedule is working or if there are any errors or things to be concerned about.

·         Windows

o   Microsoft has backup abilities built into most versions of Windows but frankly, they suck. This leaves us with choosing from a long list of 3rd party software. I’ve tried a lot over the years. There have been some great ones that declined in quality or use but I always find myself going back to Acronis. The current product I use for backing up my Windows computers locally is Acronis True Image. It’s priced at around $50 and has the ability to also push to the cloud which we’ll talk about in the next section. I like Acronis for its simplicity. You tell it what you want to backup, or choose everything, then you tell it where you want that backup to live and how frequently you want to run a backup and it takes care of the rest. It will alert you if anything goes wrong. Another reason I love Acronis is you can easily jump into the application to retrieve an individual file or folder if you accidently delete something.

·         Apple OS

o   The situation on the Apple side of the table is quite the opposite from the Microsoft scenario. While there are 3rd party applications that handle backups quite well, the built in Time Machine function in the Apple OS works quite well. There’s nothing to buy and configuration is just about as easy as it comes. Earlier I talked about my MacBook Air and how I used two external hard drives, one with all my photos and the other to store my Time Machine backup. This setup worked quite well as I would regularly plug in both hard drives, Time Machine would take all the data from my internal hard drive, my external live data drive, and push all of it to the backup drive. If you have a setup similar to this, it may also be worthwhile to invest in a second backup drive. This way you could leave one at home and take the other one with you so if your whole bag gets stolen or drops into a lake destroying everything, you still have a safety net at home.

CLOUD BACKUP

We’ve discussed some of the hardware and software around backing your data up locally which is great in case you accidently delete some data or experience a hardware failure at home or even on the go. This is a great and necessary practice but doesn’t always protect you from other types of disasters. We’re talking about if all of your hardware is stolen or the building it’s sitting in burns to the ground. In recent years the “Cloud” has become quite the buzzword. Everyone knows they want to be part of the cloud but some don’t know why. The cloud is just a simple way of saying data stored somewhere on the internet, which in reality means its sitting on a secure server in a nicely cooled data center. There are many types of cloud services available but we’ll focus on cloud backup storage. All of the big internet tech names offer cloud storage, Google, Microsoft, Apple, Box, DropBox and even Amazon. Most of these types of services offer some form of automatic backup if you’re just looking to backup your images and documents. All platforms have free versions that offer a limited amount of storage and can even integrate into your smart phone to backup pictures you take from there.

The other type of cloud backup storage is provided specifically as a service to backup your entire digital life automatically similar to the way Acronis works locally. In fact, Acronis has this ability built in and is a great option to someone that already uses Acronis. It’ll push a copy of that local backup to the cloud for safe keeping for a fairly reasonable annual rate. I’ve also used products such as Carbonite, Mozy, and CrashPlan to accomplish the same thing on both Windows and Apple computers. I’m currently using CrashPlan and for around $13 a month I can backup multiple devices with unlimited cloud storage.

Summary

Redundancy is key when it comes to backups. The more options you have to recover your data the better. Whether you use a desktop or laptop, or Mac or Windows computer I would recommend a local external backup or two in addition to a cloud backup. Another important factor is testing your backups. Most of the software platforms discussed today allow you to test file level data recovery. This will let you pick individual files or folders from a specific backup date and restore them to a temporary location so you can verify that your backups are not only working, but able to be recovered in case of disaster. I test my backups regularly as I’ve had things go wrong in the past which is another reason I’ve implemented redundant backups for my most critical data.