New Year’s Resolutions

Happy New Year everyone, and hope your holidays were relaxing, fun, or at least a break from your working world. I am not a big fan of making resolutions for the new year but one that I made last fall bears repeating: I hope that the coming year you won’t lose any data on the computers that you care about.

I thought I would take some time and describe my own process here at Strom World HQ, in the hopes that this will encourage you to do something similar. You’ll see it isn’t a simple process, and it will take some time to figure out your own strategy. Anyone that claims that making backups is a one-step process isn’t worth listening to.

One up-front caveat, I use a Macintosh as my main business computer, so those of you that use Windows will have to find something similar.

The key to my data backup is to understand how I use my data, and identify the weak points in terms of what happens during what kinds of catastrophes and what particular data is missing as a result.

I had a disk go south on my Mac last fall, and this prompted me to develop my current system. And years ago a nearby office had a fire that didn’t do any damage to my office, other than the firemen breaking down my office door to see that nothing was burning. At the time, I dutifully did backups — on tapes — and had them lying right next to my PC. So I learned the importance of having offsite backups.

The first law of backups according to Strom:

[Backup law #1]: Make the routines simple and not time-consuming, otherwise you won’t do them.

My first line of defense is having two hard disks in my Mac. They are independent disks – meaning that I don’t RAID them or do anything more complex than have them operate side-by-side. I use a piece of software called SuperDuper that costs less than $30.

In the time it took me to write about it, it makes a complete copy of the 300,000 or so files on my main Mac hard drive over to the second hard drive. And it also makes the second hard drive bootable, so if something really goes wrong on the boot drive, I can swap them and be up and running in minutes. (I have tested this too, something that brings us to Strom’s second law:

[Backup law #2]: Make sure to do a few dry test runs, just so you know what to do in case of emergency.

There are numerous stories of people doing backups for years, only to find out that there is nothing on the tapes or disks or whatever media they eventually try to use to restore their data. In the high drama when something goes wrong with your machine, you want to have a clear plan of attack to restore your data. I also check the second hard disk from time to time to make sure that the newest files have been copied over. Doesn’t hurt to check!

If you run with a laptop or if you are tight for space and can’t install twin drives, you can make use of one of the many external hard drives and use SuperDuper to make copies that way – although it will take about twice as long.

I do the SuperDuper backup maybe twice a week, or more if I am doing a lot of writing. That seems to be working well. It is a really nice of piece of software. Those of you that run Windows might want to post some suggestions on my blog at for your own recommendations.

But the SuperDuper backups don’t cover the office fire situation. This brings up the next law:

[Backup law #3]: Make sure you have your data stored somewhere offsite.

For this situation I burn CDs and DVDs, and take them offsite. It doesn’t really matter where, just as long as it isn’t near your computer. A year’s worth of my data fits comfortably on a single CD, and these CDs go in a secure place that isn’t in my office. A bank safe deposit box is a good alternative. You just have to remember to bring the new CDs over to it periodically.

How often I burn and what I burn depends on the situation. I try to do them at least once a month. A key part of this strategy is identifying all of your applications data and keeping it in one overall directory to make these backups easier. Some applications, particularly Microsoft Office and Outlook, make this more difficult and squirrel away their data files in some obscure directory, or worse yet, include some configuration information in their program files directory. And the information that you have stored as part of your browser (cookies, passwords, and the like) is also hard to duplicate with a files-based archive.

At the end of the year I burn a DVD with all of my data archive that goes back ten years or so worth of documents. It took me some time to collect all of this information, and I don’t want to lose it. This brings up my final edict:

[Backup law #4]: For information that changes very often, save it somewhere online.

It doesn’t really matter where and how, just as long as it is off your desktop and easily accessible. There are a number of online storage sites, and they all pretty much do the same thing, using a Web browser or Web DAV connection to transfer your files.

Part of the off-site storage that I use is having my main email and contacts information stored with Google’s Gmail. This has been working well for me over the past year, and I love the tagging system that Gmail offers and that they never delete anything and make it relatively easy to find a message. Of course, when I heard about how Google lost a few dozen people’s email information that sent me into a panic.

So if you do use Gmail, you can at least export all of your contacts to a CSV file that you can store on your desktop, in case they loose your data. As to your email archives, you are out of luck here.

Some writers that I know take things a step further and archive their online stories to PDFs. This is helpful, particularly in cases where Web sites go out of business, or suffer link rot, or some other problem. I haven’t gotten this far but could see myself doing this one day. But at least I have my original manuscripts covered.

As you can see, making backups isn’t simple. Take some time to develop the system that will work for you, and then don’t get lazy or lax. When something goes wrong, you’ll thank me for starting off your new year on the right foot.

8 thoughts on “New Year’s Resolutions

  1. Another way to ‘backup’ your gmail is to set up an email client for POP access and download your mail to the client. You can leave all the mail online while backing up or actually reading in your email client.

  2. For hot backups, FileBack PC is hard to beat. I’ve been using it for years, and the current 4.0 release is sweet. It will automatically back up files on change, by folder. So you can set up project jobs and know that you’ll always have a hot backup of your project files. I back up across the net to a remote volume.

  3. I too have lost hard drives and was lucky enough to have had a second disk containing copies of all my data files. Wasn’t bootable but I didn’t lose anything. 2 drives, especially inexpensive ATA format, are not a lot of money considering the grief potential.

    Directory structure: The greatest roadblock to making backups simple and painless. Seems no one else in my family understands how to use them or why I insist on apps being in a separate area from data. I too use DVDs and grab 1 folder once a year and drag it to my DVD recorder. DONE! All my files, including Outlook files, are backed up. Sadly, MS has continually made a big mess of data storage with their default locations and file structures. I have yet to understand why it is so hard for novice users to translate the concept of manila file folders to a computer.

    The other big gotcha is laptop backup. I travel overseas quite a bit. I always backup my laptop data to my home machine before any trip. This way, I am never worried about losing a hard drive to theft or damage as I have everything stored at home.

    Mark Ryan

  4. Pingback: What doesn’t get backed up makes you stronger | Web Informant

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