None of your data is safe. Ever.

It occurred to me recently that I had never addressed one of the most important and fundamental issues involved in computer use – the implementation of a sensible and secure backup policy.

A lovely 2Tb 'My Book World Edition' NAS server, by Western Digital. If you live in a shared house, you need one of these.

Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking – “yawn“. However, when (thats when not if) your laptop hard-drive fries itself and you lose your 10,000 word thesis because you haven’t backed it up, don’t come whingeing and crying to me. A quick google search for “I lost my essay” turns up 1.4 million results, and most of them are tales of abject woe and desperation. Any form of data-recording media is vulnerable to catastrophic failure, and the chances of getting your data back once that happens are slim-to-nothing.* In this world of laptops and portable storage it’s not just mechanical failure that’s the problem either – laptops/hard-drives/USB keys can very easily get lost, dropped, or stolen.

Nowadays data storage densities are so ridiculously cheap that you really have no excuse for not making adequate backups. Plus, the availability of Cloud-based storage services like Dropbox  and Google Docs can also make life easier. A truly ultra-secure backup system usually involves three copies of all your important data – one ‘working’ copy (say, on your laptop hard drive), a primary backup (say, an external USB hard drive) and a secondary backup in a separate location (another external hard drive which you keep at your friend’s house). This way, if one drive fails you always have two backups, and even in the worst possible scenario of your house burning down (destroying your laptop and primary backup) you still have your secondary backup.

This might be over-kill for the purposes of most students though. If I were still an impecunious student, living in shared accomodation, the system I would implement would be this:

1. I’d get everyone in my house to chip in and buy a cheap Network Attached Storage (NAS) drive. These are external hard drives which plug into the router for your wireless network, and can then be ‘seen’ by every computer on that network. You can get a 2Tb NAS for just north of £100 these days, and between four or five people in a shared house, that’s peanuts. This will be your primary backup, and once a week or so you should back up everything to that drive. As an added bonus, most NAS’s can be used as iTunes servers, and you can use it as a repository for sharing music or (legally *ahem*) downloaded copies of ‘Rasta Mouse’, or whatever it is you kids watch these days. You just have to make it clear to Howard that it’s not a place to put his extensive and eye-watering collection of one-handed videos, and if everyone in your house tries to stream HD video from it at once it’ll almost certainly fall over. Most NAS’s can also be configured to be accessible over the web from anywhere in the world, so it’s also like having your own cloud-server. Neat-o. 

2. You keep a working copy of everything you need on your laptop/desktop hard drive, and whenever you’re working on something (like an essay) and you’re finished for the day, you save a copy to a USB stick. USB sticks cost peanuts these days – get a nice big 8 or 16Gb one so you don’t run out of space. Don’t put your USB stick in your bag with your laptop, keep it in your pocket, that way if you lose the bag… you get the idea.

3. You also sync a copy of anything important that you’re working on currently to Dropbox or some other cloud-based service. This is to avoid the situation where you leave your bag (with your laptop, and backup USB stick in it) in the pub on a Friday night after a hard day’s studying and an even harder evening’s drinking. OK, so you might have lost your laptop, but at least that essay you were working on all day Friday is safe out in the aether somewhere.

The total cost of that solution would be about £30 for the NAS (assuming it was split four-ways) plus perhaps £10 for the USB stick, and Dropbox is free, so £40 in total.  A small price to pay for peace of mind, and if you’re in a shared house just for a year, you could even sell the NAS on eBay at the end of the year and recoup most of your original outlay. However, the best worked-out backup policy is as useless as a marzipan cod-piece if you don’t follow it. You have to get in the habit of saving everything you’re working on to the USB stick/Dropbox, and also get in the habit of making weekly backups to the NAS. Set a reminder on your ‘phone every week for Sunday night and do it then.

I would hope it would go without saying, but this advice is provided merely as a suggestion, and any data you lose as a result of it is very much your own fault. Sorry, but it really, really is.

That’s it. You’ve been told. Now go and do it. Seriously. Not kidding.

* Unless you want to pay a very large amount of money to a specialised data-retrieval service, and even then the chances are only fair-to-middling.

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About Matt Wall

I do brains. BRAINZZZZ.

Posted on November 1, 2011, in Hardware, Internet, Software, Study Skills and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Stavros Hadjisolomou

    Excellent advice Matt. I’d suggest using Wuala for online storing. It encrypts your files automatically, Dropbox doesn’t. In theory, the employees or anyone who hacks onto their servers won’t be able to look at them, but then again, if you have anything to hide, don’t upload it on the Net in the first place.

    I use Wuala to backup my Dropbox which backs up my CX clouds. Also have one 16GB USB with portable Dropbox, it really is doing the job, and 3 external hard drives with clones of the above back ups.

  2. totally agree, however I would also remind people to consider the intellectual property and security implications of posting data on services like dropbox or google who do not guarantee your data will continue to be available for free and in some cases may claim they own your intellectual property…

  3. Excellent advice – Many thanks Stavros and Frank!

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