Just imagine for a moment that you just lost all your pictures. I think you will feel pretty horrible. You probably want to prevent this from ever happening to you.
You may have heard about the solution to this kind of disaster: 'make backups'. What does that really mean?
What is a backup?
This is my definition of a backup:
A backup is a copy of your files on a separate physical device
The second part is what a backup is all about. If you create a copy of a file and store the copy on your computer, that is not a backup. It's only a version. Only if you store a file on a different device, such as a USB-stick or external USB hard drive, we may call the copy a 'backup'.
Why do I need backups?
If you don't make backups you will lose all your data at some point.
This is how you will lose your precious data:
- Human error: You accidentally delete or overwrite a file or entire folder.
- Hardware failure: Your computer dies and with it, all your data.
- Disaster: Your house burns down or all your computer equipment gets stolen.
A good backup will protect you against all three risks.
Why are manual backups bad?
A backup solution that requires human interaction is a backup solution that is setup to fail. Automate your backups so your backups contrain fresh, recent data.
A six-month old backup is better than nothing, but having to discover that you lost all your photos made in the last six months is still a bitter pill to swallow.
The •only• proper way to make backups is to make them automatically.
To automate the backup process, you need backup software. Both Windows and Mac OS X have build-in backup software and it is really recommended to use it, in combination with a USB-disk or NAS.
Windows 10 has a nice new feature called 'file history'. I would really recommend using this feature. It creates a backup every hour and only stores changed or added files. By default, modified or deleted files are kept for one year.
Mac OS X
Since years, Mac OS X is shipped with "Time Machine". If you connect a USB drive to your computer, you may have seen the question wether or not to use the drive with Time Machine. Apple really tries to make creating backups as easy as possible. Time Machine offers you to travel back in time to older 'snapshots' of your computer. Very nice if you need to recover accidentally deleted files or an older version of a file.
What are the options for storing my backups?
There are three types of storage for your backups:
- On a USB hard drive (Directly-Attached Storage)
- On a NAS (Network-Attached Storage)
- In the cloud
USB hard drive
Cheap and straight forward to setup. Just attach a USB disk to your computer. It's ideal for desktops as they don't move around and the drive can always stay attached and USB3 is very fast.
It's not an ideal solution for laptops because it requires human intervention: attaching and detaching cables. Long stretches of time may pass between backups, increasing the risk that you lose significant amounts of data.
Some people buy multiple USB hard drives and rotate between them on a weekly or monthly basis. In the mean time, they store those drives at somebody else's house to protect their data against theft or fire. Although this approach works, there are three downsides:
Unless you use encryption, other people can access your data stored on your backup hard drive.
There is probably a gap of weeks or months between rotations, so recent data is at risk of being lost anyway.
It's a manual process, switching drives and moving them to other locations can be forgotten and thus no backups are made or recent ones stored outside of the house.
NAS (Network-Attached Storage)
A NAS or home server attached to your home network has the benefit of being accessible through your wireless network. Backups can then be made wirelessly so there's no messing around with cables.
The storage provided by your NAS or home server can be shared with multiple computers, so a NAS allows you to backup multiple computers on the same storage. You don't need to buy a separate disk for each of them.
Storing your files in the cloud means that they are stored outside of your house. Storing files on a USB drive or NAS doesn't protect against the risk of theft or fire, so cloud-based backup should probably be your first pick.
Backup media that are not recommended:
- USB-sticks: are often of low capacity and quality.
- Optical media: Bluray and DVDs are expensive, have relatively low capacities and can be scratched easily, rendering data inaccessible.
Recommended backup strategy for consumers
The best way to deal with the three risk outlined previously is to employ multiple backup solutions.
- Online or cloud backup (mandatory)
- Local file backup to USB disk or NAS (recommended)
- Disk clone stored on USB disk or NAS (optional)
Cloud backup is ideal because it addresses all the three risks outlined previously in one single solution. If you only want to invest in a single backup solution, use a cloud backup provider. So cloud backup should be the number one priority.
Downloading your files from the cloud may take a while. Also the backup history of cloud backup solutions is often limited to 30 days. This is why it's adviced to combine both cloud backup and local disk or NAS backup.
If you want quick access to your files, it's recommended to create local backups, that are stored either on a USB-drive or on a NAS (Network-Attached Storage).
Additionally, build-in software such as Windows Backup or Mac OS X "Time Machine" allows you to create a backup history. If you find out that you accidentally deleted a file two months ago, most cloud backup providers can't help you anymore. It has been deleted from the backup
A full disk clone will help to quickly restore your computer to a working state after a drive failure. This is probably not that important for most home users, but it can be a nice touch.
Windows 10 has 'System Image Backup' build-in. This tool makes an exact copy of your hard drive or solid state drive so you computer can be quickly reinstalled.
Cloud or online backup first, local backups second
Storing your backups in 'the cloud' means that your backups are stored far away from your home. In case your house burns down or all your computer equipment is stolen, your data will still be safe in the cloud.
I have no affiliation with any cloud-based backup provider. Take a look at this list of online cloud-based backup providers.
Here is a table (2015) comparing the different vendors.
Cloud backups have some additional benefits:
Fully automated backups: cloud backup providers require you to install backup software that creates backups automatically, often every hour. Cloud backup providers target everybody - especially novice computer users - by making their software very easy to setup and very robust. The software is very fool-proof and this helps assure you that backups are made regularly, without you having to babysit the process. Most vendors alert you by email if backups have not been made for a while.
If you are a laptop-user, as long as you have internet access, backups continue to be made, even if you are traveling.
Cloud backup providers often keep a history of your files for a certain number of days. If you need an older version of a file, or need to recover a file you deleted two weeks ago, cloud backup can also help.
Cloud backup solutions do have some downsides:
Restore speed: the speed at which you will be able to restore your data depends on the speed provided by your cloud provider and the speed of your internet connection. Restoring all your data could take days or even weeks. Some providers will ship you a hard drive filled with your data at an additional cost.
Privacy & Security: You will be storing your data on someone else's computer. You must accept or assume that if they want to, your cloud backup provider will be able to access your files as stored on their computers.
If your cloud backup provider ever gets hacked, you must assume that your data is compromised.
Some cloud backup providers provide an extra - more advanced - security option where data is encrypted on your computer with a password only you know. If you ever happen to forget this password, even the cloud provider or the hacker who compromises them won't be able to access your data.
It is up to you to decide if you want to trade the risk of losing all of your files with the risk of of losing your privacy.
What about Dropbox, Google Drive, Skydrive or iCloud Drive?
Storing a copy of a file online, such as on Dropbox, Google Drive, Skydrive or iCloud Drive also counts as a backup. Because you are storing the file on a different computer owned by Dropbox, Google, Microsoft or Apple.
Drop box - for instance - also allows you to recover accidentally deleted files or folders up to 30 days ago.
However, these solution do not provide backup software. They don't offer the option to create a full backup of your computer - including all your photos - at a reasonable price and are not a real substitute for a true online backup solution.
Test a restore or you won't know if your backup works
You need to check your backups periodically. Are you able to restore a few files? There are too many anekdotes of people who did setup a backup solution, that was silently failing for a long time. Then, when disaster struck, they discovered that there was no recent backup available. Horrible.
Make sure you do a test restore once in a while. Check your backups.
I hope this post helps you understand backups and how to approach them. Feel free to ask any questions or leave any comments. Feedback is appreciated.