Backup: managing your data

It’s happened to all of us. One day, for some reason, our hard drive dies, or our computer gets stolen, and we’re up a creek. If you have a little foresight, you know that it’s not a matter of if, but when you’ll have a hard drive or computer loss.

Form a plan

Adam Christianson of The MacCast periodically re-emphasizes the importance of backup and does a good job.
First, focus on the critical. Plan on backing up this data in multiple places, and frequently. Second, focus on non-critical data. Cross this plan with worst-case scenarios; what would happen if…theft, natural disaster, simple drive failure should all be featured here.

Backup Destinations

Thumb Drive

You get these if you open a checking account these days. Just get one. Look on some place like for an $8 thumb drive. Get a waterproof one if possible.

Local Direct Connect Drive (USB/FireWire/Thunderbolt)

Available in stunningly massive capacities, you can hook this up to your desktop and forget about it, or connect when convenient to your notebook. Make sure to get a “bus-powered” drive if you don’t want to depend on nearby power.

Local Network Drive

Something like an Apple Time Capsule or Promise/LaCie network drive can greatly simplify backup for one or multiple computers, and remove the headache of remembering to plug in your backup drive. As long as your computer(s) is on the network, backup can happen automatically.

Cloud Storage

This oft-used term means some random company on the net storing a few gigabytes of data for free, prices going up from there. Good for critical data at a minimum, but don’t use just one provider!
*For those photo-inclined, also consider backing up full-size photos to Picassa, Flickr, SmugMug, Nikon’s Photo Town, Kodak’s online gallery, Photo Bucket, or ANY of the bazillion online photo sharing services.


This can mean anything from a hard drive at your neighbor’s house (do you have a neighborhood “backup buddy?”) or drive under the seat of your car, to one in a safety deposit box…in another country! While companies might have a service for dealing with this, individuals or families have to be creative.

Data Types

Critical Data

This might mean different things to different people, but think hard.
• Finances (Quicken files, PDF’s of web purchases, tax records from turbotax, etc)
• passwords
• software license information
• Medical receipts and records
• Legal paperwork
• Photographs, Videos, Music
• bookmarks, email

Replaceable Data

This type of information is like applications that can be reinstalled or re-downloaded, your operating system that you have on disc, that sort of thing.

Executing on your Plan

Now that you’ve identified what needs backing up and where you can do it, let’s begin! This is primarily geared towards Mac users, but I’m sure you windows folks can follow along and find parallel solutions.

Apple provides an excellent method for automatic backup from your Mac – Time Machine. Simply plug in a drive, and away you go. This also works with network-connected drives like Apple’s own Time Capsule. This works fine for your entire system backup, but don’t forget about the thumb drive, cloud and offsite storage. Sizes are available in multiple terabytes!

To get another backup, something less-oft revised, but just as important, get ANOTHER direct-connected drive and using Time Machine, change your backup destination to it. Store this in your car, in a gobag, or in a safety deposit box between tours. You might not get to update it as often, but if all else is literally lost, you’ll have something that is a few months old.

Thumb drives are getting bigger and cheaper, just like hard drives. Your critical data, if not your entire user folder, can sit on this drive. Some drives even look like keys, so you can store this on your keychain. You can use Time Machine to set this up, but it might be just as easy to drag and drop some key folders onto the drive. Thumb Drive Backup, Check!

One left to go. This could be a life-saver. Most services provide a free “lite” version these days comprising 2 – 10GB of storage, more than enough for critical data. Each service can be customized to automatically and regularly back up data, and many services offer an iPhone, Android and/or Blackberry app to allow you to access this data. Just think if you’re evacuated from your country (recent Japan earthquake anyone?) or your house burns down…and you can still get to that critical data on your phone.
Choose one or more services, download and install the client on your computer, choose your data, and off you go.

Maintaining your Plan

You’re all done, right? No. Set yourself a reminder in iCal to update your off-site backup, your thumb drive backups, etc. If you manually plug in your local backup, set your self a reminder for that as well. How often should you do this? It really depends on how much data you can afford to lose.

Lastly, since backups are also prone to failure, do a test restore every once in a while. If this backup is absolutely critical, restore from your time machine backup to a spare hard drive, and/or make sure you can open those quicken files from your drive.

Questions? email and good luck!