Dan's Thoughts on Making Backups of Computer Data

Updated February 2015

Wow, sounds boring, doesn't it? I consider it important enough to be worth expounding on, though...and so should you! Let me share with you some cautionary tales from my own experience:

Digital data doesn't exist.

Well, it's true, isn't it? Those files on your hard disk drive in your computer have no mass, no size, and can't be seen. This is true of your (and my) digital photos, budget spreadsheets, letters to loved ones, and even web pages like this one.

I have been moderately diligent through the years of making backups of my files. I have over a hundred CDs and DVDs I've burned of our data (and before that, many many floppy disks) to try to protect it.

My interest in making backups stems from some experiences at work many years ago. In the mid-eighties, I had been writing a large contract document on an early PC, and my boss suggested I make a backup copy. I didn't see why at the time, but I obeyed (he was a Lieutenant Colonel, and I was a Lieutenant...), and sure enough, the hard drive failed a few weeks later. I lost those weeks of work, but it was much better than losing the entire project.

More recently, our computers have been more reliable than that, but there's also more at risk. Nowadays, it's easy to have our computers full of:

  • Music - as of February 2015, my iTunes library has 4,500 songs in it -- nearly 28 GB (which iTunes tells me is 13.7 days of music!)
  • Photos - Yeah, I know I'm unusual in this regard, but as of this writing, I have almost 38,000 photo files on my computer, spanning our whole family's life. (Literally - I have a scan of a 1959 photo of Gaye as a baby in her crib!) With all the different versions, and edits, and so on, it's nearly 50,000 files, that take up 190 GB!
  • Videos - even though i far prefer still photography to video, I have over 1,000 video clips on my computer.
  • Web page files - In addition to this site, I maintain my brother Robin's web site...it takes about 217 separate files to populate his web site.
  • Financial Info - We have spreadsheets full of our budget info. You may have Quicken files, or Microsoft Money, or even your small business files.

Why I Think It's So Important

So, here's the sad litany of a couple of experiences that have caused me to recently become much more fanatical about making thorough backups:

A couple of years ago (as I've described on this site before), I made a mistake, and deleted a bunch of photos I had just shot of Allen earning the Plumbing Merit Badge...now they're gone forever, because I hadn't made backups yet. That was my own fault, rather than a computer failure.

And then again, just recently, I made another self-imposed mistake. If you've been a visitor before to our web site, you might remember the version with the houseboat picture at the top (Summer 2008). Well, without thinking, I changed the information around to create the subsequent update (Fall 2008), without keeping any copies of the Summer 2008 files. When I realized what i had done, I went looking for a backup CD of my data...and found that my most recent one had been made BEFORE I created the original Summer 2008 web page. So, now that's lost forever, too.

You'll note that I've been my own worst enemy, because I deleted those files. These were cases of self-induced loss, rather than computer failures. So, I've adopted some new methods to protect against that, as well as protecting against the traditional failures.

My process:

Photos: I make a second copy right away in a different place on my computer, so that I don't accidentally delete them. At the end of every session on the computer, I make a manual Backup copy on two external hard drives, connected to my computer. (Storage is getting cheaper all the time!). I also keep the original files on my memory cards until I really need to re-use a card in a camera, and only then delete them off the card.

Other files: I keep a copy of everything important from our main computer on the external hard drives. One of them, a 2 TB drive, has been partitioned into 2 virtual drives. On one of the partitions I run Apple's Time Machine -- built-in software that copies EVERYTHING from my entire main hard drive, and updates it every hour.

Then, I back up my files to to recordable DVDs about once every couple of months. Photos on one DVD (because lately I shoot enough to fill up a DVD in about 2 months). All other computer files, from email files to budget spreadsheets, on another DVD. Two copies of each, for redundancy. Then I keep one set of DVDs at home, and one set of DVDs at my office (to protect against natural disasters at the house).

So, if I follow my entire process (and if you've been keeping count), I end up with my original files and FIVE backup copies (six of my photos)! They are on three pysically separate hard drives, and geographically dispersed optical discs.

(The one exception to this is my music files. They take up a lot of space, and don't change very quickly. Also, most are from CDs that we have in our collection, which serves as a good backup already. So, perhaps once a year I'll burn a new set of DVDs (it takes 7 of them) to back up my music.)

How will you back up YOUR data?

Be warned. Photos, for example: as digital cameras become more popular with ordinary families, it's easy to just plug the camera into the computer and push a button, and you can see your pictures! Trouble is, most folks don't even know where their photo files are on their hard drive, much less make any sort of backup. Computers all fail eventually...my fear is that many people will be disappointed in a few years when their computers die and they lose several years worth of irreplaceable photos.

Most recent computers come with CD burners or DVD burners. You can also use an external hard drive, too, plugged into a USB or Firewire port. If you don't have too many files, and you have a high-speed intenet connection, you can also use an on-line backup service. You can even keep a quick backup of at least some data on a portable USB flash drive.

Don't forget -- paper works really well as backup! If you have a really important document, consider printing it out. The photos that are most meaningful to you: go ahead and get prints made!

The important thing is to do something -- nearly any backup process is better than none.

So, happy backing up, and here's to many years of having access to your digital data!