Fail-Safe Backup Methodology


Backing up data is a critical component of managing one’s digital life. Computers and operating systems can be replaced, but not data.

The operational keyword is fail-safe. While having just one data backup method is much better than having none, having two or three almost guarantees that data will be recoverable, short of an EMP attack.

I recommend a three prong approach to backups consisting of a hard drive based image (a clone) that is performed just once (or at yearly intervals), cloud based data backup and a local backup onto a USB hard drive. Furthermore, the local backup has a measure of redundancy by using two drives that are rotated at daily or monthly intervals. Forking from this recommended approach is at your own risk.

fork three prong

Image Based Backup

When a PC is completely configured with all the tweaks and installed software, consider making a disk image. This is essentially a clone of the entire hard drive, byte for byte. The cloned hard drive is then put away in a safe place. When the original hard drive crashes (all hard drives crash eventually), the clone can be slipped into the PC by any technician and the PC is up and running again. All that’s needed is to update the data and make a new clone. Some people might want to make a new clone every year or so as they see fit, in recognition of the fact that the PC probably changes enough software-wise and update-wise to warrant a new clone. When making a new clone, do not reuse the original cloned hard drive for the simple reason that if the hard drive crashes during the cloning process, the user is left with nothing.

A clone cannot be transferred to a different PC. It will only work with the original PC or an identical PC.

Local Backup

Local data backups are the FIRST line of defense in case of a crashed drive or a decision to buy a new PC. Cloud based backups are not the first line of defense for reasons explained later. There’s lots of backup software both free and commercial that will backup data to an external drive.

I’ve included my own backup software here as a download but it does not do versioning. It overwrites previous versions of files with the new one. I’ve learned that’s not a show stopper for most people, especially if there is a cloud based backup that does versioning. What’s important is that whatever is used be kept as simple as possible. If a cloud based backup is running constantly, then a second constantly running local backup program can slow a PC to a crawl. That’s why I recommend an on-demand backup utility like mine.

A local backup should consist of two external USB powered portable hard drives that are only connected to the computer for the duration of the backup. If left plugged in, the drive is subjected to unnecessary wear and tear and possibly the vagaries of a third world power supply (which is what exists here in Bethesda). And if the PC is stolen, the backup drive may also disappear.

Additionally, a virus like CryptoWall will destroy the contents of the backup drive, rendering the backup useless when one needs it most.

The two drives should be labeled 1 and 2, and used respectively on odd or even months or days (it’s difficult to determine if a particular week is odd or even). The reason for using two drives is for data redundancy. When a user needs the backup most, at least one will work. Additionally, if a data item becomes corrupted and a backup has just been performed, the other drive will hopefully contain an uncorrupted version.

Remember, local backups are always faster and easier to use for recovery than cloud based backup. That’s why it’s the first line of defense.

When the drives are not being used, they should be kept somewhere cool and dry. They should be stored or locked up in a location where an intruder or thief is unlikely to find them.

Always (ALWAYS) safely remove USB storage devices. Never just pull out the USB cord.

Cloud Based Backup

Cloud based backup is a critical part of data management. There may be situations where a local backup has been destroyed, lost or stolen. Then and only then does the cloud based backup become the first line of defense.

If security is a concern, many cloud based backups optionally allow you to manage your own key. While this insures that your data is safe from any prying eyes, it also means that if you lose your password, you lose your data. Nobody will be able to recover it.

It’s important that one check the cloud based backup often to insure that backups are really being performed.

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