The Importance of Data Backup … and what to do when you (like me!) keep ignoring it!

I am the owner of a technology firm. And I, like many of you, have been complacent about backing up my data. Here’s my story, how I recovered (mostly) and how to do better than me!

At my home, I have an iMac 27” Apple computer. It’s a great machine for any kind of work, especially for managing the family photo collection which now tops 30,000 photos (because I never erase anything!). I have mostly been pretty careful about backing up these valued treasures. I use the method that we recommend to our clients: I have a large external hard drive running Time Machine so that it is backing up my data all the time. I then swap that drive out with another external hard drive approximately once per month and take the first drive to my office for storage until it is time to swap them around again.

Why do I swap the drives, you may ask? Isn’t the one backup drive good enough? The answer is NO for several reasons.

Having multiple backups is always a good idea. If the internal drive on your computer fails, do you really want to be staring at your ONLY copy of the data wondering: I hope my backup is good! Much better to have a backup of the backup.
What happens if your house is burgled? Or you have a flood or a fire? Under these circumstances, your computer may not be the first thing you are worried about, but eventually you will wonder about those valuable personal photos that you have spent years accumulating. If you only have them on the home computer and one backup that was attached to that computer, they will be gone. For good. But if you have a copy your office (or a friend’s house, or parent’s house), you can retrieve them. You will be very glad you took this measure!

BEWARE! Anytime you take a backup from a secure environment, remember that it could be lost or stolen. Encrypt the data first or be very careful in the transportation and storage of the data.

My iMac is well backed up. So what is the rest of my story?!

Like many people these days, I don’t simply have one computer. I also use a MacBook Air as my portable computer. I use it for work, home, etc. And I always figured that I didn’t have a lot of data on it. Mostly my office computer contained my work data and my home iMac had my home data. Not much on my MacBook, right? Wrong! It had photos, important work documents and other things that never got transferred. My techs asked if I backed it up. Leave me alone, I said! I know what I am doing.

But the story gets more embarrassing still. When my MacBook Air was at the office one day, the techs told me it was reporting a S.M.A.R.T status error on the solid state drive. It might fail, they told me. So of course I immediately backed up the data and had them replace the drive, right? RIGHT?! Nope, I went home and watched Survivor with the kids.

The next day, I went to use my MacBook Air and guess what? It would not boot. Then I thought about the data that was on it. Oh yes, I recalled. I put the family photos from our last trip onto my MacBook and never transferred them to my iMac.

I took my laptop into the office and had one of the techs shake their head at me and begin the process of data recovery.

The process of data recovery is very involved and complicated. In it’s simplest form, you can run some software from an external source and attempt to pull the data off the affected drive. Sometimes that process can take hours. And it takes the technicians a lot of time to massage that process. And often they have to work with the software and use multiple types of software. Sometimes they need to take your computer apart and remove the solid state or hard drive and put it into an external device. It takes a lot of time. And I am lucky that I own a technology firm so I was not paying full price for this service! It would normally cost hundreds of dollars. But I had to distract my techs from working on client computers where they make my company much needed revenue and instead they were working on their boss’s computer!

Sometimes this data recovery process fails. When a drive is severely damaged, the drive has to be sent off to a recovery firm that will take the storage device and work on it in a much more forensic way. They might even take it apart and work on components of the device in order to go sector by sector and try to pull data off in tiny segments. What is the cost of this service, you’re wondering?! This can cost upwards of $2000 depending upon your problem and your device. At our firm we send drives off for recovery almost every month. It seems I am not the only person who forgets to back up!

SIDE STORY: we once had a wedding photographer arrive the day after a wedding shoot. His main memory card containing all the photos from the previous day’s wedding shoot had been accidentally erased!! Think about your worst case data loss and then think about the meeting this wedding photographer would be forced to have with the bride to tell her that all her photos were gone! Ouch! That might make you feel better about your backup woes the next time they happen! We got his photos back for him so happy ending!

So what is the conclusion to my story? After several hours of work, our tech managed to recover some (only some!) of the data from my MacBook Air. Some photos, some videos, some work documents. But not all. It wasn’t worth it for me to take the recovery process further and send it away for thousands of dollars. The stuff that was gone were things I was not happy about missing but I would live with it. A new solid state drive was installed in my MacBook and I was on my way. Lesson learned!

What did I do next to try to better manage my data?

I needed a way to back up my data without having to think about it too much. Thinking is not my forté! And I didn’t want a solution where I had to intervene all the time. I just wanted it to work! And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that not only had my MacBook not been backed up properly for months, but the other devices in my home may be in the same boat. What about the iPhones, the iPads? What about my daughter’s laptop that she uses for school? What about my wife’s laptop that she uses for… what does my wife do on her laptop anyway??!

Here is what I did: I picked up an Apple Time Capsule. The Time Capsule is a pretty cool device that acts as a wireless router on your network. A wireless router is the thing that sends and receives data and gives you that wireless connection to the internet that everyone has come to know and love! They are relatively simple to set up but if you are more of a “user” than a “techie” you should get a friendly neighbourhood tech to set it up for you and test it to make sure it’s working properly too!

The Time Capsule is more than just a router of course, otherwise I wouldn’t be telling you about it! The Time Capsule has a built-in hard drive, usually 2TB or 3TB. Laptops and iPads and iPhones around the house can then connect to the Time Capsule and they will be backed up to it on an on-going basis. Whenever the device is using the network, it will periodically back up to the Time Capsule and you don’t have to even think about it. No thinking! That is my kind of back up.

There are of course many different back up methods that people and businesses employ all the time.

For small backups: when you only have a few important files like a term paper or business documents, you can use a flash drive which is sometimes called a thumb drive. These are nice and small, can fit in your purse and be left with parents or at the office. But beware! And I know I am repeating myself: but any device you take off site is vulnerable to theft while in transit. If you are carrying sensitive data, make sure it is ENCRYPTED before you remove it from a secure environment.
SIDE STORY: the security team at a major airport once lost a flash drive by leaving it lying on a public bench. Turns out it contained information about the security protocols regarding an upcoming visit of the Queen of England!

Online or Cloud backups: these are terrific when you have a good cloud account with folks like DropBox, Google or Apple. Anytime you are online, you can have a service backup your computer. Or you can choose just a folder of important items to backup. Or you can manually keep a copy of a few things of your choosing on the cloud. However, every backup method has it’s drawback. Much like the flash drive, most cloud accounts are limited in size so you likely wouldn’t be trying to backup 30,000 photos using this method. Or if you did, you would pay a big monthly subscription fee! The other drawback is that cloud backup is usually much slower than backing up to an external hard drive. So your cloud backup might get delayed or backed up or might just be too darn big. Use cloud backup for some things but not everything would be my recommendation.

Hard Drive arrays: most common in business environments. But I know a couple of people with huge libraries of video and music and photos who use one of these at home! These are basically a bank of hard drives that have huge capacity, are fast and have built in redundancy. The drawbacks: they are expensive! And they are still not off-site. You still need a way to store that data away from home so keep that in mind.

You have probably drawn the conclusion quite correctly that there is no one backup method! If you are to be thorough, you should use multiple methods: extra external back up drives so you can have one running beside your computer and the other one stored off-site. Flash drives for quick backups. Cloud back for some important folders and for items where it would be useful to have them available on other computers and tablets.

And remember: nobody is perfect! If I can fail at backup, then so can you. There are data recovery services available but try not to count on them. I lost data myself and was unable to retrieve it. Get a backup plan in place where you don’t have to THINK too much and you will be off to the races!