Safely Backing Up Your Data
Over the Christmas holidays, I went through a somewhat harrowing experience with our precious family photo collection of over 40,000 photos that we have taken over our 46 years of marriage. One evening, I discovered that a FULL YEAR of photos was simply GONE! There was NO folder visible. I’m sure that you have experienced the same chest tightening feeling of dread and anxiety that I felt that night. How could this happen to me? I am someone who is careful in using the “3-2-1 Backup Strategy” which I have previously covered in an earlier blog.
Here’s my backup strategy:
- I use iCloud as the primary storage of my data files, being that I am an Apple Mac user. However, I had been using Dropbox to store my family photo files because I can easily share them with my family members.
- I use a program called Carbon Copy Cloner, but there are many other backup apps out there for Windows, Linux, or Mac.
- Microsoft uses an app called "File History" for their backup and restore functions. MacOS uses one called "Time Machine" for their backup and restore functions. As I write this, I am reminded that I ALSO create an additional backup with Time Machine beyond those I will describe below.
- I schedule the frequency of backups based on how often my folders are used. These could be hourly, but most of mine are on a daily basis, and a few folders on a monthly basis.
- If a backup fails, I get an email telling me so. When a file or files are deleted from my data folders, they are then also removed from the primary backup and placed into an archived folder that I can restore from if needed.
- With software similar to Carbon Copy Cloner, folders that are accidently deleted on my computer are not deleted from the backup, as they would be with the Microsoft app. This deleted folder is moved from the backup folder to an "archive folder". Those files are retained until I decide they can be deleted. Nice huh?
So...why did that folder of my photos get deleted? I am not exactly sure. It could have been a “ahem…family member”, but it was probably my fault, in installing Dropbox on five home computers where we access those photos often. If a change is made to a file on one computer, then Dropbox (or other cloud drives) will create the same change first to the cloud servers, and then to the other four computers. This typically works quite well and quickly with cloud drives. However, let’s say we move a large FOLDER with many files in it to another location. The files will appear to move quickly on your computer, but realize that the cloud drive has to begin syncing those changes to the central server, and then from there to the other four computers. For a variety of reason, such as a network slowdown or power surge, or so on, that sync process can be disrupted. The cloud drive applet on that machine may tell the server that the folder was deleted and not moved and poof, your files are synched across all your computers as if that large file folder was deleted. It’s NOT supposed to happen in this way, but hey glitches happen every so often. For most people moving small numbers of files around on their computer, there should not be any worries. My solution? I now only synchronize files between at the most 2-3 computers and create network shares on the other two so they can access the photos in that way.
Deleted Cloud Drive Files Stored For 30 Days
If you are using a cloud drive, that deleted folder will be typically retained in the “trash can” for a 30 day period of time and after that those files are deleted. Here’s the catch. If you don’t even know that one of your folders was deleted, and you are not going through the “trash can” every so often, they may be completely deleted before you suddenly realize those files are gone. Don’t completely rely on cloud drives to save your files for you.
Using a Cloud Drive as an Actual Backup Drive?
Beside having the Carbon Copy Cloner program back up files to a local hard drive, I also send them to an 2nd cloud drive, not as a "sync'd" folder, but as an actual backup folder. In our case, my wife likes to use Word and Excel, and we have kept up a subscription to Office 365. Between us, we have three terabytes of OneDrive CLOUD backup space to use. This gives me at least TWO off-site backup locations for my files, so we are pretty well covered for restoring lost files.
Using Local Storage Devices
For my "local" hard drive, I use a Drobo Drive . It is a high capacity 17 terabyte data storage unit that houses multiple redundant hard drives. Even if one hard drive goes down, the files are still safe being redundantly stored across all the drives. I also use an 8 terabyte USB hard drive to backup up the Drobo. There are other brands out there as well. My initial reaction to the folder loss with the chest tightening anxiety went away pretty quickly because I am covered pretty well with numerous backups. Not everyone can afford Drobo Drives or additional cloud drive space.
At the BARE MINIMUM though, you should have at least one local hard drive backup and another off-site backup location. An interesting thought...If we lost accidentally lost files, most of us could probably say “oh well…I didn’t really need most of those files anyway”. However, if those lost files are precious photo files or family history files that are NOT easily replaced, then you WILL feel the pain of file loss.
Let's Talk About File Corruption
There is one other concept that many of us don’t think about and that is FILE CORRUPTION. With newer computers and hardware, this happens rather infrequently. I remember the days of the old “286 computers”. Floppies were still used to store information. Transferring files in those days much more often resulted in file corruption, or in other words, the “File is Corrupted and Can Not Be Opened” error. However, these errors can still creep up if your computer memory is low, or there is a power surge, or even a failing hard drive. For whatever reason, the file becomes corrupted while saving it, or even while it sits on your hard drive not even opened. You will often not even realize it until one day months or years later you try to open the file and find that it is corrupted. You will probably say, “Oh no! Wait I have been backing up my files, I will restore it from my backup files.” You quickly find the file and try to open it from the backup. It also is corrupted. You have been faithfully backing up a corrupted file all these months to your backup hard drive. How do you get around this scenario?
"Full Backup Sets" - What Are These?
These are periodic FULL or complete backups. You create a backup set of all your data files onto another hard drive with a folder label something like 20210201-My Data Files. (The numbers are the date of the backup in YYYYMMDD). Yes this may take a lot of hard drive space that you have to store somewhere safe.
If you had done a full backup, say 6 months ago, you could go back to that most recent Full Backup Set and try to retrieve that non corrupted file. But wait, maybe that file was corrupted when the full backup was created. You can then go back to a prior Full Backup Set.
It's heart warming when you find a good non corrupted file in that full backup set. You now transfer that good file back onto your current hard drive. You should now understand the importance of FULL BACKUP SETS! How often should you make these? For most of us, every six months is probably more than adequate. I have about 3 terabytes of primary data. That said, I will need a new storage hard drive every six months to store these. Be sure to keep these drives well labelled and organized in case you ever needed to find files on them from past backup sets.
Think About Replacing Your Computer's Hard Drive Every 2-3 Years
Just one more thought in closing. How old is your computer’s hard drive? Though hard drives can fully fail at any time, even when brand new, they will generally last for several years before needing to be replaced. The problem that can also be encountered is that the hard drive still appears to be working, but there are sectors of it that are going bad. The operating systems generally are “pretty good” about splicing out those sectors so they are not being used. If your hard drive is over 3 years old, I would recommend having a new one installed. Periodically replacing your computer's primary hard drive is so much nicer than having to replace a failed hard drive and having to try to reconstruct your backup files.