PSA: Back Up Your Stuff

One of my friends from university has been travelling in the U.S. over the summer. Yesterday her phone died and, with it, thousands of photos seem to have been lost. I’m taking this as a prompt to urge everyone I can to back up your stuff.

There’s a lot of advice out there, some of which conflicts with other advice, but the essential idea is to have a way of making copies of your data so that if the originals are lost somehow the copies are still available. Preferably multiple copies will be available, for added security.

I have three devices to back up: my MacBook Pro, my iPad and my iPhone. I back up both my iPhone and iPad using iCloud backup, which runs automatically every night when they are plugged in and connected to wifi. I’ve had to restore both of them from their respective backups in the past, and doing so returned them both to the state they were in at the time of the backup. I think I lost a text message once, but that’s about it. Photos are currently not part of this backup but are saved to, and synced via, iCloud Photo Library so I can restore them to a device in the same way.

I back up my Mac in two ways. Firstly, I use Time Machine, Apple’s built-in back up software, with a 1TB external USB drive. This makes a full backup of my mac then takes incremental backups of everything that has changed every hour as long as the disk is connected. This includes a local copy of my iCloud Photo Library, all of which is downloaded to my Mac. I admit that this doesn’t happen as often as it should as I use my Mac in various locations around campus and at home where having USB leads trailing around isn’t such a good idea (such as sofas). A USB drive would be fine for a desktop computer that doesn’t move about, but ideally I would prefer to have a wireless drive to back up to (i.e. Apple’s Time Capsule) if I could afford one.

The second way I back up my Mac is using CrashPlan. CrashPlan supports several different types of backup; I use it to back up selected data from my Mac (again including my Photo Library) to CrashPlan’s online backup service. This ensures that even if my time machine backups fail for some reason (such as fire or theft) I still have a copy of my most important data available online. I was initially prompted to set up online backups following the winter of 2014 when a vast tract of the Somerset Levels, not far from my home, was submerged in 90 million cubic metres of floodwater. Somerset does not often see extreme weather events so this was a bit of a wake-up call.

I consider myself lucky not to have suffered a major data loss; I’ve lost data in the past that a backup would have been able to recover, but none of it was particularly important. Since enrolling at university, however, backing up is something I’ve been more proactive about and I’m thankful for these early lessons as my work is now fully backed up. The systems I have set up are largely automated, affordable on a student budget and (in the case of my Mac backups) compliment each other by covering each other’s respective weaknesses.

I don’t know much about Windows and Android devices, but I expect they have similar backup capabilities to the ones I use. I currently recommend to follow Scott Hanselman’s ‘Rule of Three’: three copies of your data, in two different formats, including one off-site backup. A couple of points I will make in addition to his advice are that DVDs appear to be on their way out (especially for Mac users), and that sync services like Dropbox can’t always be relied on as a backup themselves as any loss or corruption of data will be synced back to the cloud, destroying your backup.

It’s too late to help my friend recover her photos, but hopefully I can persuade some of my other friends to back up their stuff and prevent this from happening to them.

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4 thoughts on “PSA: Back Up Your Stuff

  1. great advice! you’ve reminded me i need to back up my laptop soon, although it’s only a month old – but better safe than sorry, right?

    1. Definitely. A new laptop is probably more attractive to thieves, and just as vulnerable in a disaster. It’s one of those things that is rare, but will probably happen to everyone eventually.

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