An Ode to Computer Backups

Most people have lots of data on their computer that they do not want to lose. Such various and assorted data includes photos, documents, correspondence, etc. Some data such as applications can be easily replaced. Other data, such as photos could be lost forever. This article focuses on preserving your important data.

Most people do not backup their data enough and they often say that they will backup their data someday. Sadly, most people do not backup their data and may lose important files eventually. Those who backup their data probably do not do it frequently enough. Both will suffer if something bad happens to their computer. Nasty things can happen to the most reliable computers. Your very reliable computer could be stolen, in which case it may be reliable for someone else but your data will be gone. You could have a fire or there could be voltage spike that fries the brains of your computer. All of these are reasons to perform regular data backups.

Backing up your data is one of those annoying tasks that no one likes to do. Think of it like changing the oil in your car. If can wait 50,000 between oil changes then you should not be surprised WHEN (not IF) your engine starts making funny noises and smoking. You can probably go a long time between oil changes and save the cost of oil changes in the short-term but you may have to replace your engine in the long-term. You can often “get by” without backing up your data but it is far better to perform regular backups.

A Variety of Backup Systems

There are many ways to backup data. You need multiple backups to protect your data against different types of disasters. Your computer normally stores your working data. You probably have a place on your computer where you store photos and other digital files. You must first protect your data from computer failure. First, store a copy of your data on something other than your computer, such as:

External Media If you have limited data you could burn that data to CDs or DVDs. These devices are readily available and are very reliable. On the downside they have limited capacity. When you discard old backups you should take care to destroy them (sounds funny to carefully destroy something). If you just tossed your discs in the trash then a clever dumpster diver could “appropriate” your data and do various unpleasant things with it (such as steal your identity or turn you into an Internet “celebrity”). Be sure to break old discs and be acutely aware that breaking discs can create plastic disc shrapnel. Some discs just bend when you try to break them and others explode.
External Drives If your data will not fit on CD/DVDs then think about investing in external drives. Thumb drives can work for small amounts of data. Larger spin drives can hold much more. Spin drives are called such because they have a magnetic platter inside that spins. Thumb drives are typically much slower and they will wear out eventually. I have never seen one wear out but I have read that they will eventually fail. Spin drives typically connect to your computer through a USB port and they come in various sizes from large to mega-giganto. They start at around $50 and cost more if they have more space or performance. Budget around $100ish for an external USB spin drive. If you have lots of data then try to spend a little more and buy a higher performance drive. Always buy a drive with more space than you need at the moment since data requirements tend to increase over time.
Cloud The magic Internet cloud can be used as external storage. You can sometimes find sites that provide a limited amount of free storage or you can buy more storage. Cloud backup companies take your data and move it to a big Internet server somewhere. These cloud servers normally include multiple levels of backup. The good sites are even co-located in different cities that are normally geographically far from each other. If a major disaster struck then your data should still be safe. Big disasters would include things like earthquakes, hurricanes, or other unpleasant events. Keep in mind that the cloud backup is only as good as the company behind it. If you go with one of the big-name, established backup companies then you should be fine. If you try to save money and go with Joe’s Pool Hall and Server Farm then, well, probably not so much.
Multiple Backups No matter which method you use you should have multiple backups. With cloud backup the server company should perform multiple backups for you. However, if you have critical data just realize that your access to your data is only as good as your Internet connection. If you uploaded 300GB of photos to the cloud then it could take some time to download and recover those files from the cloud. Personally, I prefer physical backups rather than using the cloud. I am a control freak when it comes to my data and I want a copy that I can physically access. If you use an external drive then you should have it backed up in multiple places. Remember that all equipment can fail. If a failure occurs could you recover your data? I recommend having two sets of external backups. I use two external drives but you could use the cloud, the cloud and an external drive, etc. Personally, I have my working data in my computer, a local backup drive, and another backup drive in a safe-box at the bank.

Which One is Best?

So, which is best? Well, it depends on the amount of data, the value of that data, and your personal comfort level. For low volumes of data CD/DVDs or a couple of thumb drives might be just fine. If you have critical data then you may want to use multiple external drives or the cloud. Talk with a computer professional to decide which backup regimen would work best for you.

What If the Worst Should Happen?

This is part that we don’t want to think about: What if the worst should happen. Let’s say that someone breaks into your house and takes your computer. Can you replace your data? Keep in mind that while having your house burglarized is traumatic (been there, done that) the computer may contain data that cannot be replaced. Can you buy a new computer and restore your data? If you have an external backup then you can easily restore your data. This brings up another critical point, namely, at least one of your backups MUST be off-site. I use a safe-deposit box at a local bank but you could store an external drive in a locked cabinet in your office or at someone else’s house. You could also use web-based Cloud storage since that is offsite (and backed-up at the server farm). If you have all your backups at your house and you have a fire then those backups could be lost forever. This is CRITICAL.

What if you have not backed up your data and your computer dies? There are still some options (no good option, but options nonetheless). Normally when a computer dies it is normally because the hard drive broke or the motherboard broke. If the drive is intact then a computer repair shop can connect it to another computer and extract your data. There are also inexpensive cable kits that will turn your internal computer drive to a USB drive. I have one of these and I hope I never have to use it. It is in my computer emergency kit (the same way I have jumper cables in my car emergency kit). Sometimes you can even install the old drive into a new computer.

If the hard drive failed, well, that is bad. Sometimes you can recover the data but that data can be garbled and corrupted. If the drive really got fried then you can do what is called a “clean room recovery.” This is the worst possible outcome. With a clean room recovery you mail the drive to a specialized company that takes the drive apart and removes the magnetic platters. They then install the platters on special drives and attempt to read the data. Since the drive is sealed to eliminate contaminants it must be disassembled in a NASA-like clean room. This is expensive and chances are really good that you will have data loss.


Backing up data is critical. It is a hassle, but a necessary one (like oil changes on your car). The more important your data is, the more important the backups are. Start doing backups now. If you get stuck then seek the advice of a qualified Computer-Backup-Stuff-Person. Above all remember that some data can never be replaced once lost, so, don’t allow it to be lost.


©Tony Cataldo (5/2012)