Sunday, April 26, 2009

Don't neglect online backups

A week ago, one of my friends was mugged on his way home from school on a bike path. He was badly beaten and ended up unconscious in the hospital. Though his bike, computer and some other things were stolen, and despite his injuries, I suspect that his most serious loss is much of the work he had done on a masters thesis. Apparently any backups he had were also stolen.

It's one thing to lose your most recent work, and losing your whole email store can be serious. But what if you lose something you've been working on for years--that book you're writing, a carefully compiled bibliography, your research data, a major proposal for your organization? It's almost unthinkable, yet it happens. Data loss is sure to happen if you have no backup strategy, but it can happen even if you do have backups. For example

  • Backups may be lost along with your computer in a fire, theft, evacuation and so on
  • Backup media may fail or be destroyed. Here in Nigeria, at least, flash drives have a high failure rate. CDs and DVDs can be scratched or damaged by sunlight and heat.
  • If your original data becomes corrupted and you don't immediately know it, you may store the corrupted data in the backups.
  • When do yo discover that your backup is damaged or corrupted? That's right, you discover it when you need it because your original data is lost.

For these reasons, it is important to have more than one level of backup for any data that is important to you. For any data that is really important, you should have at least two and preferably three backups stored in a way that they cannot be lost simultaneously. For example, you could keep one copy on a hard drive at work, one copy on a flash drive or re-writable CD at home, and one copy online.

In my last post, I briefly mentioned that one use of Dropbox was backing up your data online. Online backup should be more than an afterthought--it should be an important part of your backup strategy. Most of us in Africa do not have the luxury of a low-cost Internet connection that will let us back up all our data, let alone the whole system, but we can back up what is most important. Apart from multimedia files (video, pictures, music), your most important data, what you've actually invested the most time on, is probably a few hundred megabytes at most. You should at least consider saving some or all of it online.

There are many online data storage services, including a fair number of free ones. I like Dropbox--it works for me--but another solution might work better for you. One thing I like about Dropbox is that it keeps previous versions of changed and deleted files. That feature has already saved me a couple of times.

David Bradley's article "Make SkyDrive a Virtual Drive" describes the free Microsoft SkyDrive online service and add-ons that make it more useful and transparent. Some people send their important documents to their own online email addresses (a Gmail account, for example). It's not the simplest or most secure method, but it's a lot better than nothing.


  1. Thanks Doc for this, I have really been a victim of loss of data which started when I didn't have a good antivirus and warranted me formating my laptop. I have dreamt of what I will do if my laptop was stolen from me as I do not have ANY BACKUP whatsoever...


  2. Well, why do you dream of what you'll do, instead of making a backup of your most important information? As you can see, there are easy ways to do it ... at least copy it onto a flash drive as well as emailing it to yourself, if nothing else (being sure that your email stays on the server and isn't deleted when you download it). Perhaps, though, you'll be able to try out one of these better solutions like Dropbox or SkyDrive.