Large companies spend millions of dollars every year to keep their computer data safe and to have backup copies of that data. Data storage and backup is a huge industry. Some companies exist just to do this for other businesses. Buildings are built just to house backup copies of data. Hardware and software solutions are sold every day and employees and contractors are hired just to oversee data backup solutions. Companies can’t afford to lose their data to software bugs, hardware failures, natural disasters, human error, or even intentional human actions (would someone really intentionally delete data?). Today’s large businesses recognize the importance of data and they are willing to spend money to protect it.
What about small businesses? Are they backing up their data? Did you know that small businesses account for 99.9% of all businesses in the US (stats obtained from SBA.gov)? That being the case, I’ll bet you deal with small businesses every day of your life. You may even run one. What would the impact be to you if they lost all of their computer data? All of their files are now gone. How are you affected? Your dentist? Your pharmacy? Your church? The orders you just placed for holiday shopping? What about the photographer at your recent wedding? What would the impact be if they aren’t backing up their data?
And what about individuals? Are you backing up your own personal data? Music files, pictures, videos, payment receipts. That flyer you put together for your Grandmother’s 80th Birthday party (maybe this one isn’t too drastic if you lose it). What about taxes, contact names and addresses, and your spreadsheet of eBay items? While no ones life would end, times could get pretty stressful if you lose your data.
So why aren’t we backing up our data? Well, some folks are, but I’m guessing that it is a small percentage of the whole. Most folks think there is a large cost associated with backing up their data. Others think it will cost them large amounts of time. Then there are the others who just don’t understand how any of this works and wouldn’t know where to start (I’m betting this is most people). Those that do understand how computers work and where their data gets stored start to recognize the importance of saving their data safely. Those that don’t understand, wouldn’t have even thought about it.
So, I set out to find a cheap, simple solution for backing up your computer data. I wanted to find something cheap and something that didn’t require a lot of time. The solution also needed to be scalable so that it could grow as the amount of data grew. What I came up with is simple enough for the home user and can be used for some small businesses as well. Cheap is a relative term, but I do envision this as a cheap solution since it will cost you less than $400 and protect you from the impact of data loss.
Let me start by explaining the need to backup your data. There are many reasons to backup your data. Primarily, what you are doing is protecting yourself from a few common problems that result in data loss. These problems include things like bad or failing computer hardware, files which are accidentally deleted, theft, house or business fires and/or other disasters. These things happen. We see fires and thefts all of the time in the news. If you are even semi-savvy with computers, you know that hard drives are constantly failing. If you aren’t semi-savvy with computers, hard drives are still always failing. For those that don’t know what a hard drive is, let me summarize. A hard drive is the component of your computer that stores all of your data. In the paper world it would be your file cabinet. It is where all of your documents get stored for future use. Maybe you’ll need them, maybe you won’t, but just like your file cabinet, that is where they will be if you do need them later. Hard drives are about the size of a box of pens. The are mechanical in nature and they have moving parts in them. As a result, they will eventually stop working. When they do, the data on them is no longer retrievable through normal use. You can pay big bucks and have a professional company attempt to get the data from it, or you can hope that you had a back up copy.
There are a couple of types of backups and each is meant to address different problems. First, if you are worried about a bad hard drive, one simple solution is to make another copy of your data somewhere else. Many people use CD’s or DVD’s. Others use a second hard drive to store their copies of files. If a hard drive goes bad, you either have the CD/DVD or the second hard drive that you can pull your files from. This takes a bit of your time to manage, but it is cheap. This solution works well to recover from hardware failure or accidentally deleted files, however, it won’t work well if your house catches on fire and your backup CD’s were propped up right against the computer. For this type of problem, you need an off-site solution where your CD/DVD are taken to a different location (outside of the same building). Some large companies have requirements that their backup copies have to be housed a certain number of miles away and in a different state. For small businesses and home users, this could be as simple as sending your backup copies home with a trusted employee or a friend. Home users can take their backup copy to work with them or drop it off at Mom’s with instructions to “just keep it safe Ma!”.
Now you understand why you need to backup your data and about on-site vs. off-site backup copies. Lets get into some solutions for backing up your data. Having an external hard disk is one solution. I talked about this a little bit in the example above about burning data to a CD, DVD or extra hard disk. There are many external hard disk solutions that are offered on the market. Generally, these are USB attached devices that have a hard drive inside. These appeal to folks because of the easy ability to move them around and take them with you. Using them as a backup solutions simply means plugging them in and copying files over them. However, this means you need to keep track of the data that you copy over to them and when files are added, changed or deleted on your computer so that you can update the drive properly. There is software available that will do this for you and those programs generally work well. However, you need to ensure that you have the software setup properly and you also need to ensure that you are verifying that the backup is working as you expect it. Using this solution also means that your data is only as good as the last time you backed it up. If you only back the data up once a month, you may lose a month’s worth of documents and data in the event that something goes wrong. Keep in mind, this solution only works for hardware failure unless you are storing your external drive off site somewhere.
A slightly better solution is to get an external device that contains two hard drives. Some of these devices offer what is call RAID protection. RAID is a computer geek term for ways to configure multiple hard disks to work together. RAID1 is the configuration where two hard disks exist and the same data is written to both of them. RAID drives are a great solution for protecting yourself from hard disk failures. They are more expensive than simple external drives because they contain two hard drives instead of just one. You have to be careful when purchasing these devices because they are marketed based on the total hard disk space in them, not the usable space. For example, you can buy a 1TB RAID enclosure (such as this one from Buffalo Technologies). However, if you configure it to work in RAID1 mode, you only have 500GB (half of the total) of usable space. Keep this in mind as you are looking for a drive that meets your needs. RAID 1 is called mirroring because each hard disk is a mirror of the other. If one drive fails, you automatically start using the second one. Some type of an alert informs you that you have a bad drive and that it needs to be replaced. Once replaced, the bad drive is automatically rebuilt based off of the data in the other existing drive. RAID1, or mirroring, works very well for protecting you from a bad hard drive. It is slightly better than a single external drive because everything is real time. It won’t protect you from fire or theft and it isn’t a solution if you accidentally delete a file. Some of these devices come with drives and some you have to order the drives separately. The one that come with drives are usually slightly cheaper (overall) but don’t always offer the ability to increase the hard disk size if you out grow it.
The solution that I suggest is a hybrid solution of the two above. I suggest getting an external RAID 1 device that is capable of easily adding/removing drives. You should look for the ones that do not come with drives. Purchase the drives separate. This will give you more flexibility for future growth. I’d suggest the DNS -321 device from D-Link that runs about $100.00. This device is slightly different because it plugs into your network instead of your computer. Plugging into your network gives you the advantage of having the disk space available to any computer in your home instead of just a single computer. Add to this device two hard disk drives. Currently you can get two 2TB drives such as the Western Digital Caviar Green for $95.00 each. The price on hard disks continues to drop as larger drives are released. You can also control the overall cost of this solution by getting smaller or larger hard drives. This solution will give you RAID1 mirroring which will protect you from hardware failure. So what about fire and theft protection? If you buy a third hard drive, you can use it as your off site backup storage. With three hard drives, you can have two in the device and a third one off site at your friends house. Once a week, you’ll need to bring the off site drive in and swap it out with one of the disks in the drive. The drive will automatically rebuild the newly inserted disk to mirror the good one. You then just take the removed drive back over to your friend’s house and you have your updated off site backup.
This solution provides you with hardware failure protection as well as fire, theft or other natural disasters. Remember, the older your off site copy is, the less useful it becomes. You need to keep up with swapping the off-site copy out with another one frequently so that you minimize your loss of data. This solution also offers the ability to up the amount of usable space as larger hard drives become available. Overall, you’ll spend about $385 for this solution. While this is somewhat of a dent on your pocket book initially, it is a low enough cost to put you at ease for data recovery. You also save yourself time by not having to track what files need to be backed up. That is taken care of for you by simply rebuilding the entire drive every time you swap it out.
This is the solution that I’m using at home now for my personal data as well as my wife’s photography business. We keep our files on this system and each week I update the off-site copy. There are certainly many other options available, including online storage and backup services, and they each have their advantages and disadvantages. The less hands on you want to become with it, the more expensive it becomes. I believe this offers the best mix of protection while minimizing the time required for you to oversee the process.
Got any comments or suggestions? Please post them and I’ll respond.