October 18, 2007

Back The Heck Up

Where I keep my backups

I recently made a really stupid mistake.

Data Loss Disaster

In a major reshuffling of machines in our house, including reformattings and reinstallations, I blew away a hard drive which contained all of my important data, including at least a year of irreplaceable digital photos.

(I won’t go into technical detail regarding why I was confused; suffice it to say that the Windows installer defaulted to the wrong disk and I was too much in a rush to identify the disk based on its size in bytes. I pulled the trigger and my data went “goodbye!”)

Denial, Anger, Bargaining

I tried to recover the quick formatted disk with free tools. They got back a lot of half chopped-up family pictures and megabytes upon megabytes of useless garbage from my browser’s image cache.

Depression, Acceptance

Later that night, Julie came over and we went to Chili’s. I must have been brooding, because Maggie mentioned that she couldn’t wait until we got home and I got a drink in me. (I wasn’t going to get a Margarita at Chilis when I could make a better IMHO one at home)

I had some backups of the older photos. The DVDs wouldn’t read in my new machine, but I would eventually get them off. My music was relatively safe on my iPod, so I could recover that. But I decided to forget about the data I lost. Dwelling on it wouldn’t bring it back, remembering exactly what was there wouldn’t help either. Time to move on.

Oh, the Irony

Ironically, I was the guy in college who reminded people to always have a backup. Backups in those days meant copying your 400 K disk onto another 400 K disk1. Not that big a deal.

I was also the guy who recovered your English paper off your disk when you left it in the bottom of your book bag in a hot car. Perseverance, patience and the right tools were all that was necessary, unless there was gunk on the magnetic floppy surface2.

I should have been more careful with my data. Sure, I had some of it backed up in different places, but nothing systematic and easy.

A Miracle Happens

I’m happy to report, I hit a lucky break. I installed Google Picasa on my hard drive to manage my remaining digital photos. While Picasa was scanning my hard drive, it found all my lost images in a buried subfolder of a backup on my iPod!

Why was it there? Without going into the details3 I had backed the data up by dragging a top level folder to an empty drive. Because I had a bunch of free space, it was easy to do this, I made the backup and completely forgot about it. And that drive hadn’t yet been erased.

My Point

So, what’s the point of my post? My point is that if you have a lot of free drive space, it makes doing backups easier. You drag a folder from here to there and walk away. It’s even easier than backing up onto DVD, if you have huge image and music archives.

The easier backups are to do, the more they will get done and the safer your data is. You can even automate your backups with free backup software. Or commercial backup software.

But no matter what software you use, you need some free space to store your files. The hard drive route is easy, and easy is better than hard. After my disaster I bought a Western Digital MyBook, 500 GB drive. On a cost per GB, it was pretty cheap. And at half a terabyte, it ought to take you a little while to fill up, unless you’re storing tons of music and very high resolution images and professional art files. Or doing lots of DVD authoring4.

If you don’t want a My Book, or don’t want that size, DealNews often lists some of the best deals on storage. Here is the link to their hot tips on computer storage.

If you do want a 500 GB MyBook, it looks as though eCost has the drive for $100. That’s cheaper than I paid. 20 cents/gigabyte. Less than 2 cents per megabyte.

Bottom Line

Just back up your data in at least one place. Make backing up easy so that you do it often. Check your backup. And keep a copy off site. Storage is cheaper than it would cost to replace your data. Decide what your data is worth and treat it accordingly. If your data isn’t even worth that much, why are you keeping it in the first place?

1 Eventually they became 800 K disks. And then 1.44 MB disks. What could you even store today on a 400 K disk? A 128 MB memory stick is considered tiny today, and it’s over 300 times the size of a 400 K disk. It would take more than a box of 10 400 K disks to store one MP3 — Jimmi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” — from my iTunes library. 12 disks all together. Forget storing the whole album, you don’t want to carry hundreds of disks. If you upgraded to 800 K disks you could get away with carrying Are You Experienced on over 100 disks, but I only know one person who carried that many disks around, and his birthday is next Wednesday. (It wasn’t me; I’m almost a week younger than this guy.)

2 I learned to check the disk’s surface the hard way after trying to recover a disk that had unidentified gunk on it. It gunked up my drive’s read/write heads so that they required cleaning. Practice safe disk-swapping!

3 The Details: I intended to erase Drive C. Drive F was huge and had all my pictures on it. On a whim, I backed up much of my F content onto the smaller C drive, just via folder dragging. I forgot I did this, because I knew I was planning to blow away C, and it was deep in a subfolder. Because of the way the drives had been installed in the machine, Windows installer assumed I wanted to quick format F and I missed that it was the wrong drive because the order of the drives was reverse to the alphabetical letter assignments I had gotten used to (C, F). And the drives had no names, just sizes. And I screwed up. I blew away F. When I realized my tragic error, backup-mania kicked in and I made sure C was completely backed up onto my iPod before I blew it away. Thus, most of my original data, apart from some huge but useless DVD disk images, was secretly on my iPod.

4 If your backup needs are greater than 500 GB can handle, then you’re probably in a professional realm where you need to think even more seriously about your backup needs. If you haven’t already, I would advise you to immediately look into professional backup solutions. There are RAID drives which mirror your data on two backup drives transparently, so that if one drive fails the device still works, avoiding data loss. Look into it, and consider storing your backups offsite. Perhaps consider remote backups. “Professional” means you pay your bills with it. You want to keep being able to pay your bills if you have a disaster.

Posted by James at October 18, 2007 12:49 PM
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My industry has finally gotten better at understanding the need to have an automated backup system. We are not so good at the off-site and the testing data recovery, though :(

working at an office where the backup disks are in the same room as the server

Posted by: mjfrombuffalo at October 18, 2007 3:11 PM

A good friend of mine from high school turned his back up obsession into a business: esilo.com :)

Posted by: leslie at October 18, 2007 3:14 PM

Fortunately, most of the stuff I want to keep is in some type of text format, and easily fits on a thumb drive. Or it would, if I ever got around to copying it over. (There's a serious flaw in my personal backup habits - I don't have any habits. I backup my work stuff to the network every day, though.) A lot more of my stuff is stored out there on the Intertubes someplace.

I have a lot of emails in Eudora that I would like to convert and store as text files, but haven't gotten around to figuring out a better way of doing that besides cut-and-paste.

Finally, here's a data storage device to avoid.

Posted by: Julie at October 18, 2007 3:24 PM

If people want to post their backup methods here, that's great! Especially any recommendations.

There are personal offsite backup services that work over the net. Not a bad option.

I don't love the idea of running extra background processes on my machine, but a small backup timer is probably not a big deal. I don't know if I trust Norton; in the past they've REALLY slowed down my machine.

Thumb drives as large as 2 gigs are cheap nowadays. If that's the amount of data you're backing up, a DVD can make a good medium for an offsite backup as well. Or a second thumb drive you carry with you.

Posted by: James at October 18, 2007 3:56 PM

I'm really really REALLY glad you got your family photos back. I feel for ya, bud.

And happy upcoming birthday btw.

Posted by: Chuck S. at October 18, 2007 4:25 PM

I'm going to wait until Wed to wish you a happy birthday.

Oops - I let it out, didn't I?

Posted by: James at October 18, 2007 4:42 PM

Blah, blah, blah, people all the time telling me to back up. Well, OK fine, I ordered the Western Digital drive (which I've seen recommended by others too), a copy of OSX Leopard (the Time Machine app. will certainly help me get into the backing up mode), iLife (because it was bundled and discounted with OSX, and 'cos I want it), and a USB hub ('cos I's got too much stuff). So now I should be a backin' up fool. I have a few things that I back up to DVDs but with no degree of regularity, and I have stuff which I really should be backing up. So thanks for the kick in the pants!

Posted by: woneffe at October 22, 2007 12:56 PM


eCost is annoying!

I had to call Bangalore to confirm my order.

Posted by: woneffe at October 22, 2007 5:30 PM

Bangalore???? Holy cow.

Posted by: James at October 22, 2007 5:52 PM

My friend Harold would love the phrase "Oh my Maude."

Posted by: at October 23, 2007 8:18 AM

Ah, yes, the Windows XP upgrade zapped my settings. Also, my CD drive is missing, which I discovered when I tried to reinstall my Palm software, which is also missing.

Posted by: Patti M. at October 23, 2007 8:53 AM

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