Home Computer Backup Strategy
Updated May 5, 2015
Since I work in the IT industry, several of my friends have asked me how I back up my home computer. Rather than repeat the same thing over and over, I decided to create this post to try and outline how I do things. I’ll also tell you what you should do as a minimum to ensure the safety of your data.
If you don’t currently back up your data, you should. That is of course if you would experience any grief if you lost all of your photos, documents, email, calendar, etc. Personally, I have a TON of photos that I simply can’t get back if I lost all of my data. I can re-write my resume if needed, download some music, but I can’t go back in time to capture an image I took on vacation five years ago. I make sure I have several copies of ALL of my photos as I never want to lose any of them. Beyond my photos, I treat most of my data in the same way, I ensure it is safe.
Some people think their data is safe because they back up to DVD or an external hard drive. This is better than doing nothing, but ineffective for two main reasons. First, no one I know keeps up with a regular schedule of burning DVDs. Their most recent backup is from 8 months ago and they don’t even know where the discs are. Also, the sheer volume of data we have these days makes DVD backup cumbersome. If I had to back up all of my data I would need 181 DVDs! No thanks. Second, local media like external hard drives are typically plugged into or stored right next to the computer. If you have a fire, flood, experience a theft, or some other major issue, your computer and backup are both gone. If you can maintain a rigorous schedule of rotating hard drives off-site, more power to you, but I like to do things the easy way. In the words of Ron Popeil, I need to “set it and forget it“.
Most people I know don’t back up their data, they never had a major failure and assume it will never happen to them. It will happen to you sooner or later, no sense sticking your head in the sand. Others think that is part of the risk in owning a computer, it just happens or it’s too hard to keep data safe. Below are a few quick and easy things you can do to immediately improve your situation. There really is no excuse not to do this.
With that rambling out of the way I’ll cover what I consider the minimum effort needed to ensure that your data is safe. I’ll also cover what I do with my data which is beyond the minimum but that is what IT guys do.
- Data backup needs to be easy and automated. I’m lazy and don’t want to be constantly doing something, it should “just work“.
- I assume you have a broadband internet connection. If you are on dial-up or some back-woods connection this will likely not be helpful for you.
- I’m running Windows but this applies equally to Mac (though I don’t provide links).
THE MINIMUM DATA SAFETY STRATEGY
- First, ensure you have some kind of anti-virus software running on your computer and keep it up to date. If your Norton subscription expired two years ago it’s not doing much to protect you. You are unlikely to be infected by a virus from a few years back, and much more likely to get something released yesterday. There are good options out there for free, so please install one. Avast is the one I use, it’s FREE and scores very well on the various tests conducted by third parties. If you use Microsoft Security Essentials, I suggest you stop and get Avast. The Microsoft tools are just crap.
- Turn on Windows Update and ensure it installs updates automatically. Lack of updates is a primary infection vector.
- Turn on your Windows Firewall, it helps.
- Ensure the safety of your data by installing and running Backblaze (or another cloud based backup solution). This is the most important part and the part that ensures the safety of your data. I have tried several online backup options: Mozy, Carbonite, Dropbox, Google Drive, and some cobbled together software sending data to Amazon S3. Needless to say, Backblaze is very easy to install and set up, and cheap considering the alternatives. It will cost you $50 per year, which is under $5 per month. It is money well spent. Once your data is gone, that $50 will seem like peanuts as most people would be willing to spends hundreds to get their data back. In many data loss cases, it’s too late. The nice thing about Backblaze is that allows you to log into the web site and download individual files if you accidentally delete something or they will send you a DVD or hard drive with ALL of your data if you have a bigger problem. NOTE: If you have a lot of data to back up, this may take some time even on a high speed connection. It took several weeks to complete my backup, but after that only your new files need to be stored so it is typically not an issue.
That’s it, most of you probably have the first three done already as computers often come with anti-virus software installed and the Windows Firewall and updates are turned on by default. Just install Backblaze and sleep well tonight. I suggest you double check now and then to ensure it’s running and sending your data to Backblaze. You can probably complete all of the above steps in under an hour, even if you are not a computer pro.
MY STRATEGY – THE EXTRA MILE
- Same four things as with the minimum strategy, that is a given.
- I subscribe to the 3-2-1 data protection strategy, which means for all of my critical data I have:
- 3 copies of the data
- on at least 2 different types of media
- with at least 1 copy being off-site (physically in a different location).
- If you only do the steps listed above for my ‘minimum’ strategy you are likely to have just a 2/2/1 data protection strategy (2 copies, 2 media, 1 off-site) but that is still vastly superior to what most people have, no backups (1/0/0).
- Install an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) to prevent incorrect shutdown during power outages. A UPS is essentially a battery that will keep your computer running during a power outage. It gives you time to shut down properly or it can even do it for you if you are not present. This helps prevent corruption of data if your computer suddenly loses power. I like APC and Rocketfish brands for home use.
- Install an internet router, which is a device you install between the device your internet provider gives you (such as a cable modem) and your computer(s). Many people have one already, they are often used to provide wireless access (WiFi) for devices. I’m not going to cover how to do this, but it adds a layer of security to any computer running behind it as you create a private network inside your house that is not as easily accessed form the outside.
- Turn on Windows Previous Versions for your data (formerly referred to as Shadow Copy). Essentially what you are doing is reserving a portion of your hard drive to making backups of your data. This is good for one major reason: version control. Windows will create multiple copies of the same file which you can access relatively easily. This is very handy if you need to revert back to a previous version and is faster than going to backup. Also, your backup is unlikely to maintain many versions of the same file. Windows does this in a very space-efficient manner and if you are not cramped for space on your drive you should turn this on. More info on this at Wikipedia.
- Use RAID if your computer supports it. Most laptops don’t since they only have one hard drive, but many desktop computers have the ability to run hard drives in various RAID levels. Currently all of my data is stored on a RAID-5 set (more info on RAID levels at Wikipedia), which means I have three hard drives in my computer and data is written to all at the same time. This allows one of the hard drives to fail and my computer continues to operate without issue. I can replace the failed hard drive, and carry on like nothing happened. RAID-1, or a mirrored set, is also a good option for data security.
- Use external storage, ideally network attached storage (NAS), to keep a copy of your data locally. I have a Synology 5-bay NAS running in RAID-5 mode which keeps a backup copy of all of my data. The RAID-5 configuration allows for one drive to fail with no impact on my data. The NAS is also handy for sharing files between multiple computers on your home network.This is the third copy of my data in the 3-2-1 strategy (one copy on my computer, one on my NAS, one at Backblaze).
I use software called SyncBack (free) to make a copy of all my data from my computer to my NAS every night. It only copies changed files, so once you have it up and running backups are fast.I no longer use SyncBack, but instead use the awesome Synology Cloud Station. Cloud Station enables me to sync my files from my computer to my NAS. It has a a few benefits:
- Agent on my computer that is easy to set up and manages all of my file copies to the NAS. It scans my folders and immediately copies any new files to the Synology.
- It has an overlay on my synced folders, showing me what is synced and what still needs to be copied.
- It manages versions on the NAS, so I can roll back files to a previous state in time.
- There is an iOS client that allows me to securely access all of my files via my iPhone. Handy if I’m not at home and I need to pull down a file.
That’s it, extra safety from several layers of security. Hardware keeps my computer and network safe (UPS, router). Within my computer, software prevents data corruption (anti-virus, firewall, updates). If I accidentally delete a file or even part of a file, I can go to my previous versions or the backup on my NAS. If I have a hard drive fails within my computer, my data is unaffected. If a hard drive fails in my external storage (NAS), there is also no issue. This will cover the most frequent problems and allow me to keep working and keep my data safe. If I experience a bigger problem, such as a fire, all of my data is also off-site at Backblaze which constantly runs in the background and ensures new files are backed up and kept safe.
There are certainly things you can do beyond this, though there are diminishing returns as my strategy covers most contingencies. Also, this covers data backup but some like to create a full image of their computer so they can restore their operating system and software in case of a problem. I don’t think that is necessary, I have no issue re-installing Windows and my associated software if I have a complete failure. Those things are relatively easy to get back up and running, it’s the data you can’t get back that you need to protect.
TESTING YOUR BACKUPS
Whatever backup strategy you choose to employ, it’s important to periodically check things to ensure they are still working. Services like Backblaze will send you emails letting you know how many files you have stored with them. Compare this to your previous numbers to ensure new files are getting added to the backup. Also, test your backups by restoring files. I do this four or five times per year, less frequent than that and there is potential for loss beyond my comfort level. Choose a few random files (I usually choose one old file and one recently created) and restore it to your computer from your backups (if you have more than one backup like I do, restore from all of them). This ensures your backups are working and that you can get the files back if you need to. Monitoring and sample restores are a critical part of the process. There are many reasons backups can stop working, so keep an eye on things to ensure your data is safe in case you ever need it.
Feel free to post in the comments if you have questions or would like to add to the items listed here.