Brainless Backups

I’m a software developer by trade which means to my friends and family I’m just a “computer guy”. It’s assumed that I know everything about every facet of computing from removing spyware to replacing hardware. I also can do all of this blindly over the phone or after hearing a five to ten word description of the problem over dinner 😉

In my position as CIO of my friends and families I’ve been in the unfortunate position of trying to recover music, pictures, or documents off of failed hard drives on more than one occasion. It’s not a great situation for anyone, and it’s always at these times that the importance of backups becomes so clear. Several months back a friend of mine found himself in this situation. The hard drive on his 8 year old laptop failed and took a good number of his digital photos with it. I think most folks can deal with losing some of their music and even some of their documents, but it really stings to lose pictures of past events and loved ones.

After ordering a new laptop, my friend went out and bought an external hard drive so that he could start keeping a backup of his data. As fate would have it, several months later the drive in his new laptop failed and he learned the hard way that simply buying the external hard drive isn’t enough… you actually have to copy your stuff over every once in awhile!

The importance of backup and recovery plans is (hopefully) well known in IT organizations. Well executed backup plans are in place, and hopefully the backup and recovery process is tested regularly. When you’re talking about users at home, however, the need for these backups is often understood far too late. Most typical users can’t be expected to remember to backup their data regularly and also don’t always have the know-how to setup automated backups.

For my friends and family members in this situation I recommend tools like Dropbox, Carbonite, and Mozy. Here’s why I like them:

  • They’re affordable: Dropbox and Mozy both have free offerings, though most people with lots of music and/or photos to backup will probably exceed the storage limitations of those free plans pretty quickly. Still, all three offer pretty affordable monthly or yearly plans. In my opinion, Carbonite’s unlimited storage plan for $50-$60 per year is the best value around.
  • They’re easy to setup: Both Dropbox and Carbonite are very easy to get setup and start using. I’ve never used Mozy, but I imagine it’s similarly painless to get up and running.
  • Backups are automatically “off-site”: A backup that is sitting on an external hard drive right next to your computer is great, but might not protect against flood damage, a power surge, or other disasters in that single location. These services exist “in the cloud” so to speak, helping mitigate those concerns. Granted, this kind of backup scheme requires some trust in the 3rd party to protect your data from both malicious people and disastrous events. This truly is a bit of a double edged sword, but I sleep well at night knowing that my data is being backed up and secured by a company made up of engineers that focus on the business of doing backups right.
  • Backups are “brainless”: What I like most about services like these is that they work “automagically” in the background, watching for files to be updated and automatically backing up those changes. There’s no need to remember to plug in that external drive and copy your data over.

Since starting to recommend these services to my friends and family I find myself wearing my “data recovery” hat far less often. The only way backups are effective for your standard computer user is if they’re completely automatic. Backups need to be brainless, or they just won’t work.