November 9, 2009

How to Crash-Proof Your Digital Life

Your hard drive just crashed and you lost everything…

10 years of family photos, movies, spreadsheets with all your sales figures, email, music and more were instantly consigned to nothingness. Worst of all, much of it was irreplaceable. And now it's gone, as in gnashing-of-teeth-&-rending-of-garments gone.

Usually when this happens I get a panicked call and I'm asked if there's anything I can do to recover the data. My first question, of course…

“How old is your last backup?”

You already know the answer, don't you.

“I never backed it up.”

Here's the thing, I don't blame you one bit. Here's why.

For years, I've watched hard drives crash and people lose really valuable stuff. Computers have gotten faster and drives have gotten bigger. We've developed cooler new tech that allows us to capture and store more of our life on disk and so we put ever more valuable data on our computers every year.

The problem is that backing up our computers has always been a soul-crushingly boring, complex and irritating process. And even if we did take a stab at it, we discovered that frequently, to our great dismay, when we actually needed the backup we thought we were successfully making, it wasn't there because of the, wait for it… “weird glitch” that inevitably happened and caused the backup to fail, or be unusable. I can't count the number of times I've seen that.

So what if I told you that backing up your computer is no longer such a pain? In fact, it's easy to make it almost impossible to lose a file ever again. Would you believe me? No? Well I accept your challenge and I'm going to prove it to you by the end of this post.

First, Let's Be Perfectly Clear

Before I show you the tools I use to guarantee my data's safety, there's one thing I think you really need to know as a consumer of computer technology.

All hard drives fail. It's just that sometimes, a drive lasts long enough to become obsolete and shelved as a dust catcher before it causes you eternal suffering.

Here's a better way to think about your hard drive.

Most hard drives will give you about 3 years of useful life, some a little more, some a lot less. The problem is, you never know which drive you just purchased.

And you can't rely on the MTBF! I'll explain…

There's a little thing called MTBF and you'll see that written in the small print on the hard drive itself, or the box it came in. It means Mean Time Between Failures and it frequently has a huge number after it. That number LOOKS big, but it's actually an average of how many hours many other hard drives like this one have lasted before they failed. Or is it… ?

Divide by 24 and again by 365 and it usually comes out to about 114 years. What?!! Didn't I say drives might last 3-5 years?! Yet the manufacturers are giving us some very optimistic, dreamy estimates of drive life, apparently.

It turns out that the MTBF ratings are possibly grossly inflated and are yet another reason you can't use that as a reliable estimate of hard drive life.

On top of that, you can't determine that a drive is OK even if it's passed a certain minimum burn-in period and it's still working. According to a hard drive study done in 2007 by by Bianca Schroeder and Garth Gibson of Carnegie Mellon University…

“…results were contrary to the widespread IT belief in burn-in, where most problems with any drive (or electronic device, really) will be experienced at the very beginning of its life cycle (Schroeder and Gibson called this the “infant mortality effect”). Instead, the study showed that failures start off in the first few years and grow, rather than starting after a wait of five years or so, which was expected.”

But That's Not All…

Environmental factors such as excessive heat or cold, cigarette smoke, actual time powered on and frequency of dropping from a ten story building onto a concrete slab will all change the MTBF rating; sometimes dramatically. (See also, Hard Disk MTBF: Flap or Farce?)

POINT: The manufacturer's suggested lifespan of your hard drive is based on a statistical average and is NOT a guarantee. Some hard drives last longer before their first failure and sadly, some last a much shorter time and then die a horrible, flaming death, with nasty, big, pointy teeth. This usually seems to happen in the middle of your very first backup.

So again, it's not a question of IF, but WHEN your hard drive will fail. And that, my friends IS a guarantee. How can I know this? Well that's easy. In this case entropy is on my side and I challenge you to go up against that giggling warthog of doom any day.

And if your hard drive is encroaching upon the 3-5 year age range, you're gambling with some mighty bad odds against you.

So what can you do? Here's my basic plan for backing stuff up painlessly and automatically every day.

The Backup Trifecta

MyBook1. Local automated backup to a second external (or internal, your choice) hard drive.

Get a good external hard drive that is double the size of the internal drive you'll be backing up. If your internal drive is 500 MB, then get a 1000 MB drive. I find the MyBooks to be reliable and well priced. My Book (Western Digital) External Hard Drives

SuperDuper-HeaderAdditionally, you will need an application that will automatically copy your data to this drive. If you're on a Mac running Leopard or Snow Leopard you can use Time Machine, but you will still want to make a bootable copy of your drive in addition to this.

In order to make bootable backups for the Mac I recommend the application Super Duper ($27.95) or if you really can't afford it, you can use Carbon Copy Cloner (free, however I've used both and prefer Super Duper for ease of use.).

For Windows, the most recent version of Acronis® True Image Home 2012 (free trial) should do the trick (earlier versions did not create a true, bootable copy of a Windows hard drive). For a free backup alternative for Windows you might try XXClone.

2. Backup to a secure, offsite system over the Internet


Use a secure, online backup option like Mozy. This will backup your entire drive automatically in the background and it's easy to restore even after catastrophic hard drive failure.

mobileme3. Backup key files and settings to a third online destination.

I use Apple's mobileMe (now soon to be replaced with iCloud and free!) as an easy way to back up key files (Address Book, Mail settings, browser bookmarks, etc.) Note that Windows users can also use mobileMe and it's not just an iPhone sync tool. Alternatively, you can get similar functionality by using Google Sync Services, however be forewarned, it will be considerably more complex than Apple's mobileMe and my goal here was to make things as easy as possible. Also note that I haven't tried this so YMMV. If you try it and have good luck with it, let me know.

BONUS (Insurance)

And finally, the extra insurance that brings it all together and pushes the success probability over the top in your favor… (yeah, OK, so it's really a quad-fecta, but come on that sounds dumb so let's just call this a bonus, shall we?)

dropbox_logo_homeUse an online file synchronization application like DropBox to automatically synchronize your files and make them available on any computer you use.

I love this web application! This is great not only for backing up stuff, but keeping files synchronized across multiple computers and locations. You can also securely share huge files that you would never e-mail.

This post has gotten a LOT longer than I anticipated. The point though to sum up is this, use a series of backup measures to multiple networks and media and you are almost guaranteed to never lose another file to chance.

Hope this was useful and, as usual, if you have questions, leave them below in the comments and I'll be sure to answer.

All the best!

6 Comments on “How to Crash-Proof Your Digital Life

Carl W
November 17, 2009 at 5:28 pm

This is an excellent post – thanks for the tips and sites. I’m going to try some of them out. Right now I’m doing a variant of some of the things you recommend above – let me share a bit about them and the pros and cons.

I used to rely on a calendar program to remind me when to backup. The problem was I was always too busy and would put it off. It’s best to find a solution that lets you automatically schedule backups in the background so you don’t have to make time for it. What I did was download the free Windows program, Cobian
Black Moon
. It’s a good program, very flexible, though it could be more intuitive.

Now, what to backup to. My primary backup is to an internal, secondary hard drive. The good of that is that it has tons of space and is very fast. The bad is, if the motherboard goes down, I’ll have to buy a hard drive enclosure and cables to wire it up for transfer (or hope it will run in a new desktop computer should I then get one). For this reason, if I only had one hard drive now, I would get a secondary one, but make it external.

I also make 2 copies of media backups (to DVD-RW) periodically. This is not a background task, unfortunately, but it does have its advantages. One is that you can give the second copy of your media backup to a relative or friend to store off-site – should you have a house fire, for example. Although I don’t update it very often (couple times a year), what I do is keep a flash drive plugged in the computer to keep up with recent file changes, so that taken together, they’re a complete solution. Another advantage of media backup is that should you need it, you can avoid getting the hard drive enclosure above and just go with your DVD plus flash drive to restore your files to another computer.

Lastly I have a larger flash drive that I use to do a complete backup monthly. I realize this is like wearing 3 raincoats, but I’d rather just restore using 1 flash drive than a DVD plus flash drive.

One thing that saves time (and flash drive space) is NOT backing up most program files. You either can just reinstall them from the original CDs/DVDs, or in the case of free programs like OpenOffice or Adobe Reader, download them again. There’s no need to back them up. Only back up your data files (documents, spreadsheets, pictures, pdf, etc).

Since motherboards or memory modules sometimes go bad without telling you what is wrong (you might think it’s your hard drive that has gone) it’s helpful to have a backup computer that can get you online to Google any error codes your OS, BIOS, etc. is generating. I snapped up a cheap Vista laptop a year+ ago during a back to school tax-free weekend, and a few months later, my desktop “died.” I was able to troubleshoot it thanks to being able to get online with the laptop. It turned out to be nothing more than a failed memory module, and for $50 or so I tripled my RAM and got the desktop working again.

Zack Czengoldi
November 19, 2009 at 12:19 pm

Hi Carl, thanks for the excellent comment and additional info!

I agree that the issue of scheduling is a major problem. In fact, I think it’s the achilles heel of the whole process and the main reason most folks avoid backing up altogether. Note that the Acronis app does a lot of automated stuff, continuous incremental and scheduled, etc. So does the MobileMe solution.

It sounds like you have a good system in place. Like you, I want to have as much insurance as possible when it comes to my data so I back it up across multiple multiple systems and media.

Thanks for the link to Cobian, that looks like another great Windows option. Does it support creating bootable images? That can be a very helpful feature when you’re in the middle of a project and things go down. You can just reboot and you’re back in business until you have time to properly fix the original drive.

Another free app you might want to have a look at for both Windows and Mac (as well as Linux) is the Clonezilla drive cloning program. It functions similarly to Norton Ghost, but it’s Open Source. Warning though: it’s for the more technically inclined. I would advise against playing with this one for folks who want to avoid the über tech side of things.

Your reference to DVD backups is an excellent point. It’s a great way to do offsite backups fairly easily although there is more manual work involved. There’s one tech reviewer who still makes copies of his data and mails them to his mom every month, just to be sure. Since I am a little lazy, I go the Mozy plus mobileMe route since they’re automated and offsite and it’s a double backup to 2 separate offsite networks. Now that’s some insurance! 🙂

I agree entirely about not backing up application programs. Usually I will just backup the data files and preferences for those apps in certain cases where those apps store their data someplace other than My Documents (Windows) or Documents (Macs).

Also, for Mac users, you actually can just drag copy an application from one computer to another to install it in most cases since the application is completely self-contained. So if you have a rare app that you no longer have the installation CDs for, there’s still a good reason to copy it. For Windows, as we know, apps really MUST be re-installed from the original installer disks.

Great point about having a separate computer for troubleshooting and Googling too. In fact it’s really a must these days to have access to Google if you’re handling all your own maintenance. A really cheap netbook is great for that sort of thing too. (I’m currently partial to the ASUS Eee PC Seashell.)

Speaking of bad RAM, if you ever need to replace RAM and want to be sure you’re getting exactly what you need, Crucial Memory has a great system scanner that will tell you exactly what you have. I get most of my RAM for both Windows and Mac computers from Crucial.

Thanks again for your great comment!

February 23, 2010 at 11:04 pm

Great article, too bad I learned the hard way that a disk drive tells no tells of its pending doom. Fortunately I have most of that drive cloned on another drive, and some of the files I have on disks. Actually I’m lucky that I didn’t lose it sooner, before I had a recent backup. But it’s one of those things, you keep telling yourself you are going to get around to it and here I am with my new computer and no backup at all. This time it’s more of an I went from xp to xp 64 and I am trying to get the hang of all the quirks that running a 64 bit sys has. So I don’t exactly have that many new files on it, and as soon as I finish this, I am going to backup the most important files.

Here’s the thing, I have 200gb g or t on a disk that was my old pc. I used Acronis as a backup device but those are all xp 32 files. So how do I get my files from the backup drive to my new 64 bit os? Now I’m sure I could figure this all out, or hell I could ask my electronics professor, but I kind of feel like I should already know this from the classes I’ve had and how would that look. Anyway I could use a little help with this, so thanks a lot for anyone who can help in advanced.

Thanks Again

Bobby H

Rob Cairns
October 28, 2010 at 1:21 pm

I truly love this article. One thing most people do not understand is keeping backups is a cheap form of insurance. They need to realize failures do happen. As someone who has worked in the tech industry for many years, I prefer the automated forms of backup like Mozy, Carbonite or Jungle Disk. Most people forget to do manual backups so the automated root is the way to go.

October 28, 2010 at 8:41 pm

Hi Rob, and thanks for stopping by! I think backups are the least sexy and yet most critical part of living with technology. And I agree entirely about automating it as much as possible. These days there’s almost no excuse at all for not having everything backed up since it’s almost push-button easy compared to just a few years ago.

October 28, 2010 at 9:24 pm

Good discussion, and timely, for I have an update. My 6 y.o. desktop is showing signs of a slow death, and I just bought a new minitower to replace it, with Win7 64 bit. To answer the above questions, I had no trouble copying my 32 bit files over. Programs might be another issue, but often there are different versions that you can download.

For transferring files, I found that an external USB hard drive was by far the easiest and quickest way to move them. I caught a sale at Office Depot and picked up a Verbatim (shows up as Samsung) 320 GB drive. It’s very thin and sleek, and runs almost silently. But it’s very quick – much quicker than the flash drives I have. I no longer use DVD/RW for backup; it’s too slow and unreliable.

I need to set up Cobian Backup 8 (black moon) on the new machine; while it’s not perfect and can be a bit puzzling, it’s pretty darn good and definitely takes care of business in the background so you don’t have to remember (so Rob, I agree with you totally). I run it daily.

One annoying thing about Win7 that I had to figure out was that even though I was administrator (root) and user, as user I didn’t have the authority to write files to newly created directories of my new hard drive. [I don’t follow windows’ “My Documents” structure etc., due to old habits). I had to go and give myself permission. Like Vista, you have to beat the OS into submission, because out of the box it is loaded with defaults that are effectively training wheels.


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