Let’s Talk About Backups: 2023 Edition

I posted on FB yesterday about a serious crisis a client company of mine. The short version is that a computer of theirs melted down, and only then did they discover that while the database WAS creating regular backups, those backups were stored ONLY ON THAT SAME COMPUTER, and were thus just as lost as the rest of the data from that system.


I mean, I say “oops,” but in many cases this would also be a “please gather your things and leave your badge on the desk” kind of situation for whomever made that choice. It’s inexcusable in a professional environment.

But you know what? It’s also inexcusable for your personal data.

People ask me, so this is how I manage my personal and professional data security. Just accept that someday, something is going to go badly and irrevocably wrong, and take steps to protect yourself now — and this means more than one mechanism.

  1. Basic Local Backup. I use a Mac, so I have access to Apple’s excellent Time Machine feature. A cheap USB drive is plugged into my laptop, and the Time Machine process keeps that drive up to date with a versioned backup of everything on my laptop. You can “scroll backwards” in time to recover a version of that document you want from today, or from last Thursday, or whatever. It’s VERY powerful, and to date the ONLY one of these mechanisms I’ve ever had to use in a crisis. I do not know what options exist for this on Windows, but if you’re on a Mac you are a FOOL if you’re not taking advantage of this.

  2. Device Sync & Mobile Access. I use Dropbox a LOT. In fact, I have two accounts — one personal, and one with my company. All my active work files are in one of those accounts, and sync (encrypted) through the cloud so I can access them from my phone, or my iPad, or from my backup laptop. This isn’t precisely a backup mechanism, but it’s a powerful way to give you access to data in multiple places, and to make it easy to continue to work if your main machine fails or freezes up or whatever. There are now several competing tools for Dropbox-like behavior, like iCloud and OneDrive and whatnot, but I don’t trust ANY of them like I do Dropbox. Dropbox costs money, but it’s worth it.

  3. Online backup. I’ve used many systems over the years for this, but the current one is iDrive. It’s a little technical; I’m told that Backblaze is a simpler choice for people who don’t do Computer for a living. With these services, you point the local software at a folder or folders, and it uploads your data to an (encrypted) online backup for you.

  4. Periodic images. On a Mac, at least, it’s pretty easy to create a complete clone of your main drive, OS and all. I used to do this regularly, but I’ve fallen out of the habit. If you have critical data, though, and you’re going light on one of the other three methods, maybe fold this in, too. Be aware, though, that just keeping a recent copy of your data isn’t going to protect against file corruption that doesn’t show up quickly. I lost some photos this way about 20 years ago; this is why most real backup tools do versioned backups that allow you to recover files as they were in the past.

So, Chet, ever had to USE one of these?

Glad you asked. I’ve definitely used the versioning available in Dropbox and Time Machine to recover from a file level screwup of my own doing, but the only time I’ve needed a backup in a catastrophic way was when we were robbed in a smash-and-grab incident several years ago. Our backyard was unsecured, and my laptop was visible through the sliding glass door. They were in and out in probably a minute, and I was out a laptop — but they left all the stuff plugged INTO the laptop (including the charger, LOL).

I’m insured, of course, so I just went to the Apple store to buy a replacement. I plugged it in, and then plugged my Time Machine drive into it and told the Migration Assistant to treat the backup as the source. In an hour or two, it was as if nothing had ever happened — even my browser windows were in the same place.

Absent Time Machine, I still wouldn’t have lost anything — then as now, I was using several other mechanisms — but it would’ve been MUCH more hassle and taken MUCH more time and effort. Those paths need to exist, though — what if they’d taken the drive? Or what if the house had burned down? Or ….

Now, go and do likewise.

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