Paul Henman sysadmin Backup, backup, backup

Backup, backup, backup

Hopefully everyone who owns a computer (laptop or PC, Windows, Linux or Mac) is already backing up properly but if you’re not, now is the time to start!

A lot of people talk about a 3-2-1 strategy and that’s what I do too: 3 copies of each critical file using 2 media and 1 off-site. But what does that mean? Firstly, decide which files are critical – for me that’s my photographs and some other documents, as well as emails and files I use on my websites. I tend to have a guide: if I can recover/recreate the file from another source (e.g. original CDs for software and music, or download the info from someone’s website) then I don’t usually bother backing it up, but if in doubt I’ll include it.

Three copies: usually this means the file is on my Mac Book Pro or the Windows/Linux dual-boot PC, and then it’s copied to two other places not on that machine. The original file on the laptop/PC is the one I’ll edit day to day; I never directly edit any of the copies.

Two different media: for me this used to be hard drives and CDs but the sheer volume of data (mostly photos) makes burning them to CDs or even DVDs unrealistic. It would just be too onerous, and that means it just wouldn’t happen. Instead I use multiple hard drives and the cloud (online services).

One off-site: fairly self-explanatory. Ideally the off-site copy is a long way from home – if there’s a natural disaster then it’s unlikely to affect just your house or street. I use an online service which is based in the US so that’s a safe distance. (In case the natural disaster doesn’t apply to you, there’s also the possibility of burglary – if someone breaks into your home and steals your laptop, there’s a chance they’ll grab the hard drive sitting next to it too.)

Tools: Enough theory – here’s what I use for my backups:

  • My Mac Book Pro backups up to a Western Digital My Book World Edition II using Time Machine, which runs automatically in the background.
  • My Windows/Linux PC and Kerri’s Windows laptop use SyncToy to backup to the same My Book; there are scripts which run the backups frequently in the background. (For Linux I use rsync.)
  • The My Book is configured to use RAID 1 (mirroring) which means each file is written to the two hard drives inside the My Book. (Technically this means there are now 2 copies of the original file within the My Book.)
  • I have a second (1Tb) My Book because the 2Tb My Book is getting full, so I’m now splitting the files between the two My Books. The process is exactly the same – the only difference is that some of my backup scripts write to the 2Tb My Book and other scripts write to the 1Tb My Book.
  • I run Dropbox on all my machines to sync my day-to-day files. The sync happens in real-time, which means if you accidentally delete a file from one machine it’ll sync (i.e. delete the file) on your other machines immediately. Fortunately the Dropbox website lets you recover deleted files, so the good news is that there is a safety net.
  • Now that I’ve moved from Windows to running Lightroom on my Mac I use another SyncToy script to copy my photos from the My Book onto the Windows PC. I also run Backblaze on the PC which backs up everything to the cloud. (You can even buy Backblaze for a friend.)

This means I use some free tools (Time Machine, SyncToy, rsync, Dropbox) to copy within my network, a couple of My Books as the main local backup storage, and Backblaze for the off-site backups.


  • If in doubt, back it up!
  • Start doing backups now!
  • Test your backups – it’s no good putting your trust in these backups if you don’t check that you can actually get your files back!
  • Make it simple – better yet, make it automatic. If your backups require a user to do something, you can guarantee they’ll forget / stop bothering, so make sure your backups run in the background.

Unfortunately many people don’t think about backups until they lose their data. If you’re lucky enough not to have lost anything yet don’t be complacent – all hardware dies and hard drives have an average life span of about 3 years, so be assured that they will fail on you at some point. Hopefully you’ll have everything backed up well before that day comes – restoring your data to a new drive might be time consuming but it’s a lot less painful than losing everything!

5 thoughts on “Backup, backup, backup”

  1. One other tool I’m testing out right now is Crash Plan, which I’m trying out just for the local area network sync. It has other features but I’m interested in seeing if I could use this for a (free) offsite backup solution by exchanging hard drives with a friend also running Crash Plan.

  2. There are two kinds of people in the world… those who have had a drive failure and those who haven’t… yet!

    And of course… the old saying… If you havent tested your backup (ie with a restore) then it’s probably no good!

  3. Absolutely – the key word is “yet”.

    It’s surprising how many IT departments haven’t tested their backup/restore processes – you’d think the “pros” would know better!

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