More and more our personal and professional information is stored in digital format. This is great because we can easily make copies and backups of our information and prevent accidental loss. The reality of the situation is that many people do not make regular backups of digital data and often lose everything when one hard drive crashes. Backups take time and most people do not take the time every day to manually make copies of important files. Personally, I cannot spare the time to do backups every day. That is why I have automated the entire process and it happens either in real time, or while I sleep.
When asked, I tell people that my computer does more while I sleep than most computers do all day long. Truthfully, my computer probably does more while I sleep than 90% of the people I know do at any time. I did not pull that number out of the air. Over the years I have determined nine out of ten people that I know do not backup computer files regularly. I know this because I am the person that gets the call when their hard drives fail. In 2008 I had more than a dozen of these calls. They always start with, “I know I should be backing my files up, but…” Finish that with some story involving a lack of “time.”
To take the time constraint out of the equation I have a two-pronged approach to my backups. I start with Microsoft Mesh (blog post here and here). I have four computers (office, Dell laptop, Macbook, home desktop) on my mesh. When I create or update a file on any one of these computers, the file is automatically pushed to all other computers in my Mesh. In addition, a copy is uploaded to my Mesh web page.
Here is a typical example of how the process works. I use my Dell laptop in class. Many times I have edited a PowerPoint (added or updated a slide) immediately before class starts. As soon as I hit “save” on my Dell laptop, the updated file is copied to my office computer and to my Macbook and desktop computer at my house. Without the Mesh, I would have at least two copies (one on my Dell laptop and another everywhere else) of that PowerPoint file and at some point I would have to figure out which one is the “best” one to use in the future.
There is a downside to the Mesh. When I updated that PowerPoint file, the old version of that file was destroyed forever on all four of my computers and replaced with the new version. This is why I have a second automated backup of everything. This is a full backup of my data files stored in a classic grandfather-father-son rotation. By this, I mean I have three separate and complete sets of backup files. I create a complete backup on Monday. On Tuesday another full backup is created in such a way that Monday’s files are not touched. Finally, on Wednesday a third complete backup set is created leaving both Monday and Tuesday sets intact. On Thursday the process starts over and the Monday set is erased to make room for the Thursday backup. Friday replaces Tuesday and Saturday replaces Wednesday. I do not run backups on Sunday because I do not normally work on Sunday. More importantly, I have three external hard drives and adding Sunday would mean purchasing a fourth drive.
At one time I used Cobain Backup to automate my backups at night. Last year I switched to Microsoft’s SyncToy. Cobain and SyncToy are both free. To make this process work, I did have to spend a little money. I bought three USB hard drives. You can pick up 250 GB hard drives online for as little as $50 each. The size of the drives you need is dependent on how much data you have to backup. I use three 500 GB drives for my backups. On any given night I backup about 180 GB (docs, databases, photos, music and videos) and that amount is growing all the time.
SyncToy does not have a built-in scheduling tool, but the operating system scheduling tool can be used to automate sync’ing. In the Help file of SyncToy read the section called “Learn How to Schedule SyncToy.” I switched to SyncToy to make recovery easier. All the files are copied over “as-is” to my external hard drives. Cobain created one big archive file which made recovering a single file more complicated. SyncToy also has a “contribute” mode. Using this does not actually wipeout older backups. The software compares what is already backed up and adds anything new. If I delete a file from my desktop, the file is not deleted from the sync’ed hard drive. Because of this, any deleted files will still be on the backup even after the three-day recycle period has started.
The beauty of my system is the amount of my time it takes. Backup files are created for me as I work (Mesh) without any interaction on my part. While I sleep full duplicate archives (SyncToy) are created for me. Each morning, the first thing I do on my computer is check the previous night’s backup to make sure they were created. It takes less than a minute to do that check and that is the total amount of time I spend on backups. It is time well spent.