Methods for backing up your computer data

Years ago, I was visiting friends of friends in Denmark and the inhabitants of the house happened to be very serious geeks. On the dining room wall, they had a sort of shadow box frame, and in it was a computer disk (this was back in the day of five-inch floppies) spray painted gold, with the caption “BACKUP COPY.” As a teenager I remember being horrified by their choice of home decor, but over the years I’ve actually thought of making my own similar display for my office. If you’re not backing up at least once a day, you’re playing Russian roulette with your business.

As a freelance translator, a functioning computer is absolutely critical to your business. Some day, your computer will fail or you will accidentally erase some critical files or your office will flood or your computer will get stolen, or maybe more than one of these things will happen. The point is that at some point, a bad thing will happen to your computer and you will need to restore some data.

At the micro level, I think it’s good to periodically e-mail yourself the current version of a project in progress so that you don’t lose the time that you’ve put into it. At a minimum, I do this at the end of every day, by sending those files to my Gmail account. That way, if I have an issue before the project is done, I simply go to the Gmail account and download the file I need onto another computer, and no time is lost. This point was driven home to me when my primary computer’s video card failed. It wasn’t a catastrophic failure, but the computer was unusable until I got a new video card. This is one reason why I think that an entire backup computer (laptop or desktop) is a good idea. If you have a backup computer, you won’t be stuck waiting for a new primary computer to arrive if your primary computer dies.

At the macro level, you need a way to back up large numbers of files or even your entire computer system, so you have to look at larger solutions. Some possibilities are:

External media: This could involve backing up your files onto a flash drive, CD/DVD or external hard drive. A few considerations: flash drives are hard to label and easy to lose, but as I understand it they are not damaged by contact with magnets or magnetic fields, which is a plus. CDs and DVDs can hold a lot of data (maybe up to 8.5 gig for a DVD) but their lifetime can vary by the burning method and the brand of disk. External hard drives are easy to use and the price for them has fallen, but my understanding is that they can also be susceptible to malware attacks if your primary hard drive is affected.

You can back up to external media either manually (copying over the files that you want to back up) or by using software that runs the backups for you automatically, such as Acronis TrueImage or Norton Ghost. If you use backup software, just make sure that you know how to restore your data from the backed up version, since the software may not store the data in a format that you are used to using.

External storage media have a few main pros and cons. On the plus side, you’re in control of the backups, and your data is in your hands. You don’t need to worry about confidentiality of your data or about the reliability of a third party business. On the con side, external media can get lost, stolen or mislabeled, and the drives and disks are also subject to the same risks as your primary computer in the event of a fire or flood. If you use external storage media and keep them in the same physical location as your primary computer, make sure that you have some sort of off-site backup. For example you might scan your tax records, burn them onto a DVD and keep them at a (trusted!) friend’s house.

Online methods: As server space has gotten cheaper, various businesses have sprung up, offering to store your files online for you at an attractive price. Two services that seem to get good reviews are Mozy (operated by EMC) and Carbonite. Mozy offers “unlimited backup for your home computer” for $4.95 per month, and Mozy Pro is priced per month (starting at $3.95 plus 50 cents per gig) but has more features and can be automated. Carbonite costs $49.95 per year for unlimited space and promises that it is “completely automatic.”

If you use an online storage method, you have the advantage of being able to access your data from anywhere, and an obvious advantage is that online methods aren’t subject to risks like loss, theft, fire or flood. Some issues with them are confidentiality and control. For example, it seems to me that there is some risk that a) the backup company’s servers could be hacked or stolen and your confidential data could be lost and b) there might be some issues with complying with client confidentiality agreements if you use an online storage service, for example if the client asks you to “permanently delete” certain files from your computer.

Yet another option (and the one that I use for on-site backups) is a RAID disk setup in your primary computer. RAID is not exactly a backup method but more of a redundancy method (it stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) where your computer data is written to both disks simultaneously. RAID can be used with various numbers of disks; I have two hard drives in my primary computer’s box. In this way, one of the disks can operate without the other one, and since they contain the same data, you’re OK with just one of the disks. The advantage is that this method is totally automatic and disks are cheap, plus with both of the disks inside the computer case there’s nothing to lose; the disadvantage is that both of the disks are still in the same machine, so if that pipe bursts above your desk, you’re still out of luck.

The most important aspect of backups is doing them. For most home-based translators, it’s possible to get away with a basic method of backups as long as you run the backup every day without fail.

7 Responses to “Methods for backing up your computer data”
  1. Riccardo September 15, 2008
  2. Jean-Christophe Helary September 16, 2008
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