My Backup Strategy

I was asked today in class what strategies I use to backup my data. Dr. Reardon has stressed how important it is to have backups of your data. One of our class members today realized that having a backup (even of just one paper) means a lot, when you need to get your hands on something you’ve poured a few, dozens, or hundreds of hours into. As we get deeper into our program and generate data that will impact our later success in this program, I thought I’d outline a few of the ways I backup data (both personal and professional).


Cloning is a backup method that works well technically, but requires you to be proactive about the process in some cases. My primary workstations at home and in the office are both Mac Pro computers. These are the large tower models and can accommodate four internal hard disk drives.

In each of these computers I dedicate one drive as a “Scratch” disk; I use this disk to store temporary files, or things that I know I have copies of elsewhere (like images of CDs and DVD-ROMs). I do not clone these drives.

My home computer has, therefore, three other drives: Media, Data, and a drive called Boot which stores the operating system and applications. You could have a similar configuration on a PC.

I also have three additional hard disk drives I keep in my closet: Media Clone, Data Clone, and Boot Clone. These drives need to be the same size as the originals, or bigger (but not smaller).

Every two-three weeks (when I remember) I make a mirror-copy of the drives in my Mac Pro onto these drives. I use a drive “toaster” product to mount each of these cloned drives to my computer, which is cheaper than buying all “external hard drives” that each include cables, ports, and chips that allow the drives to talk to the computer. Why? If one of the internal drives in my computer ever fails, I will swap-out the bad drive, and insert the cloned version.

The Voyager product also accommodates laptop hard drives so you can do the same thing. I use Carbon Copy Cloner on my Mac to perform the cloning process. Consider Norton Ghost as a solution for PCs.


I also use part of Mac OS X for backup called Time Machine. I backup most all of my files that normally are stored in my home directory to this backup which is connected via Ethernet to my computer. Every hour it backs up files, and it keeps versions of files. So, if I corrupt a paper, let’s say, I can dial-back to the version from 4 hours ago and restore that version.

I use the same tool with my laptop and my desktop machine at work with external USB drives.

Consider looking at this collection for Windows backup software. I also would highly recommend, especially if you have more than one computer at home, to use a Network-Attached Storage device (NAS). While not necessarily the cheapest solutions, the ones from Synology and Drobo have fans.

Off-site Backups

If my house were to burn down, I’d lose my computer, the cloned drives, and my Time Capsule backups. That would be awful. Therefore, I also backup data “offsite.”

One popular product I use for keeping my VCU work is Dropbox. This free service syncs a folder on all my computers, and it’s cross-platform. I can access the same set of files on my iPhone, iPads, and on every computer, as they are always in-sync when they’re online. It’s been a reliable service for me over the past two years. But you have to pay for larger chunks of space, so I use it primarily to shuttle files between work and home, or home computer and laptop. It’s also been great for sharing files with my colleagues in VCU.

All my notes I keep for work and classes are taken in Notational Velocity on the Mac, and SimpleNote on my iOS devices. I pay SimpleNote to also help me back those files up both to their server (with versions), and also to Dropbox. Many people also love Evernote, which has mobile and computer versions.

I also have begun to use Google Drive. This keeps local versions of all my Google Docs on my computer, and I can also, like with Dropbox, shuttle other files between computers. Using Google’s App interface, I can even share files to colleagues.

To move the “big stuff,” however, I use CrashPlan. This service encrypts data on my home computer and shuttles it to another machine online. You can choose to pay and use their servers, or you can shuttle the data to a friend’s computer (for free). So, connected to my Mac at home is a friend’s hard drive, and on her computer at her house, my hard drive. The CrashPlan application on my computer constantly updates my data onto her machine, and vice versa, her data is stored on her own dedicated drive on mine. Should disaster strike one of our homes, we have an inexpensive way to access an off-site backup.

All of these services help keep copies of at least some of your data on other machines as a fail-safe.


Too many people, myself included, have lost data. It only takes one time to learn your lesson! While my multiple methods may seem extreme to some, I consider my digital life to be very valuable, both including my VCU work and work I do outside of VCU. This is especially true with laptops.

No matter which, or which suite of methods you use, it’s important to backup and to backup often.

Next time, I’ll talk more about encrypting data, and how this is important especially if you store data through online services. As we collect data (focus groups, interviews) and ensure folks that data is “confidential,” encryption is a reliable method of keeping digital data secure.


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