Features & Editorial Must Reads

Computer Tech: Protecting Your Most Important Files, Part I

Written by Richard

If you’ve been a computer user for as long as iPods have existed (roughly 10 years at this point), you’ve probably experienced a computer hard drive failure. And if you haven’t yet, it’s coming.

Hard drive failures are inevitable, especially as computers age. In 2007, Google engineers compiled data across computers in their own data centers and established that even among their industrial-strength servers, the hard drive failure rate was over 2 percent for computers as new as three months. By three years, the failure rate jumped to nearly 5 percent.

Of course, when a hard drive fails in a Google data center, there are tens of thousands of computers with copies of the same data nearby, so it’s not catastrophic. But when it’s your only computer, and there are irreplaceable photos, important documents, years of email and innumerable other items critical to your home life or your job, that’s a big deal.

The problem for many people is that protecting those files has not, until recently, been an easy process. It generally involved buying clunky external hard drives (which weren’t cheap), and creating some sort of regular backup process, which was often time-consuming and tethered your computer to these drives.

Luckily, things have changed. Whether you’ve got a PC or a Mac, backing up your most important files today can be as simple as installing a program that runs in the background, leaving you free to rarely think about it again.

But before we jump into the “set it and forget it” part of the plan, let’s step back a bit and really hatch a plan.

Step 1: What are we saving?

One of the things we’ll want to achieve in our backup plan is to figure out not only what our important files are, but also where they are on our computer. Every modern operating system on consumer computers (i.e., Windows, Mac OS) will generally create documents, pictures and other folders for you to park your files in. And most modern humans will still save a whole lot of what they use directly on their desktop.

This is a good time to clean that up. And while you’re at it, create and organize your folders in a way that makes sense to you. For instance, maybe you could use a folder for financial files; another for school or maybe medical.

If your hard drive is bulging at its digital seams with hardly any free space, it’s probably a good time to think about purging some files you don’t need. The amount of detritus that can pile up in the downloads folder or desktop of a regularly-used computer can be surprising. One hint: Empty your trash. If you haven’t done that lately, you could be using a lot of storage space for files you already know you don’t want.

Once you’ve organized things to your liking, make note of what folders your most important files are in, the ones you would be most devastated to be without if your computer were to stop working tomorrow.

Then, note where your important but non-essential files are. These are the ones that it would be a hassle to replace, but losing them would be an inconvenience, not a crisis.

Step 2: Where should it go?

To really ensure that your most important data is as secure as possible, we’ll work with a tried and true strategy: the 3-2-1 plan.

  • 3 copies of your important data
  • 2 different storage types
  • 1 copy should be stored off-site

Copy 1: Your hard drive: Your first copy of everything is the one that’s already on your hard drive. In our ideal scenario, your most important files are regularly updated to two other places, and one of those places should not be in the same building as your computer.

After all, if something happens to your house and your only backup is on a hard drive sitting next to the computer on a charred desk, neither is likely to bring your photos of vacations, holidays and baby’s first steps back to you.

Copy 2: Online: Luckily, one of the easiest and cheapest backup solutions available today is what’s known as an online backup. The two biggest brands in this space are Mozy and Carbonite, and they operate with the same general concept. You install a program on your computer, select the folders that you want to back up, and the program silently runs in the background to constantly back up everything in those folders.

The beauty of this arrangement is that if your computer is lost or destroyed, everything in your backed-up folders can be replaced. You just need to log into the backup service from another computer, and you can pull down individual files right away. Mozy and Carbonite have slightly different pricing plans (free trial versions or $5.99-$9.99/month from Mozy; a flat $59/year from Carbonite), both based on the amount of storage you need. Additional space on Mozy is $2/month for each additional 20 GB.

Also convenient: Mozy can also burn disks to replace the entire catalog of what they have. This is handy because if you need a full dump of all the data you’ve stored online, downloading it all could take hours or days, depending on your data connection. So for a fee (50 cents/GB, plus shipping and processing), you can have them burn your files to a set of DVD disks which they will then ship to you for next-day delivery. To get a better sense of the cost, here’s how it broke down for me: 50 GB (at 50 cents/GB) cost $25.50; processing cost $29.95; and shipping (FedEx Next Day) cost $40; for a total cost of $95.45.

Copy 3: External hard drive: To accomplish our third copy, it’s a good idea to keep an external hard drive handy and to place important files on it regularly.

If you’re working with an Apple computer, Apple has a version of their wi-fi router called the Time Capsule that has a large hard drive built in and, using their Time Machine software, backups can be set up to run regularly on a standard (and less expensive) external hard drive.

Later this year, Apple will launch their iCloud service, which is set up to keep your most essential files (music and photos are their example of most essential) backed up to their own servers, but the available free storage capacity (5 GB) is really in line with what you’re able to store on an iPod. When you upgrade any of your Apple devices to the latest operating system update, iOS 5, also slated for later this year, iCloud will come bundled with the update. The cost to upgrade the storage capacity comes in three flavors: $20/year for an extra 10 GB; $40 for an extra 20 GB; $100 for 50 GB.

We’re not aware of similar Windows wireless backup systems (if you know of any, please let us know in the comments section below), but the trusty external hard drive on a USB cable works just as well on any system.

Next time: Using Mozy and Carbonite, finding the right external hard drive and sharing really important files between computers using Dropbox.

About the author


Contributing when he can.