Do Your Backups!

What do you have on your computer? Finances? Emails, addresses, and other contact information? Precious photos? I’d include recipes, articles I’ve written, all the records from my small photography business, and the books I’m editing for my paying job.

Can you afford to lose any or all of those file? I didn’t think so. I know I’d be in big trouble if I lost all our financial records, and I’d be heartbroken to lose all the photos I’ve taken, especially of our granddaughters.

There’s a simple solution, but for some reason, it’s one that’s often ignored, or put off until later.

Do your backups!

Doing backups is a bit like buying insurance. We don’t want to take the time or spend the money. Most of the time, it offers no tangible benefits. You can’t wear it, look at it, eat it, or have fun with it. But when you need it, you really need it.

There are two reasons you want to have backup. The first is for saving work files in case of loss for any reason, or a need to go back to an old version, such as in the case of a virus corrupting your files.

The other reason to do backups is in case the whole disk dies, particularly your main “system disk.” In that case, what you want is a “system” backup that includes not just files but also all those niggly settings. Otherwise, when you replace the drive,  you get to start over from scratch—reinstall the system, reinstall all software, configure every setting, password, etc.—and if you can’t find the license keys, you get to buy your software again. A “system backup” is done using tools supplied by Microsoft, Apple, or certain backup software companies. One of the simplest is to occasionally create a true copy of your entire system drive.

The hard truth is that computers break. External drives are even more unreliable. Even though my computer has mirrored drives, so that all my most important files are duplicated in case of disk failure, that isn’t enough. What if our house burns down? (We had one scare in 2013, when the Black Forest fire was within a few blocks of our home.)

There are plenty of back-up systems available, from online cloud storage to tape backups to external hard drives. You can ask for technical help, and the answer will change with every new product offered. But there are some practices that we should all follow, no matter what technology we use.

First of all, making one copy isn’t enough. What happens if you discover a problem that has been there for a while? If all you do is write over your most recent copy each time, you’ve just saved bad data on top of your good data.

A better way is to have a plan. Make a new copy every week—or day, or month, or however long it takes to accumulate data you can’t afford to lose. For example, the store I worked in saved their financial files every day, then overwrote those files the next week, so we had copies going back seven days.

At the end of the month, make a copy that you’ll save for the year. At the end of the year, make a permanent back-up file that you archive in a safe place.

Note that a safe place is somewhere the computer is not—a safe deposit box, your other office (home or work), a friend’s house, etc. That way, if your workplace goes up in smoke, your backup is at home. If someone breaks into your house and cleans out your home office, your backup is at work.

(Note that this isn’t always fool-proof. We have friends who lost both their home and their offices in the Santa Barbara fire some years back… along with all their photos. But as they said afterward, they may not have the pictures, but they still have the people in the pictures. I admire their attitude!)

You should also know that digital data doesn’t last forever. The movie industry has discovered this. With the migration to digital movies, storage has become a huge issue. Over time, bits are lost—zapped by a cosmic ray, perhaps—until the file is unreadable. It turns out that film is a more durable way of saving old movies. Who would have thought?

If you use CDs or DVDs to store copies of important files, be aware that there are two kinds: “normal” and “archival” disks. The normal ones last several years without serious degradation, maybe years at most. The archival disks cost more, but can last for decades as long as they are protected from scratches and temperature extremes.

Then, there’s always new technology that supersedes the old. Do you have a way to play an 8-track album? How about an 8-inch (or any!) floppy disk, or a Betamax movie? Even CDs are on the way out. The way you store your files today may be obsolete in a few years.

For these reasons, it’s important to make new copies of your archived backups every few years.

Finally, realize that even backups fail. Pete and I have had plenty of experience with blank tapes, backups full of empty file folders, and scrambled data. Even cloud storage isn’t disaster proof. While it’s nice to imagine all my files floating around with the angels, in reality they’re stored on a physical computer someplace real. If it’s really critical that you not lose the files, consider investing in more than one type of back-up system.

If you don’t have backups already, I hope this post causes you sleepless nights and an upset stomach, at least enough to motivate you to do something sooner than later. Yes, God can do miracles, even with computers, but remember, we’re not supposed to put Him to the test.

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