Backups as important as computer security

If you work in the IT industry you’re undoubtedly already aware of this, but if you have even the remotest position in the IT Industry you become the IT guy for your entire family. Not just your immediate family, taking care of your household computers and electronics but also those of your extended family as well. One of the issues that comes up from time to time, in my experience, is the issue of lost files. Especially if those files are pictures or important documents. Lost files are a common problem in homes across the country, but also one that is equally easy to protect against. In one word – backups.

There are multiple approaches for conducting “home” backups, each having their individual pros and cons. The specific approach you choose will depend on your specific circumstances, as well as your feelings about privacy and trust, and include backing up to CD/DVD/Blue Ray; backing up to an external hard drive or thumb drive; backing up to one of the available online backup services; or going what I would consider to be the Cadillac route and using a home NAS (Network Attached Storage) solution. Or using some combination of the those. Obviously one of those specific circumstances I mentioned would be cost and what you can afford to do.

CD, DVD, Blue Ray disk:
The least expensive solution would be backing up files to CD, DVD or Blue Ray disk. CD’s can give you up to 750MB of storage and are extremely inexpensive. DVD’s can give you up to 4GB of storage and are still inexpensive, but will cost you around $10-$20 for a stack of 25 to 50. Blue Ray disks are the newest option, and the most expensive among the disks giving you up to 25GB of storage. Their use also requires you to have a Blue Ray drive in your computer. All that being said, I am not a fan of backing up files to CD, DVD, or Blue Ray because I’ve had too many experiences over the years where the disks are easily lost or easily damaged. Damaging a disk is remarkably easy to do and can make the disk irreparably unreadable, or problematic. Scratches, especially large or deep scratches can cause your system to be unable to read the disk and can even cause your system to lock up and become unresponsive for long periods of time. In addition to scratches another common problem with disks is loss of reflective coating which can also cause the disk to become unreadable or cause your system to become unresponsive while it attempts to read the disk. Needless to say I’ve been around the block with CDs and DVDs and have come to the opinion that disks should be the last option to use for backing up files.

External hard drives:
Next in cost, and A far better option than disks, is the use of an external hard drive. External drives come in a dizzying array of choices, though I’m partial to Western Digital products and my comments will reflect that partiality. However, Western Digital is but one company with a number of product availabilities and I encourage you to fully research all options before making your own individual choice. I personally use a 2TB My Book to back up my home systems and a 500GB My Passport portal drive to backup my work files on my work laptop. Both drives are inexpensive – I paid $79.99 for the My Book a few weeks ago and $59.99 for the My Passport last summer. Of course we all know that external hard drives can fail over time and utilization of external drives by themselves still represent a potential risk. Yet the usual life time of an external drive is measured in years and drives typically give you some indication of imminent failure before they actually do fail. It’s a simple matter of copy files from an old external drive to a new external drive.

USB External drives are plug and play and can be used within seconds of being plugged in and simply appear as another drive on whichever system its plugged into. Using an external hard drive as a backup location for multiple computers on a home network is only slightly more difficult and easily accomplished by sharing that drive out and making it available over a network and then browsing to that drive over the network and making a shortcut.

Online backup service:
At best, equal in cost to the use of an external hard drive would be to use one of the available online backup services. Though if you look at continuing year over year cost online backup services would likely be slightly to moderately more expensive than an external hard drive. There are a lot of available options for online backup services, each with differences in cost and specific service. Before choosing one you’d likely want to perform a moderate amount of research to see which one fits your needs the best. All of them, however, have one thing in common. They all rely on downloading and installing a client application to your system which enables the local and remote synchronization of files.

I happen to like best among all those I’ve looked at. As an example, for $59/year will automatically backup your entire user directory on a single computer. As I said, each service differs in specific service and cost and there are some provisos. Obviously if you have multiple systems in your house, as I do, this service could get expensive very quickly. Carbonite and other similar services are in the business of making money and so the basic service doesn’t allow you to backup external hard drives. They’re on to us trying to game the system, however for $100/year you can opt for the Carbonite HomePlus option which does allow you do backup external hard drives. In this way you could back up multiple computers to an external hard drive and then use Carbonite to backup that computer. Understand that online services are just that, you’re transferring your data to a remote company over the Internet. Despite the fact that your data is encrypted, transferring data to a remote site involves trust. However, in terms of ease of use, online backup is hard to argue against.

But if you do the math, if you have a single computer in your home and opt for the basic service of $59/year that would cost approximately $240 over the expected life of an external hard drive that itself likely costs less than $100. If you have multiple computers in your home the cost of the Carbonite service increases dramatically and would likely cost $400 over the expected life of an external hard drive. Online backup services would offer what I would consider to be the best, safest and easiest option for home users but it’s certainly not the cheapest.

Online backup services are safe but moderately expensive. Yet online backup services are not the most expensive option. The Network Attached Storage (NAS) option would definitely represent the most expensive option, and especially so if you’re only looking at the up-front cost of the purchase of the hardware. NAS’s are essentially large external hard drives but in actuality they’re stand alone computers that do nothing but offer large amounts of storage space that you access and use over your network. I’d only consider these to be an option for the minority of households that have multiple computers, tablets, or hand held devices and need storage in the multiple TB range (3-6 TB+). And even then only if there are large amounts of data to be safely backed up.

I’m a serious movie and show nut and so my wife and I have accumulated several hundred DVDs and boxed sets over the years. That collection quite literally takes up an entire wall in my den, space which I very much want to reclaim. And so I’ll be bringing a NAS online to replace my 2 TB external hard drive and to use as a home theater system in the Spring. I’ll be backing up all of my DVDs and then boxing up the originals. I’ll then be able to stream my movies to my HDTV and actually be able to use the area in my den that is completely unusable to me now. This would be an excellent example of when you might want to choose a NAS solution for backups, though it’s hardly the only example.

Typical “home NAS’s” offer as little as 2 TB of storage all the way up to 10-12 TB currently and can cost anywhere from $300-$500 up to $1000 or more. And offer the user greater protection of data than a vanilla external hard drive. As I mentioned earlier, external hard drives are susceptible to failure over time but where they differ from what a typical NAS would offer you is a little technology called RAID. RAID is essentially data mirroring across two ore more hard drives. Depending on the specific type of RAID you use, physical failure of a hard drive becomes a non-issue as hard drives can be physically replaced while the system remains running (hot swappable) without losing any data. This article isn’t intended to be a RAID primer and so I’m greatly simplifying the subject here. There are in fact a number of specific RAID options, each which offer different means of data mirroring and protection from data loss. Which one you would choose to use would depend upon your specific need and affordability.

In my view backups are as vital as security and believe that backups should be done religiously. I intended only to discuss different options and approaches in this article but will cover specifics on how home users can perform automated backups using one of more of these options in future articles.

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