My Backup Strategy

I remember the first time I had a hard drive fail on me. I was pretty upset. It was a 6.8 GB drive that I scavenged in a garage sale like all of my Frankenstein’s monster computers. I had lost many documents and pictures before with faulty floppy discs and accidental deletions, but never before had I lost so much in one fell swoop. I was pretty young at the time so the documents and Photoshopped pictures were far from masterpieces, but nevertheless they mattered to me.

Had I known about SpinRite at that time I may have been able to resuscitate the drive and save a few files. SpinRite has saved many files for my friends and families who do not have a backup plan. It’s awesome and you should try it.

After that day I vowed to never lose a file again. It took me many years to setup a backup system that works for me and I learned a few things in the process. It has saved my Canadian bacon more times then I’d care to admit.


I’m a big fan of Scott Hanselman’s “3-2-1” backup strategy:

  • 3 copies
  • 2 different formats
  • 1 copy off-site

Three copies may be a little extreme for some people, and that is fine, but when both my main machine and my main backup were acting up at the same time I was pretty happy to have another copy.

The second point regarding formats is an interesting one. My mother backs up all of our home movies to an external hard drive as well as DVDs she keeps off-site. She used to just have DVDs. However, optical media (especially if it’s from the same manufacture) will tend to degrade in the same way at a similar rate. While it’s helpful to have multiple copies in the case of scratches (though if you are backing up you probably aren’t leaving the media laying around), it doesn’t help if they both fail in the same way.

If your backup is beside you computer when you house burns down or when a burglar steals both your laptop and external hard drive it doesn’t really help.

Two more things I would add as a requirement for a good strategy:

  • Automatic
  • Version History

If my strategy was not mostly automatic, I’d have abandoned it years ago. At least one of your backups should be automatic to ensure it happens regularly. One of the benefits of automatic backup is you can often step up the frequency. If you only run your backup every Sunday and your drive fails on Saturday, you’ll be out a lot of work.

I also believe having a version history of your files is very important. I remember doing tedious data entry for a day and then accidentally saving over the file at the end of the day. I didn’t notice until the next day that my data was gone. It would have been extremely frustrating to through away all that work.

If my backup system had been running hourly and simply overwrote the file with the latest version, I would have lost all that work. However my backup system kept hourly versions for a week and weekly versions for a year.

Stephen’s Strategy

I use Apple’s Time Machine on two external drives plus CrashPlan.

Time Machine is simple and awesome. Whenever a drive is plugged in, OSX will automatically backup (with versions) all the data you ask it to. I also keep my backup drives (as I do with all my drives) encrypted with Apple’s FileVault. Apple does a great job of making full disk encryption really easy. I have two backup drives: one that stays in my apartment beside my laptop and another at my parents’ house. Whenever I go home to visit I run a backup from my laptop. It also keeps revision history of my files:

  • Hourly backups for 24 hours
  • Daily backups for the past month
  • Weekly backups for the previous months

But the best part of my strategy is CrashPlan. CrashPlan is an online backup service that I pay for. It is off-site and it has great encryption capabilities. I use my own encryption key with it so that the people at CrashPlan cannot even look at my files. It also backs up every five minutes!

CrashPlan is great when I’m working on my laptop while on the go away from my external hard drive. When I was in Tokyo I had one of the external drives with me but CrashPlan allowed me to keep an off-site backup of my photos in the case that my laptop and backup were destroyed or lost on the way back to Canada.

CrashPlan also keeps every five minute version forever under the settings I’ve chosen. This is probably unnecessary, but it doesn’t cost me anything extra.

Bottom Line

Have multiple copies, some off-site and make it automatic!