Are Your Backups Really Keeping You Safe?


Backups – you know you need them. No one ever wants to find that the financial records, baby pictures, novel, or music and video library they’ve stored on their computer is lost forever.

But are you sufficiently paranoid? Does your current backup system (you have one, don’t you?) protect you against all these problems, plus anything else that might occur?

  • You accidently delete a file
  • You need to revert to an earlier version of a file
  • Your files are destroyed by malware
  • Your computer is destroyed by malware
  • Your computer fails after an update
  • You want to move files to a new computer
  • Your hard disk crashes
  • Your computer dies
  • Your computer is stolen
  • Your laptop is lost
  • Your house burns down with your computer inside

Like anything else having to do with computers, there are numerous possible solutions to the backup problem. The key to setting up a backup plan is risk assessment. You need to decide what you can and can’t afford to lose, and how much inconvenience and delay you can accept when you need to recover from a problem.

Backups can be either local or off-site. Local backups are under your complete control, and they’re often cheaper and usually faster, especially for restores. But if you lose your computer because of fire, robbery, or some other adverse event, you can also lose your local backups. Off-site backups are safe from those events, since they’re stored in a separate location. Now that you can do off-site backups automatically over the internet, they’re a good alternative. For the best protection, it’s a good idea to do both.

Complete, 100% protection from anything that might happen is impossible. However, you can easily set up a system that gets you close enough, without spending a lot of money and without the need for a lot of ongoing effort to keep the backups up-to-date.

Here, in perhaps excessive detail, is what we do to keep our data safe:

Backup system diagram

Ruth and I have each have a Dell desktop computer running Windows that we use as our primary system. We also each have an iPhone and an iPad. In addition, I have a Macbook Pro and a Windows laptop that I use for work, and an older Windows laptop that I use around the house, mostly as a newspaper replacement.

We combine three backup methods: Dropbox, CrashPlan, and local backups.

Most of the files I’m currently working on, whether on my desktop or on any of the laptops, are backed up instantly using Dropbox. Anything I store in a Dropbox folder is automatically synced to the Dropbox website, and from there to all my other computers running Dropbox. Dropbox can even copy files to and from my phone.

The main reason I use Dropbox is so I can access the files I’m working with from any of my computers. But each of those copies is also a backup, and since Dropbox syncs files instantly when I save them, most of what I’m working on is backed up right away.

But Ruth doesn’t use Dropbox. And while I find it useful, Dropbox isn’t terribly efficient at handling large files or large numbers of files, and you have to pay if you use a lot of storage. So there are some things I only store outside of Dropbox on my desktop system, like my music and photo libraries and my publishing projects.

Ruth and I back up the data files on our desktops (including Dropbox files) using CrashPlan. Once you tell CrashPlan what files to back up, it works quietly in the background with no effort on our part. The CrashPlan app monitors the files I select and every 15 minutes or so backs up any changes to their servers. It tries to keep from getting in the way, so if I’m busy, backups might be delayed until the computer isn’t being used.

Both Dropbox and CrashPlan keep multiple versions of our files online, so if we need an older version of anything, we can usually get it back.

CrashPlan does not do full image backups, but life is too short to restore the hundreds of gigabytes of a full image backup over the internet anyhow.  Instead, we use Macrium Reflect to save desktop disk image backups locally to a 4TB Western Digital MyCloud storage device connected to our home network.

The desktops are completely backed up every morning at 3am. Mondays, we do a full disk image. The rest of the week, we do differential backups. These backups allow us to restore individual files or restore an entire disk in the event of a crash or some other catastrophe. We keep at least four full backups around at all times, so we can restore data from a month back if necessary.

If I need to restore an image, I can boot Macrium from a USB stick. That keeps me from having to reinstall Windows in order to restore Windows.

Laptops are more likely to break or disappear than desktops, so nothing critical is stored solely on a laptop. Anything important on my laptops is stored in Dropbox so it’s backed up instantly, as long as I’m connected to the internet.

The applications on my laptops don’t change often, so full image backups aren’t as important. My MacBook does full backups using Apple’s Time Machine software. I use Macrium on the Windows laptops to save full disk images quarterly, in case I need to rebuild a laptop disk for some reason.

Finally, Ruth and I both automatically back up the iDevices to our desktops via iTunes every time we connect up to sync them. We could do off-site backups to iCloud instead, but since all our music is local, it makes sense to have everything else local, too. Of course, the iDevice backups are included in the CrashPlan backups of the iTunes library and the full image backups for the desktops, so we still have redundancy.

For the most part, this backup system requires little hands-on maintenance. All I usually do is check the Macrium logs weekly, read the status emails from CrashPlan, and pay attention to the Dropbox system tray icon to ensure that it’s functioning properly.

Most of the possible risks in the list at the beginning of this article are covered, but there are still holes. I try save early and often while I’m working, but if I save more often than my backups run, then I can’t recover an earlier version if I need it. I don’t have full backups off-site, so if there’s a fire or other disaster that wipes out all our local data, we won’t be able to restore all of our applications to a new computer and any files not included in Dropbox or CrashPlan are lost. And I should really test the restore process more often, especially the full image restores.

The cost for all this? I use the free versions of Macrium and Dropbox. CrashPlan costs $149.99/year for up to 10 computers (we also back up my mom’s computer under my account). And the MyCloud storage cost about $160. That’s not free, but it’s much cheaper than the cost of losing all my data, or reinstalling and reconfiguring an OS and all the applications on a computer before restoring a data-only backup.

So that’s what I do. Excessive? I don’t think so, even though I have eight copies of some of my files. At least I can sleep at night without worrying whether my work will be there in the morning.


Need help setting up backups, or anything else computer-related? I can help. Get in touch with me at ReallyFixIt.com.

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