Backup Paranoia and Letting Go

Issues of personal backup loom large this morning. I spent some time reading up on personal backup in light of my personal concerns. Here is the official cheat sheet on personal and SOHO backup.

How Much Data Do You Produce?
This tells you about the scale of your backup solution. Devoted videographer? You could easily produce 100’s of GB of raw Digital Video a year. A writer? A few MB a year will cover your needs. Archive of family photos? A few GB. The issue is scale. I don’t know about you, but for me more than three or four pieces of media is more trouble than it’s worth.

There Are No Good Solutions
Only less bad. What can you live with? Are you the kind of person who will meticulously go through aging media and rewrite it onto new media? Each year? Are you sure? CD = 700 MB. DVD = 4+ GB. Hard drive up to 750 GB.

Safety Through Replication
Media goes bad. Interfaces change. File formats lose support. Read errors. Head crashes. Wildfires, tornados, earthquakes, lightning strikes, floods, volcanos, hurricanes, blizzards, tsunami. One copy is the minimum. Two copies are better.

Proprietary File Formats = Mark Of The Beast
If only one program can read it, you are SOL if that program goes away. Therefore:

  • Text: use .txt, .rtf, or pdf. That’s right, save your Word docs in these formats. You can also use Word to pull text out of obsolete document files from no longer available word processors.
  • Pictures: use .jpg, .tiff, or pdf. Sure, .psp is handier, but will you *always* have a copy of Photoshop when you need it?
  • Music: high-bit rate (256kb/s or above) .mp3 sounds good and will play anywhere. Burn your protected iTunes downloads to CD and then use Tunatic to recover titles, artists and the like.
  • Video: edit it down and burn it to a DVD. Keep a copy of the edited version on a backup hard drive as well. True, you won’t be saving every precious second, but DV files are huge, so just the time it takes to read the data will be daunting in a year or two. Re-burn the DVD every year or two.
  • DO NOT USE commercial backup software. Sure, they may make it easy, but 1) if the backups aren’t working you won’t usually know until it is too late and 2) they use proprietary formats which = mark of the beast.
  • DO USE standard backup formats like tar or just back up files.
  • Encryption is another file format. If you must encrypt, use a widely available package like PGP or .zip. But think twice. Maybe a good lock on the door would be better.

What I Do
I live on my computer. I’ve hosed drives before, so I understand what can happen. I use a hard drive as my primary back up medium. It’s fast, easy and reliable. I’m on a Mac so I’ve created an external, bootable disk that has all my apps and files. If my laptop dies or walks out, I can get a new one and have all my data in minutes.

I back up monthly. I leave email on my servers for 30 days so email doesn’t have to be backed up any more frequently. This blog is hosted externally at DreamHost (use coupon stomojo to save $15 off any of their plans), who backs up the data as well. I back up the entire site locally every week too.

Then Let It Go
Do what you can, and then stop worrying. If all your data went away it would be a massive pain, but you’d still be alive. You can re-create most of it. And what you can’t re-create how much of it do you really need? Personal data is just stuff. You’ll miss if for a while, but in a few years you won’t even remember what all the fuss was about.

At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Update On Drive Life
I read somewhere that leaving hard drives on a shelf doesn’t work because the lubricant inside dries out and the drive won’t spin up. So I asked the folks who should know at Seagate if that is true. They assure me it isn’t.

For personal and SOHO backup, disk drives are almost as cheap as tape cartridges, offer high speed random access, have lower error rates, and don’t rely upon flaky backup software to work.