The IT Guy Says: Back it up!

Doctors constantly tell us to eat right, exercise regularly, and avoid smoking. Yet there are many doctors who are smoke, are fat, or are fat smokers. Hence the term, “doctors make the worst patients”.

We who work in information technology (IT) are no different. A doctor implores people to live healthily; IT professionals implore people to back up their data. Yet there are many IT degree professionals who fail to do this, thinking that hard drive failures and accidental file deletions don’t apply to them.

Technical communicators commit two sins in this area. Many of us don’t back up our files, or if we do, we don’t communicate to others how to do this. I am guilty of these crimes, and sentence myself to writing this article explaining my own multi-faceted approach to file storage and backup:

Back Up Your Files Already!

I have a three-stage approach to file back up and storage. At a minimum, you should do stage 1, but consider the other stages also.

Stage 1: Buy an external hard drive
Buy an external USB hard drive, attach it to your computer, and back up your files every day. Now, if you don’t have too many files, you could use a memory stick, but its performance can be quite slow compared to the hard drive. Besides, who amongst us really has only a few GB of data?

External hard drives come with their own backup software, or you can use a third-party program, many of which are free. I like Microsoft’s SyncToy, which you can set up to synchronize files on your computer to your backup drive.

I recommend setting up your backup software so that it only contributes files to your backup drive, and does not delete them. Although you’ll end up with extra files on your backup drive, it’s better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them.

Stage 2: Use an online back up service
While at a minimum you should back up your files to an external hard drive, this practice has one major limitation. If your computer and backup drive are stolen or destroyed, you are out of luck. One inexpensive way around this is to back up your files onto a CD or DVD and then store this in another location. The problem, of course, is that your file collection keeps changing.

An online backup system backs up all your current files to a secure location on the Internet. Even if your house burns down, your files are still available.

There’s many online services to choose from: I use iDrive which had the best pricing: 5GB for free, or 150 GB for $50/year, about $4 per month. You can configure it to automatically back up files as they change, thus ensuring that your backup always reflects your current file list. In addition, you can access your backed up files from any computer with Internet access.

Stage 3: Move to the cloud
All of my non-financial information lives on the cloud (the Web). This includes Google Docs for documents and spreadsheets, Gmail for email, Google Calendar, an iGoogle “to do” list, and this blog.

The beauty of having as much of your data on the cloud as possible is that you can log into any computer and access your data. When you combine cloud storage with an online backup service, you have full access to your digital world anywhere, anytime.

The downside is that security becomes an issue. That’s why it’s important you don’t store any sensitive information online, such as financial or banking information. The balance between security and convenience did not begin with the Internet, nor does it end with it. For example, credit cards offer convenience, but also the potential for fraud. As with all things, you need to use your best judgment.

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This is my three-stage approach to backup. Feel free to describe your approach by commenting on this article.

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