My Computer Backup Strategy

Last night my computer suffered a bad crash while attempting a software upgrade. Fortunately everything was backed up, so things are back to normal again. I thought I’d write a short note to answer a question I’m often asked: “how do you back up your files?”. My approach is based on two rules: (a) recovery should be simple and (b) the most important things to back up are those that are unique, like my documents, pictures and datasets. Everything else is replaceable, including software and all those music and movie files. So here’s how I do my backups. It may not work for you, but hopefully something similar will be usable.

  • Daily: Files on my main computers are backed up daily using Apple’s Time Machine. A second daily copy is made onto a linux home server. This is pretty much my entire life, so there must be two “live” backups, just in case one fails to restore (this has happened to me!).
  • Offsite Data: All datasets, personal documents, and project files are automatically backed up regularly onto Amazon S3 using jungledisk. Amazon is very affordable and very good especially if you have lots of files. My family members using PCs use Mozy. Friends and colleagues have also had good experiences with sugarsync. The main idea is that if your house or office burns down or if you’re hit by a hurricane or earthquake, you’ll still have your files. All you need is your web browser. It also helps if you are not traumatized enough to forget your password and private key.
  • Offsite Media: Photos and home videos are backed up on smugmug immediately after being downloaded from my camera. Sixty dollars a year for unlimited space is my definition of a good deal. If you use something else, watch out for copyright especially with the free sites, ie. make sure you own all your photos and are not automatically giving the service provider a free perpetual license.
  • Cloning: Once a month (and before any major software upgrades or major trips) I use Carbon Copy Cloner to make a complete image of my notebook hard disk onto an external USB drive. Lots of alternatives exists for Windows and Linux. Note the Apple’s Time Machine is good for recovering the odd file or two, but takes forever for an entire system restore. We’ve also been locked out of it before due to permissions issues. Nothing beats a cloned disk image.

That’s it: daily backups, monthly clones and offsite copies. With improvements in synchronization software, all this takes place with little intervention, and backups happen quickly. No matter how busy you are, take a few minutes to plan your own backup strategy.

Author: kwanghui

9 thoughts on “My Computer Backup Strategy”

  1. You’re heavily reliant on online services, which I imagine means you’re moving around quite a few GB of data each month. What ISP and what plan do you have?
    For those who can’t afford to move so much data around online and who don’t have so much critical work that they need to backup daily – a pair of  external USB hard drives isn’t a bad solution.  Back up once per week – leave one drive at home and lock the other someplace secure offsite (e.g. work, friends/family home)


  2. Dear HeathG, that’s a good point. Backing up to external USB drives and keeping one offsite is a good solution. The problem is that syncing files manually is a hassle. Also, people end up getting lazy after awhile in bringing usb disks back and forth. In contrast, most online software solutions are automated: switch on and forget about it until your next disaster.
    Do not over-estimate the amount of bandwidth you’ll need, or for that matter the cost, of doing online backups. The initial backup is often many gigabytes. But after that, only incremental changes are sent online, and there are very few of us who generate several GB of new data per week.
    Start by including only the folders containing the most essential and “scarce” files, and slowly expand the set as time goes by. Remember you don’t have to backup all those commercial movies and songs online, only valuable documents that are unique to you, your workgroup, or your family.
    Just for your reference, I use ADSL2+ broadband at home from iinet. it’s $70 for 55GB/month or $130 for 120GB/month. Download speeds are around 7mbps and uploads are 1mbps, so pretty modest. Even at this speed, I can upload 10GB per day, which is quite a lot. Here’s a useful calculator:
    So the point here is that even a modest internet connection may be enough for online backups. I doubt many people create more than 10GB of new data per day.  If you do have a big amount of initial data, one solution is to encrypt it, then send a physical disk by mail or fedex to the service provider, who can add it to your account.  For example here is Amazon’s:
    Apart from geographic redundancy, several other benefits exist with online solutions. The first is that sharing is easy. So our photos on smugmug are easy to send to people, as are files that collaborators need to work on. Second, many of these will keep different versions of the same file, so you can always go back to earlier versions. Third, online storage is often quite reliable, unlike your usb disk which you ought to fully checksum and verify each time you back up if you want 100% certainty of data recovery.
    Finally, while I am a strong advocate for online storage for some of your files, I do not believe it fits everyone’s needs. You need to decide what works best for you, and what tradeoffs you are willing to live with.


  3. I’m actually a big fan of the idea of online backups, for the reasons you outlined. But it’s worth making sure people consider the bandwidth costs.
    I also wonder if/when we the NBN finally arrives, this might actually lead to some consumers reversing the backup process. i.e. primary copy of their data is in the cloud, whilst they backup to their HDD in case of network outage or screw ups by their storage provider.


  4. HeathG, thanks for sharing (sorry for the overly-long reply; I also took the opportunity to address several questions that were separately emailed to me).
    Your thoughts about how the National Broadband Network will reverse our idea of what’s our primary store of data is fascinating.
    Best regards, kwang.


  5. @ email Backup. If your question was directed at me, I’m using an two external HDD.
    I copy to a portable drive, then copy that to a removable HDD on my media centre. This has multiple weakness I know.. 1) I don’t do it regularly enough… usually only before going away/holidaying since this is the time of greatest risk of my machine being damaged or stolen. 2) I don’t store the portable off-site, but I’m looking to change that. 3) By going from laptop -> portable ->media centre… I risk carrying over to eh meda centre any flaws that arise when copying to the external HDD.


  6. I have my primary copy of data on a 16GB flash drive. I then plug it into my laptop (mostly at home) or desktop (at work) and make backups every few days to the hard drives in those machines. I also have another external hard drive at work that I occasionally make a 4th copy to,


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