Do your Backup!

Dude, where's my data?

Throughout my years working in IT, from my time as a student, through all the years in technical support and all the way to IT Manager, I have seen how people have complete disregard for the safety of their data. They store all their treasured digital files on a single device, it being a laptop or their smartphones and don't invest a single second to think about what would happen to all their holiday pictures if the phone happened to be stolen or simply stops working. This is why I would like to make a little guide on how to backup your data the simplest and cheapest way possible and give you some background on this matter.



Compared to ten years ago, right about when smartphones started to take over the mobile market, we, as individuals, currently generate an absurd amount of data every day, mostly in the form of pictures taken with the smartphones themselves. The amount of new information created for and by every human on the planet grows exponentially, and is estimated to reach 1.7MB per second and person by 2020. That is 40ZB until then, yes Zettabytes; 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 bytes. I mean that number is so big it's kind of difficult to visualize. You know approximately how many files you can safe on an 8 Gigabyte memory stick for example, you also may know how much you can store on a 500GB hard drive. 1 Terabyte (1000GB) for the majority of people is still something they would never reach unless they are photographers or media content creators, but has already reached mainstream status. 1 Zettabyte is one billion Terabytes, big enough to store 152 million years of HD Video. Now multiply that by 40, and that's only an estimate.

What I'm trying to say is that our lives are surrounded and highly dependant of an ever growing amount of electronic data, and some of that data is very important for each individual, yet we care very little about it. If you have a desk job as an employee, or whatever job that involves a computer, you probably have never lost a second thinking about what would happen if you mistakenly delete a file, IT could probably take care of it right? This is why most people don't really think about the probability or repercussions of losing data, and since that document or picture isn't something physical you can touch, it can't deteriorate or break, right? Sure, but you are missing one crucial little thingy there, the medium where the data is stored on can actually break, burn, be overwritten, eaten by your dog, stolen or encrypted by ransomware.


I had a friend of mine come to me with her six to seven year old laptop, it wouldn't boot, the machine turned on but never made it to the log in screen. She asked me to please, please try to recover all her holiday pictures from all the trips she made in the last few years; USA, Mexico, Thailand, Dubai and all the other 5000 pictures taken with her phone. She told me that every time she got a new phone she would back the data up on her laptop, now all of her data is stored on that one device and, if I can't restore it, she would lose probably every picture she ever wanted to keep. I said well no problem, took the HDD out, run a recovery software over it, copied all the files over to an external disk, and gave it to her. It took her 3 months to sit down in front of her new laptop, the one she bought immediately after her old one gave up on life, and copy the data over. I tried to explain to her the importance of backing up her data and how easy it is yet, even though those files were extremely valuable to her, she didn't think it was critical to back them up.

From all I've seen throughout the last years, people don't seem to care about securing their belongings until something happens, this can be applied to insuring your house, putting a chain on your bike or creating a backup copy of your documents. Most folks are smart and will buy a chain the same day they buy their new bike, but somehow it's not a logic thought to be had when you buy a new laptop. I am one of those people, I didn't start backing up my data until I lost everything. This doesn't have to happen to you.

When I was studying computer science back in 2008 I had to reinstall Windows on my desktop PC, probably because it came with Vista and the blue screens of death were getting frustrating, so I moved all my files, including my school work, to my fathers PC. At that time I didn't have an external hard disk big enough for all my data, only an 8Gb USB Stick, so this seemed to be a good solution. The same evening my father comes to me and says "I now know why I had so little free space on my PC, your old user profile was over 60Gb big so I deleted it". I went completely pale. All the programs I had wrote to that day, all my school files, all the data I had up to the age of 18 was gone. I cried. A lot. And no, for some reason he didn't allow me to restore the data from his PC, probably because he didn't want me to find certain dirty pictures he saved from the internet.


Most people don't care enough about IT stuff as long as it works. They want to turn a given device on and they want it to work and execute whatever task they need. Then they turn it off and go on with their life. You can do that at work because you have your data on the server and they never had a problem with that. What they don't realize is how many layers of security (referring to data availability and backup) are hidden behind that server. I work for a company with about 150 employees and I can tell you a bit about our backup plan. You can picture our file server as a big computer that has around 24 hard disks connected to it, each with 600GB of available storage. Every user connects to that server and stores his work on it. The first system that ensures no data gets lost in the event of a hard disk failure, automatically stores a copy of it on another available hard disk. Then comes the actual backup. Every two hours the server creates a so called snapshot, a sort of waypoint in time that saves the current state of all the files edited in those last 2 hours, this allows for a quick restore in case of accidental deletion for example. Then, every night, an incremental backup from all the systems takes place, meaning that every file or folder that has been created or changed gets copied over to a magnetic tape (each one of our tapes can carry up to 1600GB of data). Just to give you an idea, 130 users can quickly create and modify up to 400GB a day. On friday evening a full backup job starts, which makes a copy of every file and server of the company, which takes up around 6 of the aforementioned magnetic tapes, including the incremental backups. These tapes then get stored in the local bank, and I pick up the tapes from last weeks backup and put them in a safe in our company. Every three months we make a quarterly backup, which will stay at the bank for around 2 years, and will be stored for another couple of years in a third safe at our location.

Since every bite of data means money for the company, these measures have to be taken, you always have to take the worst case scenario as a starting point. In case the server room burns down, the backup has to be made in a different room. If half of the building collapses, make sure you have a copy on the other side of the building or as mentioned before, in a bank. So what are you waiting for? Go out there and buy yourself an enterprise grade backup solution and never think about losing your data ever again! Wait, ain't nobody got time/money for that? It is too complicated? Ok ok I get it, all this stuff doesn't interest you in the slightest and/or is too technical for you to understand. Let me show you how easy it can actually be to never fear losing your data (again).


First of all, I will not go into cloud based solutions because, even though it may well be a suitable solution for your needs, like backing up a smartphone, I am not okay with storing all my personal files on a computer on the other side of the world, a computer which I have no control over. Putting that aside, let's create a scenario where you, the average computer user, have a laptop and a smartphone. Your laptop has enough storage for all your holiday pictures, private documents, maybe a few movies and a backup copy of your phone. I imagine the first unconscious thought is that if you could lose or break one those two devices, it most probably would be the smartphone, and that's backed up, so you're safe. Now, back to the friend of mine I mentioned earlier, what if the laptop stops working? Got you there, didn't I? Too often I see people that think IT folks are some kind of gods, able to miracles by only pressing ALT+F4 and bring molten hard disks back from the dead. Sorry, but if that disk is literally broken in half there's nothing I can do for you.

This is why I want you to take a close look at the following 4 steps on how to set up a backup solution for your files, and do it in such a manner that whenever you want to do your backup in the future, you can do it with only 3 clicks.


Step 1: Organize your data


Yes, it all starts by cleaning up. Open your laptop and find out where all your stuff is located; My Documents, Pictures, Downloads, Desktop, etc. It's probably scattered everywhere. I would now advise you to create a folder named "Data" for example, and put it somewhere easy to find. You can do this either directly on the desktop (if you are the only person that needs to access it) or directly on your C: hard disk drive (HDD). You now can use this folder to dump all of your files into it. Create a structure with subfolders like the folders a few lines above to be able to find your stuff easily. Do this once and you will never have to do it again, as long as you keep putting your files into this new folder.

I highly recommend you back up your phone now and copy all the pictures to your laptop. This is needed for the next step.

Step 2: Buy an external drive


This is the only thing that will cost you any money, and not even that much. You can now click with the right mouse button (as long as you are using Windows) on that "Data" folder you created, select settings from the drop down menu and you will see how big it is. Let's assume that, including the backup from your phone, that folder is 20GB big. For a person like me that's close to nothing, others may thing they would never reach 20GB in a lifetime, but that doesn't matter, what matters is that you don't want to lose whatever amount of data you have. For such a small amount you would probably think of getting an USB Stick, but don't. Those are meant for file TRANSFER and are very unreliable for long term backup. I would recommend any USB 256GB - 500GB HDD which are available for around $50 or less. Even 1 Terabyte drives are very affordable these days.

Pro Tip: This external hard drive is supposed to be used for backup purposes only. Spending more money on faster storage like external SSDs would be a waste. Only buy USB 3.0 hard drives if you actually have an USB 3.0 port on your computer (generally recognizable by being blue).

Step 3: Backing up your data


You are now sitting here, in front of your computer, with all your files sorted in a folder called "Data" and a freshly unboxed external hard drive already connected to the laptop. What now? Open your newly attached drive, it is currently empty, and create a folder with the same name as the source, in this case "Data". Now go to http://www.freefilesync.org/ and download FreeFileSync. As the name implies, it's a free software that allows you to synchronize two folders by the touch of a button. Once installed you can open it, and you will see two columns, left will be the source (your computer), and right will be the target (the external drive). Both columns have a Browse button where you can select the "Data" folder on the computer as the source (left side) and the "Data" folder on the external drive as the target (right side). If you now click on Compare this program will check what changes have been made on the source folder, and display the results in both columns. All the files on the right column will have a green arrow icon with a plus, letting you know it will copy all those files to the target location, since this one is currently empty. You can now hit Synchronize and it will copy all the data from the source location over to the target location. The next time you execute FreeFileSync and hit compare, it will automatically check for changes or added data and will only replicate those files over to the external drive.

This may sound a bit too complicated but lets go through the steps again:

  • Download and install FreeFileSync from http://www.freefilesync.org/
  • Set the "Data" folder on your computer as the source
  • Set the "Data" folder on your external drive as the target
  • Hit Compare
  • Hit Synchronize


From now on, the only two things you will have to do is compare and synchronize your files. Feel free to create two dummy folders and play around a little bit with this tool.

Pro Tip: Store this external drive in a separate location than your computer. In case of a robbery or a house fire you would still have a copy of your data.

Step 4: Create a schedule and worry no more


Use the calendar on your phone or computer to create a backup schedule. Depending on how much data you actually generate, you want to back up more or less often, but since everybody uses their smartphones on a daily basis, it wouldn't be that bad to set yourself a reminder for example once a month. When the day comes, you plug in your phone to the computer and back up whatever you need to (Pro Tip: you can also do this with FreeFileSync, setting the phone as the source) to the local "Data" folder.  Then you plug in the external drive, start up FreeFileSync, Compare, Synchronize.

Done.


Nice, you have now made sure that if either your phone or computer stops working, you still have a backup copy of everything that's important to you. You have invested about 30min to read this, organize your data and familiarize yourself with FreeFileSync, and in the future it will not take you longer than 5min to keep your backup up to date. Well done. At this point you are good to go, but if you are still interested, this is my personal set up:

I currently have a dedicated 4TB (4000GB) hard disk in my computer with all my data, sorted by Pictures, Documents, Downloads and Videos. Using FreeFileSync I synchronise all that data with a 4TB Synology NAS (Network Attached Storage) which I also use as media centre for the TV. I run the sync every few weeks or whenever I added a decent amount of new files. I also bought a 4TB external USB 3.0 hard disk as a backup from my backup (If my house would burn down my computer AND NAS would be gone). About 2-3 times a year I copy all the files over to that external hard disk (which is encrypted with Bitlocker, meaning the data is secure from unwanted access) and store it at work in my safe. This solution may be a bit overkill for the average user, but for someone that has about 2TB in data, I like to go that extra mile to minimize every possible damage.

For all the tech savvy people out there, please consider that this is a very basic guide directed at those who are not precisely binary fluent, with the only goal to show them how easy and quick it can be to create a back up copy of your beloved data.

I hope I was able to help some of you with this post, or at least made you aware of the fact that your data is everything but eternal, at least not as long as you don't to something about it. If you happen to have any questions feel free to send me a message through whatever channel you like.

Cheers

DHR_000x

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