Developing a personal backup strategy
Backing up computers, tablets and phones, anything digital
Mac vs. PC vs. Linux
IVAN STEGIC: Hey Everyone! You’re listening to the TEN7 Podcast, where we get together every fortnight, and sometimes more often, to talk about technology, business and the humans in it. I am your host Ivan Stegic. In this episode of the Podcast, we’re going to talk about having a personal backup strategy. Most often backups are only really important when you really, really, need them, but don’t have them. And by that time, it’s too late. So, let’s talk about what you could be doing to protect yourself. Joining me on the Podcast, once again, is Tess Flynn. Welcome back, Tess.
TESS FLYNN: Hello!
IVAN: Hello! Boy, this is a big topic, I think.
TESS: Yea! Yea it is. (laughing)
IVAN: Why should you be backing your things up? What are all the things?
TESS: Why should you back things up is the first thing I’d probably ask? Probably because this universe is cruel, unpredictable and unkind. (laughing)
IVAN: And, also, because you can?
TESS: Also, because you can. It’s a good idea to actually back up your stuff whenever. So, tell me if this has happened to you before. You decide to go on a business trip, and your backpack is too big, too heavy, you can’t put it through regular security. So, in a vain attempt to actually appease the TSA gods, you decide to take out the laptop, that you know you’re not going to use during your flight, and you put it in your regular luggage. When you get that back, you discover the screen is completely smashed. Now, you don’t have a laptop and no way of getting at anything. That’s bad! Or, you’re trying to get your car stuck out of the mud while you’re on a road trip. Your phone falls off, hits the one rock in the mud, and it’s dead now. There are so many different reasons why you might want to actually backup stuff. I usually tell people, it’s not the reasons you could think of, it’s the reasons that you don't expect, because that’s when you actually need the backup.
IVAN: And, it sounds like it’s not just a computer. It’s your phone as well.
TESS: It’s anything that I would say is part of your digital existence, your digital life. If it’s anything that you want to retain, that you expect to keep, that you don’t treat as inherently ephemeral, you probably should back it up.
IVAN: But don’t my devices already come with backup that’s already switched on and magically doing it for me already?
TESS: I know that Android has gotten significantly better at doing that over the last few versions to the point of creepiness. I think Apple has moved toward that, over a success of versions. But there are reasons why people disable that feature, or don’t have it on, or it doesn’t sync. Or they simply don’t like that feature, and they don’t ever want to use it because they use a different way of managing their files. There are other cases where you might decide you’re really into this one particular app, and you’re using this app for all of your notes. And then that application either gets bought out, gets acquired, or shuts down unexpectedly. Now what? Exactly. You’re screwed!
IVAN: You’re screwed! That sounds like vendor lock-in.
TESS: Well, it is vendor lock-in. And, that is something that everyone does have to be aware of, that there is a significant amount of that, especially when you’re using Cloud services. That’s how they get you.
IVAN: So, we’ve established that you should be backing up. We’ve established that you should likely be backing up all of your computers, especially the ones you care about, as well as your mobile devices. Maybe the question is what should you be backing up on each of those devices? Do you do the whole thing? Do you do parts of it? How often do you do it? Ah, so many questions.
TESS: Yea. Ok. So, there’s a significant amount of opinion in how this works. Personal preference goes into how you decide to define your backup strategy. If you’re a completionist, if you just want absolutely everything, and you don’t want to lose anything at all, you’ll probably end up with something that looks a lot more like a corporate modality, or you do a complete total imaging of your files. In that case, for a laptop, that would literally mean a copy, an entire imaging of your hard drive that will be persistent to some other external resource. And, not just the files, but the structure of the file system itself on the hard drive. For phones, the same idea. You take an entire archive of the nand flash memory that’s inside of the phone, and you persist that to a file, and you upload that file to some other location, or you write it to a durable storage medium and store it somewhere else. One particular philosophy. I am not a fan of that philosophy personally. I find that it is a blunt instrument, and it tends to work very well in environments where you have to deal with government and industry regulation. And, for personal individuals I find that a bit too much. (laughing) I don’t think you need that much backup.
IVAN: So, you don’t really need the backup of the whole computer. But doesn’t that make it easier to get up and running once your computer dies, if you do have a complete backup?
TESS: So, this is also something where there’s a degree of personal preference. One of my golden rules is your computer is inherently disposable. You should treat it like it is disposable. You should act like it. Which means, you should not treat your computer as the canonical repository of your stuff. If that is how you’re treating your computer, you are dealing with that in a physical medium, that has the possibility of causing a great deal of heartache, because you might lose it, or it might get damaged, or it might get infected, or any number of possibilities. That’s something that’s kind of a problem for me personally, mostly because in my personal history I am used to half working, half broken, ancient, cantankerous systems, that don’t quite work well. (laughing) One of my first computers was a Mac Plus, and I had it running System 753, which it is not meant to run.
TESS: You could see the menus redraw, and it frequently crashed about every 15 minutes, because there was no floating point unit on the CPU. And that was a formative experience when it came to my backup strategy, because I always want to have backups that are discreet, that are quickly accessible, quickly transferrable. And if I lose a system, I do not try to stay attached to that system too heavily, and see it instead as an opportunity to rebuild the entire system from scratch. For example, for Android phones in particular, you have the option to re-import all of your settings and applications from your Google account, from your last phone. I don’t use this feature. I don’t like using this feature. I would rather start from fresh each time, because there’s a significant amount of personal cruft, which happens with these applications. And, perhaps it’s because I am more used to working with computers and have switched so many different computers, so many different operating systems, since I was five years old, that I’m used to the idea of “well, if I get a new device, I want to treat it like a new experience and start over from the beginning.” I don’t want to actually bring my old stuff over, because maybe I’ll configure it better this time, or differently this time, or things that I did do to fix other problems that I had then, I don’t have anymore, and I don’t want to bring that hacky fix over. And, this kind of personal cruft follows this if you don’t clear it out once in a while.
IVAN: You know, I feel exactly the same way. There’s just something about getting a new device that’s clean and crisp and starting from scratch that allows you to remember what the original system is like, and then make it yours again without having all of this baggage. Right? It’s almost like your dropping off that digital baggage at the last computer, what you really care about is the data that you had and making sure that that was backed up and accessible to you on this new device. So, it’s a matter of bringing in the personalization, kind of the preferences. And I guess it kind of feels like the device is just a window onto the data.
TESS: That’s correct. The way that I like looking at it is that your device isn’t your digital life. That modality makes a lot more sense before the internet. You need to look at your constellation of personal data as something that exists beyond the screen that is right in front of you. It is elsewhere in other servers, in other computers you own, in other accounts you maintain, other services that you may pay or may not pay, depending on what you decide to use. And, you need to be aware of the pluses and minuses of all of those in order to not only define a good backup strategy, but also to have a better sense of how to deal with if one system crashes, how big of a deal is it? Or, if it gets stolen. That happens too. How many times have you heard the story of somebody gets their phone stolen, and they don’t care about getting the phone back. They want the pictures in the phone. That happens a lot, and that is actually emblematic of this situation. It’s not the device. If you put your life in the device, it’s vulnerable. It’s a physical device that is vulnerable. But, what you need to look at is what’s the data? What’s the thing that I want to persist? To maintain? To keep with me as long as my physical existence persists.
IVAN: Or as long as my head persists on an Android body. (laughing)
TESS: (laughing) Oh, it’s been a while since I watched that animé. (laughing)
IVAN: (laughing) Yea, right! Ok, so, I have Mac. I use a Mac at home. I have a MacBook Air. In my basement I have an external hard drive connected to another Mac that I’ve set up as the place where all of my backups go. On a Mac it’s easy. You set up your Time Machine and you point it to an external hard drive whether it’s on your own computer or on a network location, and you set it and you forget it. You can do that for all of the computers in your house as long as you have a big enough hard drive, and then it turns out to be quite easy. So, it was really easy and smart of Apple to do that. To put this Time Machine wrapper around what’s essentially UNIX command lines of copying files that are on your computer to a different location, and then only copying updated files to that other location, and then making it easy to manage that. So, that’s what I have going on for local backup at home. I know you’re on a Linux laptop Tess, and I suspect you have some sort of setup as well, for local backups, but I have no idea what it is. Nor do I have any idea what a Windows person would do. So, what is it that you do Tess?
TESS: Well, I’ll answer the second question first. A lot of Windows people also will have a similar solution to the Airport backup that Apple provides – the Time Machine backup. There are various different Cloud products and providers for that. I know that Seagate was making one of those for the longest time. Microsoft probably has their own by now. To me, all of those are fairly high level, meant to tie you even more deeply to the particular operating system that you’re using, and this is another thing that’s because of my particularly strange personal experience, I have changed a lot of operating systems in my time. I have used several different Linux’s, a few Unix’s, several different versions of Windows, versions of Mac OS from version 5 all the way to the latest version of 10, and several other operating systems which are long since dead, like, BOS, Haiku, a whole bunch of other weird ones. This has forged a backup strategy which is surprisingly low-tech for me. But, it works very well for me. And, I could gladly tell you about my low-tech backup solution if you’d like?
IVAN: I’d love to hear it.
TESS: So, the primary concerns that I have is, it has to be easily readable. It needs to be operating system portable. It needs to be inexpensive. And, it needs not to consume power actively while doing nothing other than sitting there. Because, one thing that always bothers me about these things like Time Machine and what not, is, it is a physical device that sits there and consumes power when I’m not using it. And, I hate that. It’s wasteful, and it adds heat to the room, and when you are fresh out of college, working at a not very well-paying job, you don’t have the luxury to do that, but you do know you need to back stuff up. Because, your system is made out of junk, and you don’t know when it’s going to crash. (laughing)
IVAN: Oh man! I feel bad about my Time Machine downstairs now.
TESS: (laughing) So, the solution I have is just maddeningly, stupidly easy. And, it’s probably going to shock the heck out of you, once I tell it. So, the first step is you need to go to your local department store and buy a fireproof safe. I’m not kidding!
IVAN: Got it!
TESS: The next is, you get a DVD burner (laughing), and then you copy the files to the DVD in the standard DVD format. And, that’s it. That’s the entire backup strategy. Do that every six months or up to every two years, depending on the kind of technology that you’re using, and that’s really it. Put the DVD’s inside the box, close the box, put it somewhere either in your house or elsewhere – a safe deposit box – a storage facility – somewhere else. And, the reason why this backup strategy works for me is that, it’s very easily extendable, buy more DVD’s (laughing). It is relatively durable even in a catastrophic sense, because it has no electronics, so it can’t get fried. It is in a fireproof safe, so it can’t melt. It will be in some kind of storage facility that generally has either some kind of environmental monitoring such as HVAC, heating/cooling, that sort of thing. The reason why DVD’s and not USB sticks, and I thought about this, because I was thinking about this earlier today, why don’t I use USB sticks? Because they’re almost as cheap per megabyte as DVDs now. The reason comes down to well, USB sticks are electronics and they have an active component that once set can still be modified. That makes them subject to bit rot a lot more than say a DVD. Not to say that DVDs aren’t subject to bit rot as well, they have a limited 10- year lifespan, but it’s low-tech, it has no active electronics. If you submerge a DVD in water, pull it out and dry it off, you’re fine. You don’t need to worry about the chip frying because there’s no chips.
IVAN: That’s a really low-tech, really safe way of backing up your data. And, it seems to me that it’s more archival and not data that you are going to be relying on being there on a daily or weekly basis. So, maybe these are monthly, half yearly, yearly snapshots of your precious files, your precious images, your precious videos, and the like.
TESS: That’s correct.
IVAN: So, I have a similar strategy for my offsite backups. I’ll tell you about it in a second, but I was wondering where you keep your fire resistant safe? Is it in your home, or do you have another location you keep it in?
TESS: It’s in my closet. (laughing)
IVAN: Ok, so technically, that’s your local fast access, archival backup?
TESS: Mm hmm, and the only reason why it’s not offsite is because, well, I’m a cheapskate. (laughing)
IVAN: (laughing) So, I have a fire-resistant safe deposit box at the bank. It’s relatively inexpensive to have a safety deposit box. I think it’s like 60 bucks a year, and I haven’t gone down the optical media route. I have the small 2½ inch hard drives that are used in laptops. What I’ve done is, I’ve archived, kind of in the same as often as you have, maybe not as often as six months, but basically when the safe deposit box renewal comes on an annual basis, that’s when I know that I need to create another snapshot of the files that are important to me, put them on a 2½ inch hard drive and swap it out with the 2½ inch hard drive that’s already in the safe deposit box. That’s my offsite, archival backup. Holy crap, if everything goes down, I still have stuff that’s important to me in a different place.
TESS: There’s nothing wrong with that strategy, although I’ve had those hard drives fail on me. So, I’m always a little bit nervous about using those compared to another durable medium. It’s a pity we don’t have holographic, crystal-based storage, like in Babylon 5.
IVAN: (laughing) It is REALLY unfortunate. It’s interesting that you should mention that. At my previous job I worked in in the optical technology center at Imation, and one of the projects we worked on was three-dimensional holographic storage as an optical disk, and it was way ahead of its time. No market uses at all. But the idea was to store data in an archival format, on an optical disk, but do it in layers, in many different layers on this media. And it was really cool. But, we couldn’t get it to market, unfortunately.
TESS: It still surprises me that the gold standard in the corporate world for backup is still tape, literal tape.
TESS: Because tape actually lasts like 40 years.
IVAN: Exactly! Exactly! That’s exactly right. Tape lasts for 40 years, and unfortunately, it’s not manufactured in the United States anymore, it’s manufactured overseas. But, there are definitely good uses for it, and it’s still around. Unfortunately, optical media doesn’t have the same longevity. And, I think you said 10 years for DVDs. I would almost argue that it might be 5-10 years that you should be looking at for optical media. So, if you have your precious files on CD’s and DVD’s, 10 years might be a stretch in my opinion.
TESS: I think that might depend also on UV exposure and heat problems. But, yeah, I’ve heard the 5-10 years as well.
IVAN: And, you’re right about there not being any bit rot on optical media, which is absolutely a benefit over things like flash media. We’ve talked a lot about local, slow access archival backup. But, what if I need access to files that changed yesterday? That I updated yesterday, because I have a presentation, or a proposal and my computer died. What should I be doing for backup in those cases?
TESS: For those cases I usually do rely on some sort of Cloud service. Mostly because those particular kinds of backup are designed to handle that kind of instant access, but highly available data that we want to keep. So, a lot of my files are actually in Google Drive, because I pay Google to actually store them, and that is my active backup for anything that I need. So, if I switch systems or if I go to my phone and have to live out of that for a week, I can still get to everything. I can’t run GIMP on my phone, but I can still get the files. (laughing) But there are also other things, like it depends on the kind of files that you’re trying to store. If it’s general file storage, you’ll probably want something that’s in the line of Google Drive – I think they call it Google One now, or One Drive. I don’t know. Marketing’s weird. Office 365 has its own storage medium. There’s box.net. There’s Dropbox. There’s tons of these different ones. There’s even an open source one you can manage yourself called ownCloud, that you can prop up your own server somewhere, either on a Raspberry Pi in your living room, or on a server somewhere else, on the internet, and you could use that to store your files and access them dynamically as you need to. General file storages, that covers pretty much that entire space. When it comes to specific kinds of projects, it depends. If it’s a code project or anything that’s heavily text based, like a website project, or just writing or anything like that, I tend to put it in a git repository and then have that git repository stored on GitHub if I don’t care if it’s public, or GitLab if I want to keep it private from everyone else.
IVAN: Now, I’ve read and seen this strategy called the 3-2-1 strategy. Three copies, two of them local and one offsite. It seems like a really smart way to approach the data that you have and the data that you should be concerned about. Could you explain that a little more?
TESS: This is actually the first time I’ve heard about the 3-2-1 strategy, but it’s a good one, because you want to have one backup at least, because once something fails you want to reach for the backup and have the backup available, so you could use it. Then, what happens if that backup is corrupted or has failed, or something else? Well, then you want to have another backup to make sure that you have a local failover for that. But, then, there are cases where it’s a total loss situation. Like, universe forbid, someone has a house fire, they lose both of their local backups. What do you do then? Well, you should have the remote backup. The offsite backup. That should allow you to recover that part of your digital life.
IVAN: And I think that the two local copies isn’t just to have two different copies. I think the recommendation is to have it on two different kinds of media. So, two different devices. So, if you possibly can have those two copies locally, have one on an external hard drive that’s in a cupboard or in a drawer somewhere. And have the other one on a computer, or on an optical media device. So that if one kind of device fails, you have a better chance of the other kind of device still being around. Ok, so we’ve kind of talked about complete system images, different operating systems, making sure that you’re backing up your whole computer and maybe just backing up the important files, and some people have that preference, like you do. We talked about devices that are computers and devices that are mobile. We’ve talked about Dropbox and Google Drive and Google One, I think. There’s a lot of things that we should be thinking about when backing up our prized possessions, and I love that we were able to do this in about half an hour. Do you have any parting words of wisdom?
TESS: The finest teacher of your backup strategy is when you have to use it. This gets back to when you change devices, it’s really an opportunity to test your own backup strategy. So, don’t see getting a new system as a drudgery work that you have to copy everything over…oh God. Instead, look at it as an opportunity to make sure that your backup strategy’s working the way it is intended. That you have all your stuff persisted the way that you want to, and that it’s accessible to levels that you feel comfortable with.
IVAN: So, your backup strategy is only as good as the last time you used it?
IVAN: Well, Tess. Thank you so much for spending your precious time with me.
TESS: Not a problem.
IVAN: You’ve been listening to the TEN7 Podcast. Find us online at ten7.com/podcast. And if you have a second, do send us a message. We love hearing from you. Our email address is [email protected]. Until next time, this is Ivan Stegic. Thank you for listening.