August 2010

The Backup Plan, Part Two: Staying Safe

Not long ago, photos were taken on film, letters were written on paper, and music was available on LPs -- all hard, physical things. Times change. Today, photos, letters, and music have gone "soft" -- datastreams of ones and zeros that reside on the hard drives of a computer or other storage device. As the world goes increasingly digital, physical formats are being abandoned for bits and bytes, which is why I wrote last monthís editorial, "The Backup Plan, Part One: Awareness." I wanted to be sure that readers understand how vital it is to safeguard their digital data -- if the device those ones and zeros are stored on is damaged or fails, thereís a good chance those data will be lost forever. 

While Part One focused on awareness of the risks, this installment will help you reduce your exposure to those risks. In fact, Iím glad I waited until Part One was published before writing Part Two. Readers wrote in response to Part One, telling me how they store and protect their music and data files, and I solicited input from people on our writing staff and elsewhere to learn how they safeguard their data. There was plenty to learn from everyone. 

SoundStage! Network associate editor Roger Kanno backs up his main hard drive, which contains his music collection, to a secondary drive -- but he keeps that second drive, like his main drive, in his house, and itís the only backup he has. If both his main and backup drives fail at the same time -- not as unlikely as it seems, partly because they reside in the same place, but mostly because, sooner or later, all hard drives fail -- heíll be out of luck. Rad Bennett, our entertainment editor, uses multiple hard drives for the redundancy (i.e., duplication; see below) that provides, but confessed that he hadnít considered what would happen if a catastrophe happened in his house and the equipment there was destroyed. Of those who responded to Part One, only Ayre Acousticsí Steve Silberman stored his backups offsite. 

Of the people who contacted me via e-mail, most hadnít considered the quality of the devices they were saving their backups to, and no one had considered storing their backups anywhere but at home. All in all, most people, in terms of keeping safe their music collections and other files, are running a higher risk than they thought they were. Granted, a photo album, or a library of CDs and LPs, would also be destroyed in a fire, but digital data -- bunches of ones and zeros on a storage device -- are more fragile, particularly given the delicate nature of hard-drive technology. 

As I said in Part One, there are many ways to back up and safeguard your data, and Part Two wonít teach you all or even one of them in any great detail. The most appropriate backup plan will vary from system to system; what might be good for one person might not be suitable for another. But the present article will give you guidelines for putting together a topnotch backup system of your own that can keep your music and data files safe. 

Iíve used many different strategies over the years, but every successful backup plan Iíve used has consisted of four elements: 


The hard drive is the simplest, least expensive way to back up large amounts of data. You can buy a very capacious external drive from Costco, Best Buy, Staples, or any computer-parts supplier, hook it up to your USB port, and make a duplicate of your main data drive(s). You can use a simple "copy" command to replicate the data, or backup software that will copy the data, verify their integrity, and keep track of whatís been backed up and what hasnít, to make future backups quicker and easier. Whatever method you choose to replicate the files, the key is to not rely on a single extra hard drive, but to use enough drives that, in the event of failure of not only your main but your backup drives as well, you still have something that works, and from which you can recover your data. 

How many hard drives are enough to protect against failure? Youíll get a variety of opinions, but I prefer to be safe than sorry, and indulge in whatís probably overkill. I use five hard drives: one main drive that contains my entire music collection, and four others for backing up all of those music files as well as my other irreplaceable data -- photos, videos, financial records, every file pertaining to the SoundStage! Network since its inception -- over and over again. 

Why so many? First, the chance of five drives all failing at once is very low. Second, having all these drives allows me to keep two at my home at all times, and two others in secure locations outside my home. God forbid that catastrophe ever strike my home, but if it did, I can recover all of my valuable files.  

Whatís more, each year I retire at least two of the drives by disconnecting them and putting them on a shelf with the current data intact (but no more added), then replacing them with two new drives, usually with more capacity, to accommodate my constantly growing collection of files. I do this because Iíd rather have the drives sitting idle but still in working condition, should some unlikely failure among my current five drives mean I would have to use them. Itís just one more level of safety. As I said before: overkill. 

Granted, itís a little inconvenient to be backing up all the time and schlepping drives here and there, and I suspect most people wonít go to such lengths to safeguard their information. But Iíve experienced enough hard-drive failures over the years to know that the extra time spent backing up is worth it, and the cost in hardware isnít as high as it might at first seem. Nowadays, a good-quality hard drive that can store 1 terabyte (1TB) or more of data costs only $100. My five drives cost me a total of about $500 -- less than some audiophiles pay for a pair of interconnects. Paying $200 more per year for brand-new drives is a pittance for the safety and peace of mind it affords me. 


Redundant hard drives are a staple of my current backup plan, but I donít rely on them exclusively -- I like to vary the storage mediums. Between major backups to hard drives, I copy new data to DVD-Recordable (DVD-R) discs and store them on a shelf. I use DVD-Rs because theyíre cheap and convenient (I used to use CD-Rs). If some new technology comes along thatís fitting for this purpose -- recordable Blu-ray is likely, when the price comes down -- Iíll probably use that for these interim backups. 

Obviously, you canít back up nearly as much data to a DVD-R as you can to a hard drive -- a single-layer DVD-R holds 4.7GB, about the equivalent of six CDs, or less than 0.5% of what a 1TB hard drive can hold -- but itís usually enough to back up as much new data as Iíll create in a few days or a week, whether documents, photos, or music files. If I need more storage space, I use more discs. 


Redundancy and variety arenít enough. Regardless of how many copies you have of your data, you should always use high-quality storage devices, particularly hard drives, that are less susceptible to damage and failure, even if they cost a little more. The reason for this should be obvious, but itís worth stating: Backups are for safety should your hardware fail; however, youíre always better off avoiding failure in the first place. 

But thereís little consensus with regard to whatís "best." Quality can vary, even within the lines of well-regarded brands you can usually trust. Occasionally, even good companies can release clunkers or have quality-control problems (witness Toyota). Choosing the most reliable storage device can be tough; all I can tell you is what Iíve learned. 

Over the years, Iíve found drives from Seagate and LaCie to be very unreliable; they crash prematurely, without having been subjected to any kind of abuse. Luckily, all of the drives from these companies that Iíd bought were under warranty when they failed, so I could get them fixed or replaced -- still, I lost all the data Iíd stored on them. In contrast, I have yet to have a Western Digital drive fail (currently, I have six), even though I know that, if I continue to use them, they eventually will -- hence my early-retirement plan for hard drives. When I buy my next drive, itíll probably be a Western Digital. All that said, Iíve read reports by people whoíve had the opposite experience: no trouble with LaCie and Seagate drives, and various problems with WDs. My suggestion: research for yourself, and experiment.  

As for DVD-Rs, Iíve found no correlation between brand name, price, and quality. Iíve bought big-name discs that cost a lot of money, as well as no-name discs costing much less, and have experienced the same kinds of read and write errors with all of them. Thatís why, when it comes to backing up data on DVD-Rs, I just keep a lot of discs on hand and copy my data over and over again, to ensure that, if I need to recover data, Iíll eventually find at least one disc thatís readable. That said, I still tend to buy brand-name discs (e.g., Maxell, Verbatim) if the price is reasonable, but if I see a spindle of discs at a really low price from a brand I donít know, I wonít hesitate to try them out. 


You can use the best drives and discs in the world and have places to store them on- and offsite, but your data are safe only if theyíve been backed up in the first place. That is, if you donít take the time and trouble to perform consistent and timely backups, you could lose all the data youíve accumulated since the time of your last backup and the moment your main drive failed. It happens all the time -- a hard drive fails, and the owner immediately thinks, When was my last backup? Often, itís a lot longer ago than the owner thought. 

There are no hard-and-fast rules about how often you should back up; it mostly depends on how much data you accumulate, and when. On days when you add no new data to your drive at all, itís not worth doing a backup; other days, whole GB of new data might land there that youíd be wise to back up right away. 

If youíre unaware of how much data youíre backing up, youíd be wise to use a schedule, even if it means sometimes doing a backup that isnít worth it -- better safe than sorry. All modern backup software lets you schedule backup times so that you can "set it and forget it." If you regularly accumulate new data, scheduling a backup every day or two isnít unreasonable. Iíd never go longer than a week. 

Because Iím highly aware of the need to back up data and know precisely how much new data are being added to my drive at any time, I do a backup whenever Iíve accumulated enough data and know full well that Iíll kick myself silly if the hard drive fails at that moment. One day, I backed up three times while working -- I was putting so much new stuff on my drive that I didnít want to wait till the end of the day, just in case something went wrong. As I said: overkill. But Iím protected. 

Putting it all together 

I use good storage devices (quality); I donít use only one type of backup media (variety); I make many copies, some stored at my house, others offsite (redundancy); and I ensure that backups are done regularly as new data accumulate (consistency). These elements safeguard not only my music collection, but my collections of documents, photographs, videos, and any other files stored on my hard drive. To some, my fanatical approach to data backup might seem excessive. But knowing that I can recover my data, even in the event of the worst catastrophe, reassures me that nothing important will get lost -- ever. 

In a world in which more and more things are going digital, data protection is vital. If you havenít backed up lately, hereís hoping this article has convinced you to do it right now, before itís too late. Because, sooner or later, that hard drive will fail. 

. . . Doug Schneider