Reflections on hard drive failure...

I lost a hard drive this weekend. Complete failure. Baby pictures - gone. Vacation pictures - gone. Music and movies - gone. Designs and concepts - gone.

Thankfully, I had just replaced the machine and transferred the contents of the drive to my new MacBook. When I set up the old computer - a four-year-old G4 iMac - to use as a second machine, that’s when the hard drive failed. There was no advance warning. One day it was fine. The next day, nothing.

In the end, I lost nothing. But I gained a new respect for backup and archives. (Admittedly, just thinking about what I could have lost made me sick.) So I’ve been giving some significant thought how to implement an effective home backup plan.

My backup plan

I’ve always kept backups. I’ve just never been very organized about it. I have a two spare hard drives that have copies of most of our images. And I have some DVDs I burned as project archives. But there was no overarching strategy other than if I have a bunch of copies, I’m not likely to lose anything.

Figure out what you need to protect. The first step for me was to figure out what I needed to backup. A quick scan of my hard drive finds tons of things I’d rather not live without. As more and more of our lives become digital, our hard drives are packed with critical data… Thousands of digital pictures of our children and home movies. iTunes music and video purchases. Projects and documents. For me, those files total about 85 GB (and continuously growing).

Find a daily backup solution. I’m always adding digital pictures, new music and new files. So it’s important to have some sort of daily strategy for backup.

As a Mac user with the newest version of OS X, I can use Apple’s Time Machine application. Time Machine makes a copy of every thing on your hard drive and updates it hourly. The only thing you need to do is plug in an external hard drive and turn it on. Time Machine takes care of the rest.

Time Machine in action. Travel back in time and recover your files.

If you accidently delete a file, Time Machine lets you easily restore it. Or you can restore your drive should your main hard drive fail.

If you aren’t on a Mac or have an older version of the Mac OS, there are lots of options available… but find something that works effortlessly. The last thing you want to do is spend significant time managing your back up strategy.

Off-site backup. Okay, so a daily backup solution protects you from hard drive failure or accidental deletion. But what happens if something happens to your entire house… fire, flood, lightning?

Well, that’s were an off-site backup comes in. A copy of your files, stored at another location that would be safe in the event that original - and your local backup - is destroyed.

I used Apple’s Backup software - part of MobileMe - to make a 22 DVD backup of all of my photos, videos and music. That stack of DVD’s now safely resides at my office. My plan is to update it once a month.

The more data you have, the harder it is to do an off-site backup. Burning 22 DVD’s took forever. And it may be easier to buy an external hard drive and keep it at an off-site location.

There are also online services that allow for remote storage. With the volume of data that I have, I’m not sure that it’s an option. But if you don’t have thousands of digital pictures, videos or music, it may be a great option.

Understand the difference between backups and archives. Backups are copies of files that continue to reside on your hard drive. Archives are copies of files that you delete after you have made the copy.

I have a few DVD’s that I have burned as archives. Mainly old projects that I will never open again, but because I’m a digital pack rat, I keep copies. If you want your archives completely protected, make a second copy and keep it with your off-site backups.

Never underestimate the “Random Backup.” Occasionally, when presented with a really important file, I’ll make a random copy on a server (like MobileMe or Backpack). Or maybe throw a copy on a flash drive… or a CD… If I stick to my plan, I’ll never need it… but just in case, I like to make that random backup. What can I say? It makes me feel better.

The lesson

You never know when you are going to have a hard drive failure. Or have some other data loss. Developing a backup plan is a very easy thing to put off, but in the end, the security of knowing that your critical data is safe is worth the effort.