Saving Your Life’s Digital Work

By Daniel Pope

The gentleman was about 30 and seemed like a really nice guy.  He stood sobbing uncontrollably in front of me and two co-workers as though he had just lost a beloved family member. In a way, he had. My co-workers and I understood, or at least we tried.

Perhaps a little explanation is in order.

One of my “post-retirement” jobs was at a retail computer establishment. A privately owned business, we had a staff of approximately ten people and did retail sales and service. A significant part of our business was with a major university and we regularly dealt directly with the students. My position there involved inventory control, a little WordPerfect phone support, and service duties.

One day late in the school year, our unfortunate friend presented his cheap, no-name, Widows box to our service department for repair and/or replacement of a hard drive. I was not involved in this transaction so I did not follow the progress of this service but by chance was present at the counter when he came in to pick up his computer.

Most likely, those of you who are conscientious about doing regular backups (and hopefully those of you who are not) can see where my story is going.

As it turns out, our gentleman friend was a Ph.D. candidate at the university, and while in the final preparation for the presentation of his thesis suffered a major hard drive failure. Between sobs, he explained that his research, notes, diagrams, and the thesis itself were contained on this one hard drive. All of it.

His life’s work for the past few years was on this hard drive, now deceased, and sitting on the counter next to his computer. There was no backup, nothing in the Cloud (this was well before the Cloud as we know it today), no written outline of the thesis text; nothing.

I excused myself from the room as the owner and head service technician tried to assist this hapless fellow. I subsequently learned that he had, at our suggestion, submitted the hard drive to a data recovery company that utilized “clean rooms” and other sophisticated methods of rescuing hard drives in distress. Even at a cost of approximately $5000 (if memory serves) aimed at its recovery, all his data was gone. Although I never learned of his fate regarding the Ph.D. thesis, all these many years later, I wish him well.

It would be easy to disparage this poor fellow for his carelessness (or in my cynical view, stupidity) but that does no one any good. Better we should learn from his misfortune. I’m certain he did.

I went home that evening, hugged my backup drives, and vowed never to find myself in such a position. So, I told you that long story to tell you this:

Backup Up Your Stuff!

I’ve been lucky. Over the years, I’ve never lost a hard drive currently installed in one of my computers. I have, however, lost a drive in my one of my network attached storage system units (NAS), see Figure 1, and a couple of external hard drives used for backups, one as recently as late last year, see Figure 2. As these drives were but one layer of my backup strategy, I suffered some minor inconvenience and expense in replacing them but NO data loss!

Figure 1
Figure 2

I’ll be the first to admit that my multi-layered backup strategy, however familiar and useful to me, is somewhat complicated and most probably not for everyone. There is some expense involved along with considerable time, although much of the process is automated to some degree.  It has evolved from some simple and long forgotten batch files in MS-DOS using the BACKUP command to the procedures I use today.

My current backup system layers are as follows:

  1. The computer’s internal hard drive. Now, thankfully, an SSD memory drive.
  2. Time Machine to my local NAS.
  3. Automated constant backup to the commercial service, Backblaze. (Off-site backup.)
  4. Weekly SuperDuper backups to an external hard drive resulting in a bootable drive should disaster strike.
  5. Periodic backups of selected files to the Cloud. (iCloud, MS OneNote, Box, and others. Another layer of off-site backup.)
  6. Miscellaneous backups: Selected files to my NAS and thumb drives as needed.

Layers 2 and 3 are completely automated requiring no action on my part for them to proceed. I could do this with layer 4, the weekly SuperDuper backup, as well but opt to do this manually as it allows for safe storage of the external drive.

As I mentioned, my system has continuously evolved over the last thirty years and continues to do so. I’m currently developing procedures to generate separate backups of the ever-expanding databases in DevonThink Pro after my recent adoption of that program. There are currently two layers of off-site backup and all above mentioned external drives and disks are stored in a secure, fireproof safe.

There you have it. Please look over my system and adopt and/or change whatever works for you.

If you do nothing else in the world of backing up or learn nothing from this poor fellow’s experience, please, please, go out today and purchase a couple of external hard drives. They’re not expensive. Marry them up to Time Machine, rotate them periodically, and store one off-site.

OK, so now you have a super duper (sorry) backup system in place and are churning out backups every hour, day, week, and year. Do they work?

I recently had an email exchange with an extremely knowledgeable and experienced Mac user who was in danger of losing some data to a Time Machine glitch, possibly hardware related. He and I were discussing the importance of periodically testing our backups. Here’s how:

From time to time select a few random files from your backup system and restore them to your computer. Backblaze and the other commercial services provide directions on how to do this on their websites and it goes without saying that you should know how to accomplish a complete restore if necessary.

Testing Time Machine is easy. Simply enter the application, navigate to the desired file(s) and click on “Restore”. If you are creating bootable backups, periodically test to determine that they are indeed able to boot up your computer.

And of course, periodically test any external or thumb drives to ascertain if they are reading and writing properly and that you can restore a file from them back to your computer. Can you recover the thousands of irreplaceable photographs you have backed up to that single external hard drive that you’ve been using for the last five or six years? One of my external drives went belly up recently. Yours can too.

And finally, please don’t be complacent and dismiss our unfortunate friend’s experience thinking, “This could never happen to me. After all, I have this brand new,

ultra-expensive, space gray, tricked out 15” MacBook Pro complete with the new touch bar.”  Although not very common these days, new drives, both spinning and SSD, can and do fail.

Remember, although today’s SSD drives are considerably more reliable than the old spinning type, there are still only two kinds of computer drives and SSD’s: the dead and the dying.

Don’t be that guy.