How’s your backup ?

Sadly, from time to time I hear stories of photographers losing their images due to computer hardware failure. With a good backup strategy in place, it should be possible to stop this happening, so I thought I would write a few notes on what constitutes a “good backup strategy” for a home computer user, with particular relevance to photography.

Think of backup as being like insurance. When you take out insurance you assess what risks you might be exposed to – things like fire, flood, and theft, and you buy the insurance you need to cover those risks.

So what kind of risks threaten our image files ? Here’s a few possibles:

  •  Inadvertent amendment of the image, or just the desire for artistic reasons to get back to an earlier edit
  • Accidental deletion of the image
  • A hardware failure – either of the hard drive or the entire PC
  • Fire
  • Flood
  • Theft of the computer

Next I will examine some options for backup methods and assess how well they protect against those risks. I’ll also look at how each method rates in terms of ease of use and long term stability.

Method 1 – Do Nothing

Yes, it seems like a strange place to start, but that’s what a lot of people do. Needless to say this strategy fails to protect you against the majority of the risks.

Method 2 – a memory stick

Many people back up files to a memory stick, such as a USB drive.. Using an SD card or Compact Flash card, of the type used in digital cameras, would fall in the same category. In terms of useability, this method scores quite highly  These devices are convenient methods for ad-hoc transfer of files for occasional use; say for example when you want to show an image on a friend’s PC. But as a backup method they have severe limitations:

  1.  Reliability. I’ve lost count of the number of USB drives I have had to throw away because they have simply stopped working. Perhaps some brands are more reliable than others, but if you end up spending more on an expensive brand you may as well use the money to pay for a better backup method.
  2. Too easy to lose. The very portability of USB drives contributes to their propensity to lose themselves.
  3. Capacity. You need to measure the total size of your image folder, estimate how much it is likely to grow. For example, my image folder contains 21,700 files taking 45.1 Gb of disk space.  This might require to you buy a USB drive towards the more expensive end of the range – and you could buy a hard drive with much more capacity for less money.

Method 3 – Rewriteable CD’s or DVD’s

This method has some features in common with the memory stick method. It is relatively cheap, but has the same reliability problem as memory sticks (or maybe worse). Have you ever used a music CD that jumps, or a movie DVD that freezes ?

Writing to CDs or DVDs is a very slow process which will test your patience.

They also score worse than memory sticks in capacity terms. CD’s have a capacity of around 700Mb and DVDs of around 4.7Gb, so you could end up needing several to back up your image collection. If this is the case, most people will find it difficult to maintain this backup regime. A backup method which you don’t use regularly is as almost as bad as no backup method.

Method 4 – external hard drive

External hard drives are now ridiculously cheap. There are many 500Gb drives available at around £40 and a few 1 terrabyte drives (that’s 1,000 Gb) at the same price (significantly less than the tank of petrol you burnt on your last photo trip!) You may be able to pick one up at the supermarket in the technology aisle.

This cost level and storage capacity means:

a)      They have the cheapest cost per Gb of capacity of any storage medium.

b)      You’re likely to comfortably get all of your images backed up on one device, meaning you’re more likely to actually do the backup.

There are two broad types of external hard drive – those that connect via USB to one PC at a time, and those that have a network interface which allows you to access the drive from any PC on your home network, if you have one.

The drive I use is a 500Gb drive with both network and USB connections. At home there are four PCs running different operating systems – one Windows 7, two Windows XP, and one Linux – and they can all access the external hard drive over the network. If for some reason the network wasn’t working I can plug the drive into one computer using the USB port.

Some people buy an external hard drive and then use that as their main storage device, without making another backup. This isn’t a good idea – the external hard drive is just as likely to have a hardware failure as your PC. Indeed my previous external hard drive failed just before the end of the warranty period, so I sent it back and got a refund. So, an external hard drive makes a very good component of your backup strategy, but it’s not a replacement for a backup strategy. If you choose to use an external hard drive as your main file storage area, then you need either a second external hard drive to back up the first one, or you can use the internal hard drive of your PC as the backup device.

An external hard drive will provide a good level of protection against accidental deletion and hardware failure. If your PC is stolen, your hard drive may or may not be stolen. It’s a good idea to keep your external hard drive as far away as possible from your PC – even if that just means extending the USB cable as far as possible. Then when you spill coffee over your PC (OK, so you never drink near your PC – good for you) then the external drive might escape the damage.

We have seen that a hard drive scores better than doing nothing, memory sticks, and DVDs in terms of useability, cost, and capacity. It will be more likely to keep working than the other methods, though hardware failure is not impossible.

 Method 5 – internet-hosted backup

The possibility of fire, flood, and theft are remaining risks that an external hard drive doesn’t protect against very well. The basic problem is that the hard drive is inside your house so anything that damages your house can damage the hard drive. Whilst your images might not be the first thing on your mind if  the house burns down, sooner or later you’ll want those images back.

What you need to guard against this risk is a copy of the data somewhere off-site. Businesses do this all the time, and spend a lot of money to achieve this, but it’s not as common for home users.

There are some ad-hoc methods that can be used without much cost or effort. DVDs can have a use in this scenario; you could create one or more backup DVDs and leave them with a family member, updating it with a new one next time you visit.

A more comprehensive answer is to use an internet-hosted online backup service. You may find that your internet service provider offers a free service, and there are a number of other commercial providers. If you search for “on-line backup” you’ll find some options.

Bear in mind though:

a)      Transmission speeds over the internet are a lot slower than to local device, so you’re probably going to want to schedule the backup for a period when you’re not using the PC

b)      When trusting your data to someone else, consider what extra risks arise from misuse of the data –eg how is encryption applied, what guarantees about use of the data are provided. Look for reviews from other users.

c)      An online provider may go out of business leaving you without access to your data.

d)     “Free” storage options are likely to be limited in terms of the volume of storage permitted or the number of PCs from which you can access the service. This is hardly surprising as it’s an expensive business and someone has to pay. Make sure you have a good estimate of the volume of storage you will need and compare prices for that volume.

Personally I would advise using an on-line backup solution only as a second line of defence rather than being your primary backup.

Software tools for backup

There are lots of software tools you can use to create the backup, but as a starting point you can use the built in backup software provided with your operating system. On Windows, look under Start, Accessories, System Tools.

Summary

I hope I’ve convinced you that not having backup in place is really a bad idea; further that relying on memory sticks for backup is not very reliable either.

My recommendation is to buy an external hard drive, and use that for backup (or if the external hard drive is your main storage location, back up to the computers’ internal hard drive). Also, consider using an off-line backup service as a second layer of backup.

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