Backup in the cloud era

My late father used to say that nobody has ever installed window safety bars, without experiencing a burglary first. Unfortunately, this also holds true for backups — it’s only when someone loses an important file that they start to think about backing up their data. In the past, losing data happened much more frequently. Power failure or aging disks could cost you a document you had been working on for 4 hours. Today, in the era of the cloud, we hear of fewer data loss incidents, but this does not mean we should become complacent. The era of information loss in the cloud can be more brutal than ever.

In the past, most of our information was stored locally on the computer we were working on. Today, however, our information is scattered across many locations. A person’s information can be found in their computer — sometimes even spread across several computers. Information can be found on their cell phone, and also on their tablet. Beyond this, it can be found in the servers and clouds of other companies: Google (Gmail, Drive, Photos, Contacts, YouTube, etc.), Apple, Facebook, Instagram, and more.

Dispersing our information can help us in the event of a local disaster, for example, a lost disk drive. However, it does pose new challenges when it comes to the loss of information, for example, the closure of an account by a third party, or the closure of the company storing the information.

I would like to share with you how I manage my digital information, and how I back it up. My rule of thumb is that important information should be stored in at least 3 different locations. I could write a separate post on how to define “important information”, but because of the lower costs of digital storage, you can assume that all of your files are important, and save yourself the filtering process.

First storage location. My first recommended storage location is the place where your information is already stored — usually your computer or mobile device. Devices with limited storage space such as digital cameras cannot be considered storage locations, and so the information should be transferred to your computer. This storage location should be considered as a short-term “memory”, as it is the first and most likely location for the information to be deleted from. This may be because your mobile device runs out of memory, and apps / photos / digital books must be deleted, or it may be because your computer crashes and must be recovered. For this reason, I always ensure that my information is moved as quickly as possible from here to the second storage location.

Second storage location. My second recommended storage location is the cloud. In my opinion, the cloud is not only a great backup solution, but also the best way to quickly transfer information from anywhere. It’s therefore important to me that my cloud service can properly index my information, and offer impressive search capabilities. This is why I chose Google as my main storage vendor. If they are the number one internet search engine, then they probably also know how to help me quickly find my rental lease from two years ago. The distribution of information within their servers is also very clear: All contacts are in Google Contacts, all images are in Google Pictures, and I imagine that you can guess that all my documents are in Google Docs — although they change the name to Drive! I store movies on YouTube (in Private mode). For those who work a lot with Facebook, and want to back their content up there, I would recommend tip number 4 in Eyal Shahar’s article. Actually, I would recommend all of the tips in his article.

However, as mentioned earlier, the cloud is not always safe, and therefore I recommend using an additional location for storing information.

Third storage location. Here I return to the old way of storing information — using a backup drive. I use an external backup drive that sits directly on my local network. Beyond backing up all the computers in my house with the external hard drive, I also back up all my information in different clouds. All of my storage spaces allow me to download information back to the computer. For example, Google Drive allows you to install software on your PC which synchronizes with the cloud. This means that any changes you make to your local library will be updated in the cloud, and vice versa. This ensures that all the documents I create in the drive are also stored locally on my computer (first storage location), and then backed up on my external drive (third storage location).

A personal tip that I can offer from my experience with external backup drives, is that they do have a limited lifespan — usually around three years. I used to buy a new drive every 2 and a half years (typically with more storage space), and back up everything from scratch. Today, I simply disconnect the drive from the electricity, and back up everything just once every two weeks. Although this requires more tinkering with the system, it significantly prolongs the life of the drive.

Another tip for backing up in the cloud, in addition to my cloud storage solution, is that I added another layer of “Basic” cloud storage. I use a cloud backup service called CrashPlan, which provides me with unlimited backup of all my data. This service also has a very effective backup software both in the cloud and locally on my computer, making it easier for my external backup drive. It’s not mandatory, but it gives me peace of mind to know that I have additional storage in the cloud that also backs everything up.

A final very important tip — in early 2008, I lost a year of digital information due to my backup software not working properly. A year’s worth of customer contracts, bookkeeping, quotes and contact information generated during the year. The cost of the recovery was high, and most of the information was never restored. So I always recommend checking your backup system to ensure it works properly. Once in a while, try to recover a random file, or plant a neutral file and every few months delete it and try to recover it.

This is my method for backing up digital information. There is one kind of information I never hold in a digital format, and that is my passwords. In this case, I follow the advice of my late father; I back up my passwords with a pen and paper, and ensure that at least one family member knows where I hid it. For me, it’s a kind of digital will.

Thanks to Uri Shaked, who encouraged me to write this article. I’d love to read your comments and tips on how you backup your information.

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