Stop Avoiding Backup

We’re as afraid to talk about backup and data loss as we are death

Let’s talk about death. Not yours, but the death of your data. It’s not a true “death,” but it can be a devastating loss when it involves your precious photos, videos, and documents.

And like death, we don’t want to talk about it. The idea that any or all of our data might be gone in the blink of an eye fills us with dread. I bet that if you walk up to someone and start talking about either dying or data loss the reaction will be virtually the same: fear, equivocation, avoidance. 

Storing on floppy disks
At least we stopped storing our memories on floppy disks.  The Net / Columbia Pictures

We’re Not Ready

A recent study by cloud backup service BackBlaze found that while the situation is improving—only one fifth of all their respondents said they never backed up their data as compared to over a third in 2008—50% still report data loss. This tells me that 25% of their respondents are probably lying about backing up. You know, like when you ask someone if they ever smoked pot and they claim they never inhaled. Saying you’ve backed up once in your life covered you for the survey but doesn’t protect your data.

People have always had weird feelings about their data. A 2015 Seagate survey found that while 90% of their respondents considered their data valuable, just 10% were backing up on a daily basis.

External storage
External storage is one, now very affordable, solution. Getty Images

We Need to Talk

The fact is, we really need to talk about death…er…I mean data and backup. There are no solid, recent studies on how many files the average person has, but I think it’s safe to assume we each have tens of thousands across our desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

When a friend of mine recently asked me about deduping files on her MacBook, she described having 31,000 photos. Even if half of them are duplicates, she still has 15,500 photos on her laptop.

I’m concerned because I think a lot of you are using your desktop and laptop hard drives as defacto storage and backup repositories for all your files. First, there are the documents you create on the system that live there for eternity and then there are the photos and videos from your smartphone that you’re either backing up through iTunes and/or physically dragging into the system.

That system is the worst possible solution for data storage. Some of your computers are old enough to have spinning hard drives (as opposed to the solid-state variety) that all ultimately fail. It’s also problematic when the entire computer dies or it’s time to upgrade to a new PC. Then you must move all your data off the system and onto the new PC. If you haven’t been backing up, your files and profile information are probably scattered all over the system.

Maybe you should store your data here, in the cloud. Getty Images

Generations and the Cloud

Exactly who backs up does appear to be a generational thing. BackBlaze’s survey found that, no surprise, millennials get backup, and boomers (65 and older) are now among the worst at backing up their data. The latter datapoint is shocking because an earlier survey found that they were among the best.

Poor data backup habits could be, at least partly, a result of confusion between cloud storage and cloud backup (41% of BackBlaze’s respondents didn’t get it) and, to be fair, they are essentially two sides of the same puffy coin.

I bet that if you walk up to someone and start talking about either dying or data loss the reaction will be virtually the same: fear, equivocation, avoidance.

Cloud backup is application-based: You install something on your computer and point it at files and folders you want backed up on regular basis. It will keep the local and cloud files in sync. Cloud storage also lets you choose which files to store in those cloud-based servers, but if you delete a file locally, the cloud will keep the copy. Think of cloud backup like a real-time copy machine and cloud storage as a bank’s savings account for your files.

Maybe it would help to think of the actual hardware and services available and why it makes sense to use them.

Your Options

 External Hard Drives

While I know some of you are fond of backing up to thumb drives or even SD cards, please stop. It’s now possible to buy a 2 Terabyte hard drive for $54 that includes automated backup. This is one of the easiest ways to set up local backup. You just plug it into your PC and run the software. 2TB is probably enough space to backup your laptop four times over. If your PC dies, you have your files safely stored on an external drive. The only downside is that if these drives are not solid state, they can get damaged or fail easily. Then your data is as good as dead.

Apple’s Time Machine backs up your Mac files locally or to that external drive. It’s built in and does its work daily.

I like What Microsoft does with Windows 10 and OneDrive. OneDrive is cloud backup that keeps a mirror image of your files on Microsoft’s servers. Oddly, Windows still doesn’t default to using this system and will even allow new Windows PC owners to store their files locally on the C: drive’s “Documents” folder. Never do this.

Seriously, stop “moving into" your PC.

What I suggest is treating your PC like a rental. Don’t bother painting the walls, hanging pictures, and moving in furniture. Instead, install apps like they’re appliances you might need in your next place and put all your stuff on wheels, meaning all your files in OneDrive.

If you do all this, you won’t have to worry about transferring anything to your new computer. You just sign into your Windows account and then sign into OneDrive and decide which folders you want to sync back to the new system, which will feel just like your old system, except faster.

Apple’s iCloud is also a much better solution than backing up your iPhone and iPad to a computer. If you turn it on and buy enough iCloud storage (pay for 2TB), your device will be completely backed up to the cloud (along with all those precious photos and videos). These days, Mac users' files can also get backed up on iCloud as well.

You could also choose to work entirely in cloud storage via Google Drive or even Microsoft’s online Office 365 (you need accounts for both). This way, you can skip local app installation and file storage. Then backup is someone else’s problem (your cloud provider).

So What

You can stick your head in the digital sand and avoid talking about your data and assume that it will all probably be fine. But somewhere, in the back of your mind, you know the truth. Data loss, like death, is inevitable. The only question is what you are going to do about it.