I dread the moment Alison tells me her computer is dead. Her whole life is computerized; especially as she is a digital artist and photographer. A dead computer not only means she can’t work, but she also risks losing all of her existing work.
This scenario is not unique to her. Expat life and traveling, as both Alison and I have blogged before, are inextricably tied to computers, smartphones, and cameras. These devices are the foundation of our digital lifestyle. Even so, according to one survey, 82% of consumers don’t perform a regular backup. Even scarier, 54% don’t have any backup whatsoever. What happens if you lose your phone? What if you drop your laptop? What would you do if your computer was stolen? If you’re not able to answer these questions, there are some simple steps you can take to put your mind at ease.
The most important information you should backup is the data unique to you: photos, documents, passwords and license keys (for software), scans of important papers, contacts, email, etc. Everything else can be replaced at the expense of your time to re-install and re-configure. If you are traveling and don’t have access to your software or you don’t want to spend time reconfiguring, then you’ll want to keep a backup of your entire computer, just in case.
Backup to an external hard drive
The simplest backup solution is an external hard drive. These come in different sizes, storage capacities and connection options. For expats and travelers, I recommend using a smaller drive (2.5 inch) but be aware they tend to also be smaller in storage capacity. If your new hard drive is USB (most are), simply plug it in and copy your important files to it. If you only have a few files, then you can probably manage this operation manually. If you take lots of photos or videos, you should consider using some software to automate the process and run it on at least a daily basis.
There are a lot of backup software solutions available. Some external drives now come with backup software (e.g. a recent Samsung StoryStation drive I bought). To keep it simple though, for Mac users, Time Machine is the easiest to use. Windows 7 users can use the backup and restore utility provided. For anyone else, I would recommend Symantec’s products, as I’ve always found them easiest to use. For power users, a combination of a full image backup (Norton Ghost or Windows 7 backup) plus SyncBack for file copying has been my preferred solution for a while now.
Once you have everything copied to a second, external drive, you are now among the 46% of people with a backup. Congrats! If you’ve automated the process to run daily, then you have joined the top 18%. Congrats!
Time for a cup of coffee!
What happens if your house burns down or the backup drive is stolen?
The next step really depends on your level of paranoia and the amount of risk you face. Having an extra copy of your most important files protects you from loss if your main computer dies, is stolen, or is lost. But what happens if your house burns down or the backup drive is stolen along with your computer? This last scenario is a very real possibility if you are traveling and you have your phone, camera, computer, and backup all together. If the data is really important, you will want some way of ensuring your backup and your computer are not in the same location. This requires planning for an ‘offsite’ backup.
Offsite Backup Options
An offsite backup could be as simple as storing a 2nd external hard drive, with a copy of your data, at your parent’s or friend’s house. But this won’t work if you’re traveling and creating new photos and videos every day. In this case, the best solution is using an internet based storage service, also known as a Cloud storage solution.
Online services are offered by companies like Dropbox, Mozy, Crashplan, and many more. A recent PC Magazine article ranked Carbonite, IDrive, MiMedia, MozyHome, Norton Online Backup, and SOS Online Backup Home Edition as “The Best Online Backup Services”. The article also provided some good thoughts on balancing price, capacity and flexibility.
I originally started out with Mozy for two reasons: their storage was unlimited and they had a data centre in Europe (Ireland). After the first year, Mozy changed their pricing and suddenly we would be paying over a thousand euros for their service. With Alison’s photography we don’t have gigabytes of data, we have terabytes. So although I was happy with Mozy I had to move us to a new service, LiveDrive.
LiveDrive promised unlimited storage, a UK-based data centre, and offered multi-year contracts. Scared they would also change their pricing, I bought a 5 year plan for €140. As of 2015 (when I updated this older article), we’ve been using LiveDrive.com for four years and I’m quite happy with their platform. We are now backing up almost 3TB of data with much more to come. Our LiveDrive online back up came in handy two years ago when one of Alison’s drives crashed. I was able to use a combination of local backups and LiveDrive to restore her files. Whew!
By copying your files to a storage facility situated somewhere on the Internet, you are ensuring you can access them from wherever you are in the world. The only downside is it takes longer upload your files and to download them again if you need to restore, but restoring files from the Internet should be your last resort anyway. A lot of online backup services offer free storage up to a certain limit and paid for storage above that limit (2GB seems to be a typical limit for free). I encourage you to sign up for the free option, test it out and then expand to the paid for version that works for you.
What strategy you use for backups is up to you and your tolerance for risk. The above are just some guidelines to consider; the devil is in the details. For expats and travelers I highly recommend you combine both methods, but focus on copying just the ‘important’ files to the online service while keeping a full backup on your portable drive. This gives you flexibility and peace of mind without having to wait ages for a backup to complete. Finally, be sure you test the ability to restore files. You gain nothing by backing up if the restore fails.