Backing up is hard to do

dual hdd driveMy two external hard drives with total of 3TB storage

Being a photographer and marcoms guy who happens to have two kids is a recipe for disaster – I create more data with high resolution images and video faster than anyone in my entire estate (or possibly the entire country).

Today, my data archive stands at about 700GB (it’s alot of HD home video and ripped MiniDV tapes) and continues to grow on a weekly basis.

And as someone who was hardly photographed as a kid, I’m determined that my children will see every photo I ever take of them. So losing data might be shrugged off by some folks, parents like me refuse to accept such a hardware failure. I also keep an archive of all the photos I took when I was a professional photog, because these photos mark important milestones in my 20s.

So recently, when my main storage 1.5TB drive containing that 700GB crashed suddenly (it spinned up and went “click! click! click!”) and all my digital memories went to hell, I didn’t blink because I already had a recent backup on an external 1.5TB drive.

I didn’t lose my iTunes Store purchases either as I could transfer them back from my iPod Touch into the computer. The only real inconvenience was going to Acecom’s office (Seagate’s disty) in a secluded part of Ubi and getting a replacement hard disk.

But it set me thinking – one active backup isn’t enough. What if my backup drive failed as well? Sure, I have some older backups on smaller hard drives lying around the house, but those are several years old.

I spent the past two weeks exploring various options and found reasons to reject them:

RAID 1 (redundant array of inexpensive disks)

If I place two hard drives in my PC and “RAID 1” them, each can store exactly the same data by mirroring each other. However, my stupid MSI motherboard has half its hard drive SATA connectors blocked by my graphics card – really awful board design. So I can’t do this. Also, if I’m not wrong, once you use RAID 1, you can’t simply take one of the drives and plonk into another PC to transfer data. There are several technical hoops to jump through and I’m too old for that kinda crap.

Network Attached Storage (NAS) with RAID 5

NAS is all the rage in Sim Lim Square these days. Depending on the type you buy, you can put 2 to 8 hard drives in a single enclosure and combine the storage together for massive terabyte love. And with RAID 5 (with a minimum of three drives, one hard drive can fail but your data remains intact), you have a great combination of storage security and capacity. And the NAS hooks up to your wireless router so the content is available to any PC in your house.

But a 4-bay NAS can cost anything from S$500 to over S$1500 and that’s not including the cost of hard drives (about S$200 for a 1.5TB drive at time of writing). So it’s serious massive moolah! How can I buy my Transformers toys this way?

So I settled on the following solution which I would recommend to anyone who’s serious about backing up without busting the budget.

1. Two external hard drives.

Why two? You can’t rely on one backup because if it fails, you’re in deep trouble. You need a backup of a backup to be absolutely sure.

Should you use USB 2.0 or eSATA (external SATA) connections? Alot of external hard drives offer both options now, and many desktop PCs today have an eSATA port.

Over the past few years, I’ve had problems with my eSATA external hard drive enclosure because it kept disconnecting randomly no matter which motherboard I used. The hardware tech was still pretty shaky then. I bought a new Vantec enclosure recently and the eSATA appears to work consistently now. eSATA can transfer my data at an average of 50MB/s instead of 23MB/s on USB 2.0. That’s double the speed, folks.

And don’t bother backing up to DVDs or CDs.

My sister Marie lost half her kids photos because the DVDs they were back-uped to become corrupted over a few years. Disc media is a big NO-NO for critical backups.

2. Manual and automated backup procedures.

So with two drives, I back up to each in different ways.

Automated – I use Windows 7’a backup feature (found in the Professional and Ultimate editions) which automates the entire process and keeps reminding you to do it. We have no discipline to back up regularly, so might as well get a nanny to do it. It keeps your backup as current as possible, though the initial backup took an entire day for my massive archive.

Manual cut and paste – Every time I copy stuff onto my PC’s hard drive, I make sure I switch on Backup Drive A and repeat the procedure immediately. This is because I don’t fully trust the automated procedure either. Paranoid, you say? Wait till you hit 500GB of data on your PC and you’ll be paranoid too.

3. Keep your C: and internal data drive separate.

Your C drive is the one that usually stores your Windows and program files. For the past decade, I’ve always kept a separate drive for pure data storage for a good reason. The C: is the most often used drive and is most prone to crashing. So if it crashes big time and you need to reinstall your operating system (eg. Windows), you don’t lose your data in the process.

But like I said, my data drive crashed recently for no particular reason. Which reminds everyone that ANY HARD DRIVE CAN DIE SUDDENLY.

Conclusion: You need four hard disks. Yes, believe it or not.

  • One for your Windows and program files
  • One purely for storage
  • Two external or internal drives for multiple backups.

4 Replies to “Backing up is hard to do”

  1. Hey Ian, firstly, great title!

    Next, what if I use a laptop (Powerbook to be exact)? I don’t think there’s the option of two hard drives – one for programs and one for storage. The two external ones are still possible cos they can be purchased separately. Which leaves me with three drives, as opposed to your recommended four. Any issues there?

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