Your Digital Life, in Storage

Studies suggest that most people don't even consider backing up their valuable computer-based data until catastrophe strikes. And that point, of course, it's too late: A hard-disk failure can permanently destroy years of digital photos, videos, music, and—of course—work-related data. The problem is growing increasingly worrisome as we move inexorably toward an all-digital future and a workforce that blurs the line between work and home. Today, it's more important than ever to understand your storage and backup options.

I've been working from home for over a decade, and in that time I've created a home-networking infrastructure that is more small business than typical home PC user. My main storage server has over 1TB of storage, of which more than 750GB are occupied. I understand that most readers won't likely have the same storage needs that I have, but the underlying theory is the same. Stored on those fragile spherical disks are years of personal and work-related data, comingled in a single, relatively unsecure location. A house fire, burglary, or even a poorly timed power outage could have a permanent and negative impact.

So, I've created a plan to keep my data safe and regularly backed up. Today, I'd like to share with you some thoughts about keeping your own data safe, and I'd like to discuss some of the products and methods you can use to ensure that you can walk away unscathed from a PC-related disaster.

Regular Backups
The first tip is so obvious that it's painful to even discuss it: Back up your data. Back it up regularly. Back it up often. And then back it up again. Purchase a third-party backup solution, if necessary, and make sure you're religious about using it.

Depending on your needs, you can back up to optical media, such as recordable CD or DVD (always use write-once media such as DVD+R/DC, DVD-R/DL, and CD-R, as opposed to rewriteable media, which is less reliable and not as long-lasting), an external hard drive (typically connected via USB 2.0), or even a different PC connected through the home network. Dedicated network-attached storage is another excellent option, although those products tend to be more expensive than USB-based devices.

Moving forward, Windows Vista will include excellent backup software that works automatically. However, no one is running Vista yet, so you'll need to find another solution for now. One product I heartily recommend is Windows Live OneCare, a PC security and safety product that includes antivirus, anti-spyware, firewall, and backup-and-restore functionality. Windows Live OneCare does a lot of things right, can be installed on three PCs, and is inexpensive. But the backup feature is particularly impressive and easy to use, and it runs automatically on a regular schedule.

Because of my storage needs, I purchased two 1TB LaCie Bigger Disk systems, which connect to my server via high-speed FireWire 800 cables. I back up my entire data set—work and home files alike—each week.

Replication
Another storage strategy I've employed is to ensure that much of my most important data is stored on at least two PC-based systems. So, for example, all my music, photos, and home videos reside on the storage server, but I also keep copies of most of these files on my Media Center PC, which is in my living room serving as the main interface to our TV set.

Likewise, I keep copies of my most recent work-related files on each of the laptops and desktop PCs I use around the house and on the road. That way, I have the data I need locally, and I've also created a cheap and easy backup that can go with me.

When I travel, I bring along a wonderful USB 2.0-based 80GB Western Digital Passport Portable Drive (120GB versions are also available). The portable drive is small and light, doesn't require a separate power adapter (it's powered by the USB connection), and lets me bring a wider range of less-often-needed data with me on the road.

Offsite Backup Storage
Another strategy that I don't see utilized often enough is to duplicate backups—whether they're on optical disks, external hard disks, or whatever—and locate one version of the backup offsite. Offsite backups are important for ensuring that backups survive any natural disaster (e.g., house fire, earthquake). Too often, people create backups but leave the media right next to the PC. If something horrible happens, or if your home is burglarized, the backups can be lost right along with the PC.

How you do accomplish offsite storage will depend on your situation. You might store backup DVDs in your car trunk or in your desk drawer at work, or you might even purchase a safe deposit box at the bank, if you think it's that important. Personally, I'm lucky enough to live near family: Every week, my wife swaps out one of those LaCie backup disks with the one we keep upstairs in a closet and brings the week-old backup to my parents' house. That way, in a worst-case scenario, I've only lost a week's worth of data.

Truly Portable Storage
A few years ago, USB-based flash memory was a curiosity, but today these wonderful little devices are so common that I expect to soon see them appearing as free gifts in cereal boxes. But you get what you pay for: The best USB flash drives offer high capacity (1GB or more), tiny form factors that let you easily add them to your key chain, and fast transfer speeds.

The best flash drives I've seen are from SanDisk: The model I use is the 2GB Cruzer Titanium USB. It comes complete with a retractable USB port that eliminates the need for a cover, 15MBps read speeds, and compatibility with Vista, Windows XP, Windows 2000, and Mac OS X. This kind of device has enough capacity that I can even take portable versions of my favorite applications—such as Mozilla Firefox and OpenOffice.org 2—with me so that I can get work done from any computer in the world. (You can learn more about portable applications at the PortableApps.com Web site.) And with 2GB of storage, I'm never hurting for space to back up my very latest data files.

Double Duty
If you have an Apple iPod or other portable MP3 player, that's another readily available option for storage that you might be underutilizing. These devices use flash memory or miniature hard disks, the latter of which obviously provides more data storage. I'm sure your music collection will understand if your iPod does double duty as a backup device.

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