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Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Third Disk - a cautionary tale

Some people are in the habit of making New Year's Resolutions. I make resolutions all year long and it would be an overload to add in a bunch on New Year's Day, but there is one resolution, New Year's or otherwise, that must be kept all year long. Backup your data! I may have told this story before, but it bears repeating.

I once had the job of making a directory for a large organization, over 3000 people. This was back in the early days of personal computers and I spent days and days typing in all of the names and sorting them for publication. I was just finishing the job and almost ready to print, when I got a disk error. This was back in the days of 3.5 inch floppy disks and they had a tendency to go bad at odd (usually bad) times. The disk really was bad, but I thought, it sure is a good thing I have a backup. I put in the backup disk and you guessed it. That disk was deader than the first. I was getting really worried at this point, but I said to myself, it sure is a good thing I made another separate backup disk. Now, I wouldn't be telling this story if the third disk had been good, because I wouldn't remember the incident. The third disk was also bad. Yes, I had to re-enter all 3000 plus names, addresses and phone numbers and then reformat the whole file for printing.

Do you think that was the last time I ever lost any data? Do we always learn from our mistakes? Now here I am, many, many years later, with much more reliable and sophisticated computers and storage devices. Do I back up my data? You bet! Right at the moment I have six different storage devices for my data. Once or twice a year, I make a complete backup of all my files on an external hard drive and give the drive to one of my children to keep. Just in case I get hit by a meteorite or something like that. I am obsessive about backing up my files. Fortunately, with an iMac, I can use Time Machine which regularly backs up my whole drive to a 2 Terabyte external drive. In addition, I make archive copies of my data to extra computers and extra hard drives on a regular basis. I may get to the point where I think a RAID array will be necessary, but right now I think they still need to get larger.

Just sit down and think for a moment. What if you lost your precious flash drive (thumb drive)? Would you also lose all of your files? In my opinion, flash drives are great for transporting files and for temporary storage, but the jury is still out as to whether or not they will turn out to be a reliable long-term storage solution.  If you don't have a lot of data, you might want to use CDs or DVDs. But you also might want to know that both media are listed as soon to vanish on a lot of technology lists. Both CDs and DVDs did not become popular as a storage media, they are primarily ways of selling music and movies.

Today we have a number of choices for backup from the flash drives, I already mentioned, to online storage from a variety of suppliers.  The key to successful backup is using multiple media types and multiple locations. If you backup everything to DVDs, make sure you store the DVDs in a location different from that of your computer. If you use hard drives, use more than one and store the second one in a different location. As an aside, I am not a fan of safety deposit boxes, but that is another story. If you use a flash drive, use more than one drive and store the second or third copy in a different location from your primary computer.

Hopefully, we will all make it through the New Year without a major loss of data. Even if you do, remember to migrate your data to new program versions as you upgrade. More about that problem, next time.

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