Around the middle of last week my computer crashed and burned (see The white screen of death). Fortunately, I managed to save my data, but it was a close call and it's set me to thinking...
So here's the way I've been doing things until now. I have an external 1 TB USB drive sitting on the desk in my office. Every evening before leaving for home I manually copy the folder containing all of my business files over onto this drive. We're not talking about vast quantities of information here; in reality it's no more than a couple of gigabytes of working data.
The problem when my computer died was that I'd been working at home for a couple of days, so I hadn't been taking my regular backups. More fool me, of course, but it's made me realize that I have to come up with a better strategy. So now I'm looking for advice...
What I would really like
Let's start off with what I would really like. One thing is that it would be nice to stop having to carry my notepad computer back and forth between my home and my office. You may recall that I recently purchased a Mega-Amazing 28-Inch Monitor for my office. In the fullness of time – and on the basis that I spend all my working days day slogging away at the computer – I would really like to have two (or even three) of these monitors forming a huge desktop, but this would require a system with an appropriate graphics card (maybe multiple cards), which rules out my notepad computer.
So I'm thinking of building a powerful (but affordable) tower computer that would be capable of driving multiple screens in my office. Meanwhile, I would keep my notepad computer for use at home and when I'm on the road travelling. Of course the problem now is how shall I ensure the integrity of my data? And part of this is how will I keep both of my machines synchronized?
With regard to my application programs, I'm not so worried about backing these up per se. I pretty much stick to a few standard programs like the Microsoft Office 2010 suite, Visio 2010, and PaintShop Pro, plus a bunch of freeware utilities, so I just need to make sure that I have the same applications loaded on both machines. Hmmm, if I have two machines that only I use (one in the office and one at home), is it OK for me to load the same copy of Microsoft Office and so forth onto both of them I wonder?
Now let's turn to the backing up and synchronization of data. What I'm thinking of is to get a rugged external drive. I don’t know whether to get a solid state drive (SSD) or a standard (but ruggedized) hard drive. Someone suggested the LaCie Rugged All-Terrain Drive as shown below, the 320 GB version of which is available from Amazon for around $90, but all other suggestions are welcome.
What I would also like would be some software that runs in the background and automatically synchronizes the data on my computer with the data on the external drive. Specifically, when I first plug the drive into the computer I want this software to go through a certain folder or folders (I want to be able to specify which ones) on my computer and corresponding folders on the external drive comparing them. (Remember that we're only talking about 1 to 2 GB of working data here.) If the software discovers new folders or files on the computer that don’t exist on the external drive it should replicate them on the external drive, and vice versa. Also, if the software discovers a later version of an existing file on the computer it should copy that version over to the external drive, and vice versa.
Following this initial synchronization, whenever I create or modify a file on the main system, this change should be automatically replicated on my external drive.
At the end of the day when I leave the office to return home in the evening, I would take the external drive with me. When I arrive at my house, power-up my notepad computer, and plug in the external drive, I would like the same synchronization operation to take place.
The way I see it, this approach would guarantee that there are always three copies of my working data – one at the office, one at home, and an extra copy on the external drive. This really would deal with a lot of worst-case scenarios, such as a fire at the office, for example.
And even if I can’t have a tower computer and my two extra monitors, I definitely want to have some form of ruggedized external drive coupled with the synchronization software. Of course the next question would be whether or not there is there any software that will perform this type and level of synchronization for me...
Of course there are always lots of different ways to do things. I think my proposed solution as described above would work best for me, but several people have suggested alternative solutions.
One alternative would be to store all my data files on a server / network drive and to use a virtual private network (VPN) to access my data over the network. This might be a good solution for larger organizations where the contents of the server are automatically backed up under the watchful gaze of the IT department. But it doesn’t seem like it would be good for me. If the server crashes I lose all my data. Even if I have an extra backup machine in the office I could lose both boxes in a fire. Also, generally speaking, I kind of like to have access to all of my data on my local machine for when I'm traveling and have limited access to the Internet. (Of course I may change my position in years to come as we all start to migrate into the cloud, but that's something to worry about in the future.)
Another option is to use Carbonite (www.carbonite.com
). This is a small program that runs in the background on your computer. Whenever you create new files or modify existing ones, the Carbonite program sends encrypted copies of those files over your high-speed Internet connection to a Carbonite data center. Their website says that if you need to get your files back, the Carbonite software walks you through an easy-to-follow process that restores your backed up files to the right place on your computer.
This all sounds wonderful, but a couple of friends have told me that they've used this system and when they lost their computer they couldn’t restore their files for some reason. (If you've had any good or bad experiences with Carbonite please share them with us via comments to this article.) Also, what happens if you create or modify files when you are away from your Internet connection (like in my mom's house – she still swears by her AOL dial-up connection, bless her little cotton socks); when you reconnect are all of these files backed up? But the real big question for me would be how Carbonite would work if I had the two-computer scenario discussed above?
Yet another approach would be to take a Ghost Image of my system (this would be a copy of the operating system, applications, and data), but now we're talking about huge amounts of data and substantial amounts of time, which means that I wouldn’t want to be doing this every day. Also, my understanding is that it's not possible to retrieve individual files and folders – instead you have to restore the entire system. Also I can't see this working in any sort of useful way with my two-computer scenario.
I'm sure that there are other scenarios I haven’t thought of. If you have any good ideas, then now would be a real good time to share them...