Data Security Through Data Backup

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We talk about equipment, what and how to photograph and post processing software. However, there’s a big 500 pound gorilla sitting in the corner that we rarely think about and almost never talk about. That gorilla is data security.

Until last fall I was quite careless about data security. For years, I’ve had top of the line security software to guard against viruses, worms, Trojan horses, hackers and to date, knock on wood, I’ve avoided major problems in this area. But what would happen if the computer crashed? I used to be terrible about backing up data. I would back up a few files on a flash drive but nothing more than that. I had never really worried about it because I’d never experienced a computer crash but as the number of RAW files stored on my hard drive increased the more I thought about how sloppy I was being with data security.

Last fall I decided to develop some better habits. I have a number of friends that back up their files on DVDs and almost every one of them recommended that approach and I considered it. However, when it comes to mundane boring stuff I tend to be quite lazy and would probably qualify as a master procrastinator. I was looking for something that required a little less diligence and a little less work.

After talking to my neighbor who is a software programmer, I purchased an external drive and some backup software so that my hard drive would be backed up automatically to the external drive. Less than a month after getting the backup protocols up and running my computer crashed. Fortunately it was still under warranty. For what it’s worth, it was a Dell computer and Dell sent repair techs to my home on three different occasions. On the third trip with a new mother board, power supply, memory and hard drive (essentially a new computer) the technician was still unable to make the computer work. The tech called Dell and was told that they would send a new computer. With that verdict I looked up at my external hard drive and with a sense of relief I realized that all my data was safe. Yes, it was a pain reinstalling all the software and getting everything set up the way I wanted it but I didn’t lose one single byte of data.

The incident convinced me that backing up data is an absolutely essential activity in the digital age, especially if you have a few thousand photographs you don’t want to lose. Thirty years ago, if you lost a number of photos, you usually had the negatives stored in a different location. Of course, with digital we no longer have negatives, but backing up your photos is like storing negatives in a different location than where you store your photos.

I’ve made a number of changes since then. Still, creating a high level of comfort through my data security protocols remains a work in progress but at least I don’t have to worry about my data any more. Here’s what I do currently:

I now have four external hard drives plus the internal drive on my computer. The only data I keep on the internal (C:\) drive is the operating system and the software programs I use. I don’t save data on the internal drive for a couple of reasons – if I keep data on an external drive and my computer crashes again I can take the external drive to another computer and access my data. I don’t have to wait for a new computer to restore what was lost in the crash. Additionally, if the computer crashes again and I have to send it back to the manufacturer for a replacement, there isn’t anything personal on the internal drive.

The first external drive is a one terabyte (1TB) drive where I store all the personal data that would normally be saved on the C:\ drive.

My Book Essentials Western Digital 1 TB

The second external drive is a 2TB drive where I save all of my photography related files ranging from all of my photos and videos to the articles I write for Beyond Megapixels.

The third external drive is a 3TB that is the target drive for backing up the C:\ drive and the first two external drives. The backup for each drive is scheduled daily in the wee hours of the morning. That way I always have all my RAW, PSD, TIFF and JPEG files on two different drives. If one of them crashes I still have the other.

The fourth external drive is also a 3TB drive that I backup the other 3TB drive to but only once every two weeks. This drive I keep at my neighbor’s house. He also keeps a drive at my house. I suppose if a tornado came through and destroyed both our houses we might lose our data but for now we’re both comfortable with this arrangement. I know some photographers that have a safe deposit box at a bank and keep backup files stored there. I’m not there yet but it is a solution.

That’s the good stuff. Now for the bad. Recently, I’ve had difficulty getting the software to work correctly. Sometimes the backups fail to complete. I have to manually start the backup on one of the drives because it’s not working automatically. I’m not ready to completely blame the software yet, it could be the operator. However, to date, their tech support is woefully inadequate.

In addition to trying to figure out what’s wrong with the software, I’m looking at network drives like the Drobo FS 5-bay Gbe Storage Array or the Synology DiskStation 5-Bay (Diskless) Scalable Network Attached Storage DS1511+ (Black).


Okay, they’re expensive which is one of the reasons I haven’t purchased one of them yet. On the other hand, what price can you put on 10,000 to 20,000 photos that can never be replaced? Add to that a number of short stories and novels I’ve written plus financial information, tax returns and other personal information and the price of these network drives seems less expensive.

The other reason I haven’t purchased one of them yet is because I’m still studying the pros and cons. If you have experience with these or similar products, please comment with your thoughts in the comment section below this article.

Lastly, if you don’t regularly backup the data on your hard drive, especially your photos, please start as soon as you can. If you’ve never had a computer or hard drive crash, keep in mind that it could happen at any time. I owned various computers for over 25 years before one of them crashed. Performing regular backups of my hard drive saved a lot of data that would have been lost forever. Use DVD’s, Blu-Ray, external drives, network drives or whatever method works for you but whatever approach you choose, back up your data.

Photo Credits:
Western Digital My Book Essential by Princess Anarchist on Flickr Commons
Drobo by Laughing Squid on Flickr Commons

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  • Bernd Limbach

    Steve, a very well written post about the importance of data backup.
    My strategy was inspired by Chase Jarvis, the implementation was done on a Mac using on board tools, but not TimeMachine.
    An extensive technical article how it was implemented can be found here:
    Well, I guess, it has not been finished yet…

  • CoryOBrien

    One other thing to keep in mind, especially with priceless data such as photos, is that if something were to happen to the place where you keep your computer, such as fire, flood, burglary, etc., it won’t matter how good your backup solution is if the backup gets damaged/stolen as well. Therefore, it’s important to also keep an offsite backup copy that you update as frequently as possible, by either taking an external drive and storing it elsewhere, or using a service like Backblaze or Mozy to automatically send everything to ‘the cloud’. I use Backblaze, and love the piece of mind of knowing that, for $5/month, if anything were to happen to my computer I would still have a copy of my photos that I could restore from.

  • Steve Russell

    Excellent point, Cory, which is why I mentioned keeping a hard drive at my neighbor’s in the article. Your emphasis on the point is spot on. However, with such talented hackers out there (like McGee on NCIS :D ) I’m not yet comfortable storing data in the “cloud,” but that’s just me. For those that are comfortable with it, the “Cloud” is an excellent alternative that I didn’t mention in the article.

  • CoryOBrien

    Ahh, missed that part! Keeping a drive at a neighbor’s house is a good step in the right direction, and probably gets you 95% of the way there, but getting data onto someone else’s server is a great way to make sure no mechanical problems on your end will ever mean the demise of your data.

  • DamienR

    Besides Mozy and Backblaze, another Internet-based option is CrashPlan, which gives a very helpful option to “seed” the backups by sending them a hard drive full of your data, which they then transfer to their servers. In addition to the ability to quickly get up and running (uploading lots of data to the cloud can be slow, often taking weeks), backing up thousands of files (and hundreds of gigabytes) of data won’t make you bump up into your ISP’s data ceiling — some of which limit data transfer to 250GB/month.

  • Steve Russell

    As an update, the trouble I was having with the backup software can now be chalked up to operator error. I uninstalled and reinstalled the software and now it’s working perfectly. The software I use is Acronis True Image Home 2011.

  • Kim Siebert

    I 2nd CrashPlan, inexpensive, easy to use, allows external drive back up, scheduled backups and PHONE SUPPORT.. not to mention, it was only 36$ for a YEAR of truly UNLIMITED amount of back up. Mozy is AWFUL.

    Crashplan, for $120 or so, will send you a 1TB external drive to back up your stuff on, then you send it to them to back up online so you have online access to it AND if you crash, they send it to you.

    Instead of having to wait the month , month 1/2 it takes leaving your computer on 24 hours a day to back your stuff up. I should have gotten two drives, but left my computer and externals hooked up for a little over 9 weeks to back everything up.

    All online backups take FOREVER, and it is determined by your connection speed, and we have a pretty quick internet connection too -

    Anyways, Crashplan is terrific all the way around – I hope they dont do what Mozy did by increasing their storage per 10gb it was under a couple hundred bucks PER MONTH if I decided to stay, plus you can’t even call them on the phone, it’s all online support AND you have to wait in a chat cue FOREVER because there was ENVER enough help.

    Crash Plan RULES

  • Kim Siebert

    P.S. – when I stated it took a month , month 1/2 to back up – that was for a bit over a TB of data.. it’s approx 200-250 GB per 7 days that it takes to back up. I don’t recall what my upload speeds were, but I have Charter Communications, wireless.