Data Hygiene for the Writer: Backup and Backup some more!

This may not be of interest to most writers since we consider our files as precious as a child and are probably already sufficiently paranoid about losing anything, but here goes.

Good data hygiene is multi-tiered and serves multiple purposes. In order of increasing protection:

  1. Older versions of a file are useful if you ever overwrite your file accidentally or want to revert it but provide little data protection if they are kept on the same drive as your main file. Versions are useful but they are not data protection.
  2. Disk Image software
    • Windows 7 provides a way to make a boot disk and a disk image (search for ‘backup’). DO THIS if you have windows 7. If you ever have a complete disk corruption or even just a really bad malware infection, you can completely recovery your computer. If you computer burns to a crisp, you can restore a new one exactly like the old. The image of course should be on an external drive to be of any use. It will let you write to DVDs but that could take 10s of DVDs and is not really an option.
    • However, this is not something you do very often (unless you are really paranoid). You will probably make a system image once a month or less. Good to have but does not provide data protection of your working data.
  3. Copy to another drive- this protects you from drive crashes, which do happen. It’s your first line of defense and should be a part of your data protection strategy. There are multiple options and these are not mutually exclusive:
    English: RAID 1 with two disks (disk 0 and dis...
    English: RAID can be part of a data protection strategy but is not a substitute for off-site storage(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
    • RAID drive (Redundant array of independent disks): this requires hardware support so that all your files are stored on multiple drives. If one drive loses the data (to an error, or the drive dies), the file is still present on other drives and can be recovered. RAID comes in many flavors but RAID-1 is probably all you need. It uses two drives to store your files so with two 500GB drives, you get only 500GB of storage. If either drive dies or is corrupted, the data can be recovered from the other drive. Note RAID-0 is not data protection at all but instead stripes a file for performance reasons across multiple drives. This is actually worse than using no RAID at all since now your file can be lost if either drive fails. RAID-0 is for gamers who want performance, not for data protection. The other RAID versions are more sophisticated and allow for either less redundancy (e.g. 5 drives give you 4 drives of capacity and still protect against a failure) or let you tolerate multiple drive failures but these are for enterprise data centers, not for most home users. Note also that if you do have a RAID failure or even if your computer experiences a crash thanks to that new game you bought, your raid drive will have to be checked and/or rebuilt. This can take hours depending on how much data you have and speed of your machine. You can still use the PC while the RAID is rebuilding but it will slow things down.
    • Instead of a RAID drive you can do a similar thing with mirroring software. This is a program you purchase that writes every file to two drives as you go. If you ever lose your main drive, you can switch to the second drive. A word of caution: I was researching these programs this summer (2012) and found no mirroring software that received good marks from users. Many of these user reviews complained about corrupted disks that would not even boot afterwards. I would stay away from mirroring software: it slows your machine down and the current offerings seem to be very poor.
    • Manually copy your files to another drive. This is simple and effective. I do it every time I close MS Word. Nice thing under windows (and probably MAC) is that if the file name already exists it will ask you if you want to overwrite the file or save it under a new name. Save it under a new name and voila, your version problem is solved!
  4. Backup software- there are multiple ways to backup your files automatically. Windows 7 includes a backup package (I’ve never used it). Many PC vendors will include a few GB of free off-site backup with options to buy more space. There are several companies that offer offsite services.
    • Regular backs are highly recommended although if you are disciplined, you can get away with manually copying your files. But why take the risk? Get a program to do it for you always, whether you remember or not.
    • Here you have the option to backup locally, generally to an external drive, or offsite. You can do both but if you only do one, I recommend backing up offsite. If you are bulgarized or your house burns down, you still have all your data.

      Image representing Carbonite as depicted in Cr...
      My prefered off-site solution.
    • Of course, you could backup to a local drive and then periodically swap that drive with something off-site, like at your office or in a safety-deposit box  but you would have to be a very disciplined person to regularly make the swap. I recommend you use a 3rd party service for your backups.
    • I use Carbonite. I have no relationship with them. I like the fact that it is lightweight, easy to use, provides versions and is flat priced.
    • A word of caution on backup software: it typically will backup a file once per day. If you edit a file, close it and then edit it some more later that day, it will only save the first version (even if you just changed a single character in it). If you want to make sure you have the latest, tell it to back up your file the moment you are done with it. Most packages add some commands to the file browser to let you do this.
    • Also, with an off-site service, when you buy a new computer, you can actually use it to copy the data to your new machine. You can also access your data anywhere from the web. It may take several days to restore a large dataset, though.

My personal data regimen is as follows:

1. I keep a disk image updated every 1-2 months. I use both a second internal drive for my disk image and an external drive, just because they are available. Only one is really necessary and external is better, of course, because it is easier to attach to another computer or take with you as you run out of a burning house, cat in one arm, drive in the other. (Actually, that’s just a joke. If your house is on fire, forget the drive. If you have an external off-site backup, you won’t need it anyway. The cat I’ll leave to your discretion.)

2. Every time I finish editing a writing file:

a) I bringup my browser (with my writing directory in the favorites list for easy access; you could save your directory to the desktop, too), right-click the file and under Carbonite options I tell Carbonite to back the file up ASAP.

b) I copy the file to a locally attached external harddrive. When Windows asks if I want to overwrite or save under a new name, I save under a new name

That’s all I do. I used to use a RAID drive but I’ve made a conscious decision to no longer use these: RAID can add several hundred dollars to the cost of a machine in addition to the second disk drive and they are temperamental. In particular having to recheck the drives after a crash is annoying. A regular diskimage is enough protection for most users in most cases. You could consider RAID if you do commercial work on your machine or really want that extra level of protection but for most budding authors, it probably isn’t necessary.

Regardless of what scheme you use, I do strongly recommend that you use an off-site data backup service. You never know what can happen to your PC and the place that houses it. You’ll be happy to know that your bank mirrors everything (at a minimum 40km distance). You should too.