Considering Data Backup

Many of us here within the community were introduced to the need of preparedness through watching the Crash Course and later exploring the WSID Guide and Blog.  As personal awareness grew, many of us started to look at emergencies and situations that would have a dramatic and profound affect on our lives, and we began to make preparations to deal with those emergencies and build more resiliency into our lives.

We started to evaluate our water, food, and housing security more closely and to make sure we had backup plans and resources. Health, wealth, and community became a bigger concern for many of us, as we learned more about the state of the systems we rely on so heavily and their overall decline in supporting us in the future.

With all of the situations and concerns we look at when building resiliency into our lives, one topic that gets overlooked frequently is our “digital lives” and how to protect them from catastrophe. The majority of us are perpetually connected to a digital life. Everything from banking and financial records, contracts, business documents, and our personal photos and memories are all stored on a hard drive somewhere as binary 1’s and 0’s. 

We sometimes forget that we rely on hard drives and mass storage media to safeguard hundreds and sometimes thousands of hours worth of work and resources. Some of this digital life is stored locally (home/office computers), some in the “cloud,” and some of it in remote locations that we have no control over. So with this in mind, I would like to explore a few concepts on this topic and give the community a starting point to begin thinking about protections and resiliency in our “digital self.”

Digital catastrophe can happen at any time. The loss of your digital self can be as small as losing your mobile phone with the past three months of photos on it, or the complete loss of a hard drive that contains every file you have ever worked on since using a computer. And that loss can be caused by any number of things: theft, fire, flood, a spilled cup of coffee, or just plain hardware failure from old or low-quality parts. 

I want you take a moment to think about losing every file, photo, bookmark, password, and email you have and trying to start over from scratch. What about that address book? Do you still have those Windows XP install discs? Could you remember that random website you bookmarked about building your own solar panels? What about all the account info and passwords for your various financial and service accounts? Would your have access to these items if the house burned down or you needed to evacuate during a natural disaster? How much time and energy would it take to rebuild those resources, and how would you feel about the loss of those irreplaceable memories?

So lets look at backing up our data and our "digital selves" by starting with some general techniques and considerations. There are lots of options out there, and I hope this summary with help you develop a backup strategy that works best for you.

Back Up Your Data! Redundancy is the Key.

My overall recommended strategy is to have redundancy in one's backups. This means having two constantly updated copies of your data: One on-site (local) and one off-site in a secure location. As mentioned before, there are lots of options and technologies to achieve this strategy, and everyone will have a different plan that works best for them and meets their needs. I won’t go into specifics in this article, but I will give a general overview of this strategy and how its applied.

On-Site Backup

This is the process of copying your entire system or vital files to an external drive or writable media (USB Hard Drive, NAS Drive, Memory Stick/Thumb Drive, CD/DVD). Copying can be done manually by dragging and dropping selected files or using a backup software to assist in automating the process. Most computer systems come with a backup software suite that allows you to do full backups and incremental copies of your entire system on a designated schedule.

Advantages of having an on-site backup:

- Readily accessible to replace a failed drive or find a deleted or corrupt file

- Can be set up easily and does not cost anything beyond the initial setup

- Can be transported easily to a service center or secure location as needed

- Faster backup times for copying large volumes of data


- Backup data and hardware is vulnerable to being destroyed (fire, flood, power surge, etc.) or stolen along with the original data

Off-Site Backup

Off-site options include either a physical copy that you make on-site and put in a remote location (safe deposit box or trusted family/friend's home, perhaps in another city/state) or the utilization of an online backup service to copy your files to a remote location (Mozy, Carbonite, and DropBox are some examples). With off-site backup, your data is secured in a location separate from your original data.

Advantages of having off-site backup:

- Backup data does not have the same vulnerabilities as your original data, simply because it is not in the same place at the same time

- Online backup services usually provide remote access to your data from anywhere (assuming online access is available)


- More expensive in the long term, as online services usually have an ongoing fee

- Moving hardware requires more time and possible expense (shipping or personally delivering backup hardware to off-site location)

- Not easily accessible for rapid replacement

- Online backup can be slow for uploading and downloading large amounts of data 

- Online systems have potential security issues (e.g., hacking, identity theft)

Criticality and Capacity

Now that we have a general overview of ways to safeguard data, let's look at what data is absolutely critical to back up and what level of storage is necessary to create full backups and scheduled snapshots on a continuous basis. 

I work on a computer ten hours a day and having access to all my files and applications is critical to performing my job, so having complete and full copies of my entire system and setup is a must.  If my hard drive were to fail suddenly, I could use a full backup copy to replace the drive in a matter of hours, compared to the multiple days it would take to backup 140 GB of data over the web or re-install all my applications and remember all my passwords. 

For a lot of people, just backing up their personal files and memories will be sufficient. In general, though, backing up the entire system can save a lot of time and headache when disaster does strike. 

For the amount of data storage a person needs, I like to use a ratio of 1 to 3.  For every 1 GB of data, I like to have 3 GB of external storage capacity to backup the data.  So for a 100 GB internal hard drive on your computer, you should try to have 300 GB of backup storage available. This allows you to have multiple snapshots on one device in case you need to access an older backup. (Perhaps you really do need that file you deleted from six  months ago that is not in your most recent snapshot.)

These days, hard drive space is pretty cheap. You can get a 1000 GB hard drive for under a $100, and this seems like a pretty reasonable investment for ensuring that your data will be around when you need it.  


When conducting a new or revised self-assessment of your resiliency and preparations -- looking over the water supply, the long term food storage, and the emergency equipment -- I strongly encourage you to include an evaluation of your data backup plan.  If you don't have one in place, there is no better time than right now to get started.  If you have a plan actively in place, check the health and security of your equipment to make sure all is in order. Just like cars, computer systems and hardware need maintenance to work properly and keep your data safe.

I hope this has given you a better understanding of the need for data backups and possible solutions to move towards to give you a little piece on mind with regards to protecting your digital self.  Look for more on this topic in future articles.



This What Should I Do? blog series is intended to surface knowledge and perspective useful to preparing for a future defined by Peak Oil.  The content is written by readers and is based in their own experiences in putting into practice many of the ideas exchanged on this site.  If there are topics you'd like to see featured here, or if you have interest in contributing a post in a relevant area of your expertise, please indicate so in our What Should I Do? series feedback forum.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

 One strategy to make backup cheaper / faster / simpler is to have a dedicated folder on your hard drive for copies of really precious stuff … things like text documents, notes, perhaps photos…  so that it’s simple to copy the whole folder onto a new partition / USB drive / CD / or upload via ftp…

 A sort of "bug out bag" for data … :slight_smile:


 Remember that in terms of filesize, text is cheap, pictures are "reasonably" cheap… video is very expensive. (as is M$ bloatware :P  sorry… old prejudices die hard… )

  So organising your data such that the small and valuable isn’t mixed up with huge but unimportant stuff helps…


 A thumbs up for Acronis btw… been using it for 7 years maybe… ? Especially useful for migrating to a new machine…




A good primer on an important subject.
Along with data preservation, I would lump in disposal and encryption.

For those who don’t already know, when you delete something from your computer, it isn’t actually gone. Not right away. In time, after the system has repurposed that section of the hard drive, the data will get overwritten; but until then it may be partially or totally recoverable. For disposing of sensitive files, it is recommended to use a "shredder" or secure delete program that will do the rewritting immediately, preventing recovery. There are many good, free programs that do this. One I am familar with and recomend is called simply "Eraser" ( ). It will put a command in your right-click menu to securely erase a file with just a couple clicks. 

For encryption (protecting files so that only people with the password can see them), I think most techies would recomend Truecrypt. It is free, open source, and excellent. ( ). The website has many good guides on how to encrypt anything from a single file, to an entire hard drive, and even how to put an encrypted volume within a volume for plausible deniability. A tool like this can be used in conjunction with your backup system - encrypt your data before you back it up, so if your external drives/DVDs are lost or stolen, or your online backup service is hacked, you have a strong layer of protection on your data.


I have the files on my computer, then transfer these to my external hard drive, and when I go to my mom’s house I also update all the files on the drive stored at her house.
One thing I have been wondering about, what would be the effects of an EMP? Would this ruin all of these devices? Is there a way to protect them, like storing under 2 feet of concrete and lead?


Don’t forget to consider the LIFESPAN of flash drives, hard disk drives, writable CDs and DVDs, and tapes.
Flash Drives (USB Thumb Drives)
These can usually take upwards of 10,000 read-write cycles. (However, I’ve had some die on me in a just a few uses, so your mileage may vary.) Look for single-level cells (costs more, but faster write speeds, lower power use, longer life) rather than multi-level cells. Look for those with an "even distribution" feature built into the software of the controller (read the specifications) so that memory use is distributed more evenly across the entire device rather than always one particular section getting heavy use. Avoid defragmenting or constantly formatting the entire drive.

Hard Disk Drives
Lifespan of roughly about 5 years. These store data on magnetic media at very high densities. (Most people don’t know that hard disks come with bad sectors already - that is mapped around and not used - as well as extra spare sectors that can be doled out as needed when existing used sectors go bad and are detected.) One major vulnerability is the disk bearings (similar to ball bearings in the wheel of your car). Another is the read-write head. Disks spin at thousands of times per minute, so avoid jostling or bumping them - especially laptop and notebook computers - and avoid power surgers and outages. Invest in an uninterruptible backup supply (UPS).

CDs and DVDs
"Burnable" CD and DVD media can last from 2 to as long as 10 years. Quality matters - but look not just for brand names, but also for words like "archival" quality, and check out on-line reviews. (I’ve had some Sony media visibly go bad on me after a few years - without even the shrink-wrap having been opened. Personally, I like Memorex Black.) CD-Rs and DVD-Rs use an impregnated colored dye that is heated by laser to encode the data. CD-RWs and DVD-RWs use a metallic alloy that is heated by laser to a crystalline phase for encoding. Light and heat degrades the data, so store them in a cool, dry, DARK location.

Even if your drive can burn at faster speeds, try deliberately burning at lower speeds (8x or under for a CD-R). You’ll likely notice less vibration, and more stability. As discs can warp or deteriorate more at the edges, try not to use the full capacity - about 2/3rds full is a good idea.

(Note: Pressed, manufactured CDs are made with thin layers of metal in which pits are etched, and protected from corrosion by lacquer. Stress tests estimate they may last as long as 100 years. Again, if carefully stored in a cool, dry, DARK location.)

Magnetic Tape
Can last 30 or more years, although it depends on the quality of the material used. Disadvantage: SLOW. Store in a cool, dry, DARK location away from electrical or magnetic interference.

Migration, Backward Compatiblity, Hardware, Operating Systems
This is something everyone has to consider. Those of you who have worked with computers over the past two decades will bey VERY familiar with what I am talking about. You probably have old data files or software programs that you have faithfully copied from one media to another - but they can no longer be opened or read or used by today’s programs or run on today’s operating systems or machines. (It’s especially frustrating if you had some old DOS-based games that you can’t play anymore. Extended memory and Roland sound cards, anyone? Although with virtual machines and emulators, there may yet be hope for some.).

You have to have a plan for migration and conversion of your data, because operating systems and computers wear out and become obsolete. I finally threw away some 5.25" (high density, ooh!) disks last year after hanging onto the hope of finding a working drive one day… And just last month I threw away some perfectly good NEW 3.5" floppies. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with my collection of 100 MB Zip disks yet…

Paper. Thick, acid-free, archival quality paper (especailly 100% cotton) is really a good thing. Lasts a hundred years or more  (if stored in a cool, dry, dark place - just like MREs). Human operating systems change slowly. Even today, most of us can read something written 200 years ago with relatively decent understanding. A painting from 700 years ago can be just as striking if the subject matter is not obscure. (If you want something that lasts even longer, consider parchment - yes, the stuff made from calf skin - baked clay tablets or stone.)

That reminds me, I plan on printing out some of my better pictures at Costco on their standard Fujicolor Crystal Archive paper. Don’t bother printing on your own printer, it’s cheaper and higher quality at Costco.


My strategy is to backup my Mac via TimeMachine every month or so (about 240G).  In between those, I use a remote service (Backblaze, works great and $50/yr unlimited, I have no financial interest just a happy customer).
If I do my Timemachine backup on Dec 1, and my computer HDD dies or it is stolen on Dec 10th, I would back up/restore most of my data from my WD passport portable HDD, then go to Backblaze and select the data range to Dec 2-10th and I can get that subset of files created during that period without having to restore all from remote -which could take awhile to download 200GB via 3mbs DSL (they could send you a portable hdd but that is $$$$).  In the event my WD Passport was lost/stolen I could then resort to getting all my data from Backblaze.  It is nice having the option and the WD Passport was only $60 and Backblaze $50/yr.  Having lost a HDD to failure on my Dell and a $700 bill from a  company that recovered most of the files - cheap insurance/peace of mind.  A lot of stuff there is irreplaceable.

I once had a major crash on a hard disk drive back in 2008 or so. Nothing worked. Couldn’t even get the hard drive read when I took it out of the computer and mounted it into a portable USB hard drive box.Before deciding to fork over money to a specialist firm to pay for expensive recovery, I tried the old trick of putting it in the freezer overnight - first put in double Ziplock freezer bags with most of the air pressed out, with folded paper towels and oxygen absorber packets to soak up moisture and oxygen - and then bringing it out to thaw for a day (still in the bags to avoid condensation issues until brought to room temperature). Worked like a charm. I was able to get all the data out.
After that, I bought a portable hard drive and try to back up at least once a month. Some of us only really learn the hard way…

Having lost a HDD to failure on my Dell and a $700 bill from a  company that recovered most of the files - cheap insurance/peace of mind.  A lot of stuff there is irreplaceable.[/quote]

 Mark, if you want to protect your files against an EMP, don’t you also need to keep a spare computer secure to read them with?That said, I don’t think you need concrete and lead. I have a spare phone and short wave radio wrapped in plastic bags, then cooking foil, then more plastic bags, then the whole lot is stored in an old fashioned steel deed box.

 I’m not too tech savvy but I just outfitted my dental office with a fantastic backup system. The company i used was etech7. In the event of any disaster that would ordinarily lead to data loss, I would be completely covered. I have an indestructible hard drive on the premises. They also have my data backed up in 10 different locations accross the country and on a website that has a firewall that is used by the US military. I pay $100 a month and have no worries because these guys are keeping a close watch. I found them on google their website is