Backup or die!

Patahistory notes this horror story about a student having her USB drive stolen - and with it, her only copy of her nearly complete PhD thesis. Although she did manage to recover the drive, Dave suggests that this is a timely reminder to make backups. Absolutely! I work as an IT manager in an academic environment, and I've seen enough disasters and near-disasters to take backups very seriously. Here's my advice on the subject:

  • Back up often - at least weekly. The longer you leave it, the more work you will have to do over in order to get back to where you were.
  • Get into a routine - even if you haven't written much, back it up anyway, instead of just doing it when you think of it. (This minimises the chances of you forgetting to do it the one time you need it.)
  • Backups should be easy to do - or else they will tend not to get done (unless you are more disciplined than I am!) Automate them, if possible.
  • Check your backups periodically, to make sure that they are actually backing up correctly, and are not corrupting over time. There's no point in having them if you can't read them when you need to!
  • Have a few different backup methods, for redundancy. Keep some away from your computer - emailing copies is a good idea, as Dave suggests. Or make physical copies and leave them with your parents or friends, or archive them online (eg Gmail or a service like Strongspace).
  • Be paranoid! You can never have too many backups. You'll probably never need them, but just think about how devastated you would be if the unthinkable happened, and you didn't have any ...

My personal backup regime is probably unnecessarily sophisticated - use CDs, USB drives, email, whatever works for you. I have a network-attached hard drive at home, and automatically write a backup to it from my Mac every hour (via a cron job - though I just make tar archives instead of the utilities mentioned there. When I'm travelling I will probably modify this to write smaller backups to a USB drive). Then I make a CD backup every week, which I take to work and leave in my desk drawer. When I start writing the thesis itself, which I am actually about to do, I might start uploading it to my web hosting server on a daily basis ... it's on the other side of the world, so if Australia slides beneath the waves, I can still get my PhD!

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2 thoughts on “Backup or die!

  1. Everything I do is saved in two places -- my home and office computers -- but it's done by hand, as I carry my USB drive back and forth every day. When I travel, all the crucial stuff gets copied to the USB drive and taken with me: If the entire island sinks, I'll have my backups....

  2. Brett Holman

    Post author

    Yes, that works! And you've got an extra (possibly partial) backup on your thumb drive too.

    Hmm, I wonder what calamity could submerge both Hawaii and Australia ...

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