An inconvenient truth about your data

by Volker Weber

Your hard disk will die one day. And it is going to take your data with it. Your music, your photos, your mail, your contacts. All of it.

What you need is a backup. You can store mail on your ISP's server and your computer if you finally get around to replace POP3 with IMAP. You can sync your contacts with one of the many online services. Why don't you just go ahead and take a little time to burn those precious photos to a DVD? Like, right now.

If you have a Mac, you can simply use Time Machine:

To start using Time Machine, all you have to do is connect an external drive (sold separately) to your Mac. You’re asked if you want it to be your backup drive, and if you say yes, Time Machine takes care of everything else. Automatically. In the background. You’ll never have to worry about backing up again.

Get yourself an external hard drive and hook it up to your Mac. If you don't have 10.5 yet, you need no further reason than Time Machine. There is nothing to set up, no backup jobs, no full/incremental backup strategies. It does it all for you.

And then one day, when your hard disk dies, and you reinstall Mac OS X to your new disk or your new computer, the installer will ask you for your Time Machine drive. That's when you get all your data back.


How true... but I cannot help but think if something happened to drive you to posting this.

Paul Mooney, 2009-05-20

And if Apple needs to change the logic board of your MacBook Pro after a crash (because you had an nVidia chip issue, thanks nVidia ;-) ) and you would like to continue using the SAME time machine backup folder, you need to repair your backup like this, because they write the MAC address of the board's network card in the backup folder.

Karsten Lehmann, 2009-05-20

Unless your house burns down and you loose both the external drive and your Mac.

I'm pushing, which has a Mac client, too.

But the overarching idea needs to be repeated endlessly (I've seen soooo many people loose "priceless" pictures, etc.).

BACK UP YOUR DATA and store a copy somewhere else!

Craig Wiseman, 2009-05-20

But backups does not help us to loose data and information by time to time, because Applications no more able to read old files. Nice to have a backup but do not forget the old application versions and virtual machines to install and load the old treasures. :-)

Sasch Neidhart, 2009-05-20

Amen. And like Craig says, off-site is good too. I recommend JungleDisk (Win / OSX / Linux) which uses Amazon S3 for storage.

External hard drives, online back-ups… These are pretty cheap—what price your data?

Ben Poole, 2009-05-20

I wouldn't rely on DVD backups. I've been working part-time in the support department of a large software company that sells software for burning things and I've seen it all.

Doing periodical burns of your data can add an extra layer of security, but in itself it's not safe.
How often were you not able to read your data back from a DVD _directly_ after burning it?

I'd recommend a continous backup to an external NAS with RAID 1, a weekly write to one of several external hard drives which will only be connected for this purpose exactly (alternating two or three drives should be ok) and an offsite backup (services like carbonite seem ok). Many things must go wrong for you to lose your files this way.
This might seem a bit much for many kinds of data. In the end it's your decision how precious your files are.

Daniel Haferkorn, 2009-05-20

And please do never archive data to CDs or DVDs. They will - I repeat will always - get unreadable after some time. Usually after 2 to 5 years, these selfburned medias will either be empty (!) or encounter read-errors. I have seen so many CDs or DVDs where the data was lost. It happened to me too.

Andy Brunner, 2009-05-20

No DVDs. No CDs. Amen.

My setup is two ReadyNAS NV+ and a DLT Streamer. If I stored the tapes offsite, it would be close to perfect. So there's always room for improvement.

Frank Dröge, 2009-05-20

For personal use I can recommend Mozy to you, Paul. It's probably (depends on the data volume) cheaper than Amazon S3. With easy-to-use clients for Mac, Windows and Linux.
The problem with this cloud-backups is the initial transfer of course - backing up 100 Gig of data via DSL/cable takes its time ...

Martin Hiegl, 2009-05-20

Vowe, how about a new poll? No Backup, DVD Backup, Local Disk Backup, Remote Storage Backup, ... or so ...

Martin Hiegl, 2009-05-20

Hi to all:

As we have the experts here, I would like to know your recommendation for the "average" user, what to use $;-)

Given the following

-MS Windows xxx as OS
-Standard PC
-about 500 GB of data (various kind, yes MP3 and MPEG, too)
-a (matching) external USB 2.0 hard drive
-and (and this is important to 99% of the people around me) no strong IT knowledge

A "one-button-does-it-all" program / software would be genious, for both, data storage AND recovery.

Does not have to be for free, but for good!

And "yes", I know google $;-)

Thank you all for your ideas, Matthias

Matthias Lorz, 2009-05-20

Nun ja, das mit dem HD-Tod ist schon etwas knapp formuliert. Kaum eine Festplatte stirbt von heute auf morgen komplett. Meist kündigt sich das frühzeitig an, wer hin und wieder einen Blick auf die Informationen des S.M.A.R.T. schaut, kann häufig böse Überraschungen vermeiden. Bei einem plötzlichen Ausfall gehen auch meist keine Informationen verloren, die Platte fährt halt einfach nicht mehr hoch. Auch da ist mit einigem Rumprobieren noch was zu machen. Und ob ständiges Rumrödeln und Sichern der Lebensdauer einer Platte eher schadet, ist auch noch nicht ganz geklärt.
Ich persönlich sichere die Daten, die ich für wichtig erachte (Fotos, Mails, Arbeitsverzeichnisse) in deutlichen Abständen auf zwei redundanten Festplatten. Das erscheint mir eine sicher Sache (bis auf die Lagerung der Platten :-) und belastet das System nicht im laufenden Betrieb.

Kristof Doffing, 2009-05-20

and so will the drive in the timemachine , last time i checked it didnt do raid , but the again the odds of your machine and time machine dying at the same time is low , well not if your house burns down.

Online backup :)

Flemming Riis, 2009-05-20

@Andy (and others): I'd be really concerned about the quality of your media, and/ or your CD burner if discs are only lasting for a couple of years - I do a fair amount of work for environmental agencies, who often have stacks of data going back 12 years or more on CDs, which we sometimes have to reference (and, yes, write to other backup media!)

It is a rare thing indeed that we come across an unreadable one, and when we do, it's because it has been in constant use, instead of being put away carefully in a firesafe or archive.

Can't really answer for DVDs as the medium has not been around as long - and of course, the 700mb that fits on a CD makes it a far less useful medium than it once was. But I suspect the problem really started when manufacturers started prioritising write speeds over reliability.

Nick Daisley, 2009-05-20

@Nick: That's exactly the problem. If the burning speed it too fast and/or the media is cheap (less quality), than you will have these problems after some years. The average user does not know this fact and after archiving his pictures, videos, etc to the CDs/DVDs, they will loose their data.

Andy Brunner, 2009-05-20

Can we go back to square one? We are discussing which kind of safety belts are worse than others when we first have to teach people to buckle up in the first place.

Most notebooks are never backed up. This we need to change. A copy, even a bad copy, is better than none at all. And while we are at it: next time you are near a copy machine, put all your bank cards, ids, credit cards on the glas and make a copy. Keep it in a safe place. When you lose your wallet, you will be glad you did that.

Volker Weber, 2009-05-20

For local backups to USB drives etc. I suggest SyncToy from Microsoft:

It´s much better than other tools in terms of speed and compatibility with various files name (non-western european characters), but it does not reduce file sets if directories are removed -> thus the backup may get too large.

Adalbert Duda, 2009-05-20

Use CDs and DVDs very carefully, and don't rely on them! c't tested DVDs, and some of the results where dreadful: DVDs which became unreadable after a few hours instead of many years! (Watch their video too.)

I'm with @Ben: JungleDisk and Amazon's S3 are a good multi-platform solution to safe (i.e. encrypted) backups, even if the lot doesn't give me a one-button restore.

I also agree with @Sash: keep virtual machines with old apps and cross your fingers that those VMs will run on future operating systems/hardware platforms. Better yet, try and periodically export documents from proprietary systems to more open formats (PDF, plain text, etc.). Plain text doesn't age.

Jan-Piet Mens, 2009-05-20

I like SyncBack from 2BrightSparks. It comes in a free and a commercial version. Does scheduled backups to a lot of destinations (Disks, networks, ftp etc). A nice litte program gem.
I also like IBM's (Yes I work for them) dead raw meat - lamb edition Tivoli continuous data protection for files. It is as close as you get to time machine on a PC. Keeps multiple version of your data files and does automated backups too. As a destination I use a ReadyNAS in Raid configuration.

Stephan H. Wissel, 2009-05-20

@Vowe - of course you are right - I don't suppose that very many people reading this, have not at some point in their career been confronted with an ashen-faced user with dishevelled hair, who has realised after some disaster that they had no backup at all...

But with reference to backup media, it is also important to echo the regular sign-off of a PC-World journalist of the 1990s (can't remember who):

"Are you sure you've got a backup? No, really, do you KNOW you've got a backup??"

Nick Daisley, 2009-05-20

Stephan, there is actually a "view prices and buy" button. Wow. ;-)

Volker Weber, 2009-05-20

I use my ReadyNAS Duo to take scheduled backups of all my important stuff, very simple to setup and use. I then have a subscription to Carbonite to backup the backups to online storage.

Kieren Johnson, 2009-05-20

- External hard drive
- Batch file using a few robocopy commands
- Task Scheduler
- Every night, 11:30 PM

It feels good! :-)


Ulli Mueller, 2009-05-20

Dabei ist jedoch Vorsicht geboten. Wenn Sie im Quellordner versehentlich eine Datei gelöscht haben und danach Ihr Backup aktualisieren, wird diese Datei auch in Ihrem Backup nicht mehr vorhanden sein, da Robocopy nicht mehr vorhandene Dateien der Quelle ohne Nachfrage auch im Ziel löscht. Das hatte mich davon abgehalten.

Kristof Doffing, 2009-05-20

There was a free backup script based on rsync and VBS in c't 09/06 that's quiete easy to use. It does something like Time Machine on a Windows PC with a NTFS drive. It creates incremental copies of several folders on another drive and uses NTFS links for unchanged files to make the backups "appear complete", e.g. it looks as if there was a full backup every hour, but the script only copies the differences and saved a lot of space on the hard disk.

I just google'd for it and found this blog posting that talks about fixing issues in it for Vista:
rsync-Backup der c’t unter Windows Vista (German content).

Karsten Lehmann, 2009-05-20

I run a raw strategy:
work in progress -> rsync to a server on raid -> add & commit to git eventually
system disk (spans multiple operating systems) -> dd to equivalent usb disk

Therefore I got 3 instances of my important files. Remember: With less it is no backup at all!

Roland Leißl, 2009-05-20


Das ist nicht das Default Verhalten von robocopy, nur wenn die Option "/PURGE" verwendet wird werden nicht mehr existierende Dateien geloescht.

Gruss, Ulli

Ulli Mueller, 2009-05-20

Oh, dann hatte ich da was falsch verstanden. Nun gut, zu spät, habe schon was selbst gestrickt ... :-)
(Aber in der Tat wäre das so ein Ansatz, den ich sehr sexy finde.)

Kristof Doffing, 2009-05-20

Thanks for mentioning Mozy, Martin. Will try that.

Haiko Hebig, 2009-05-20

@Kristof: SMART ist unzuverlässig. Google hat Studien zur Festplattenhaltbarkeit veröffentlicht (Google benutzt viele davon) und die Ergebnisse zu SMART sind ernüchternd. Einfach nach "google smart hard disk" suchen, da findet sich einiges.

Timo Stamm, 2009-05-20

Ich habe darüber gelesen. Ich kann trotzdem nicht zu dem Schluß kommen, dass ein gelegentlicher Blick auf die Werte unnütz wäre. (Ich kenne auch genügend Admins, die SMART "erfolgreich" nutzen. Eine sichere Vorhersage ist natürlich nie zu machen.

Kristof Doffing, 2009-05-21

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