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Hanna Peacock is a PhD student in Cardiovascular Sciences at the KU Leuven. You can find her on Twitter @hannapeacock or at her website.


The question isn’t if your hard drive will fail; it’s when will your hard drive fail. The stats on hard drive survival reveal a harsh truth: 1-in-20 drives die within the first year; 1-in-5 die within four years; half of all hard drives die within 6 years. Besides the natural death of a hard drive (or flash drive), viruses, thefts, spilled beverages, and power surges can cause a catastrophic data loss. But, if you follow the 3-2-1 Rule of Backup, you are prepared to save your data, writing, family photos, and personal files in the event of a digital emergency.

The 3-2-1 Rule states that you should have:

- Three copies of your files,

- In two different formats, and

- One copy should be offsite.

To break this down: first, you should have the primary copy (the one on your computer), and then have two backup copies that are physically located somewhere else (not just in different folders on the same computer). Second, you shouldn’t rely solely on one technology. Don’t use only external drives, or only cloud storage for your backups. Mix it up. Third, make sure that one of your backups is offsite. That way, if there is a fire, robbery, or flooding from a leaky roof or broken pipe, you have a backup that is far from the site of destruction.

Onsite Backup

If you have a Mac or Windows computer, congratulations! You already own software to set up an automatic onsite backup. Simply plug in an external drive that’s big enough to hold all your files, and run Time Machine (Mac) or Backup and Restore (Windows 7). Whenever your drive is plugged in, this software will automatically backup all the files on your computer, and then update this backup at set intervals (e.g., once every five minutes, or once an hour). You can use this backup drive to restore all your files to a new computer if necessary.

Another option is to manually clone your hard drive at regular intervals to create a bootable backup. If your laptop dies, you can plug your bootable backup drive into an available computer and get to work as if you were still using your former computer. This saves having to restore and re-install software, which can take hours, once you actually get a new computer or hard drive. You can make bootable clones using software like SuperDuper (Mac, $27.95), Carbon Copy Cloner (Mac, $39.95), Acronis True Image (Windows $49.99), or Shadow Copy Cloner (Windows, $39.99). With some tinkering in the menus, cloning your drive can also be automated on a schedule, to keep a very up-to-date backup drive.

Cloud Synced Folders

Cloud synced folders, like Dropbox, OneDrive,, Copy, or Google Cloud can function as an offsite backup, but there are some caveats. If your file only resides in your cloud storage folder, then it is NOT a backup. It is a little safer than just being on your computer, because it is synced to the cloud, but you still have only one point of failure—the cloud folder, which could get corrupted or accidentally emptied. Hence, you still need to backup your cloud folder to some other folder on your computer or, ideally, to something external to your computer.

True Offsite Backup

The cheapest and easiest way to make an offsite backup is to clone your drive, or simply copy all your important files, onto an external hard drive or DVDs. Then, store the backup at a friend’s house. This method has a few limitations. First, if you need to use that backup, you have to go and get it from your friend. Second, you will still lose anything since the last time you updated the backup. Third, because it’s at a friend’s house, it may be difficult to keep the backup up-to-date or get hold of it when you need it.

Alternatively, you can use an online backup service to protect your files offsite. There are a number of services available including CrashPlan (Mac, Windows, or Linux, $5.99/month), BackBlaze (Mac or Windows, $5/month), Carbonite (Mac or Windows, $59.99/year), and MozyHome (Mac or Windows, $5.99-$9.99/month). These services will backup your computer over the internet, and then update any changes you’ve made at regular intervals. They are great for peace of mind; backups are automatic and you don’t have to remember to plug in a drive. Some services also let you access your files online, giving you instant access to your files in case of a computer disaster. They’re relatively inexpensive, and require minimal effort, but can chew up your internet bandwidth.

Creating Your Comprehensive Backup Strategy

A comprehensive backup strategy is one that keeps your files as safe as possible, and that you will actually use. The more automated this process is, the less you have to think about it, and the easier it will be. When designing your strategy, consider how often you need to backup when you’re working (e.g., every half hour or only once a day?), and how long you can be without your files.

Use the 3-2-1 Rule to guide your decisions of where and how to backup your computer. I have an external drive with Time Machine running on my MacBook when I’m at the lab, and I keep an online backup service running 24/7. So my three copies are (1) computer, (2) Time Machine drive, and (3) online; my two formats are (1) hard drives and (2) online; and my offsite copy is the online copy. I also update a bootable clone drive every few weeks, but that might be a tad excessive.

N.B. If you are doing human research or working with other sensitive or protected information, you may want to double check with your ethics board, or privacy commissioner, or whoever allowed you to collect that data, to make sure that your backup strategy conforms to the rules.

Have you had a near-miss, or a complete data loss calamity? How do you keep your files safe?

[Image by the author and used under the Creative Commons license]

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