By John Tabita

Surviving a Hard Drive Crash, the Mayan Apocalypse, and Other Disasters

By John Tabita

In an effort to send out more self-absorbed tweets, last Friday I tweeted that the hard drive on my work computer had crashed. None of my files were recoverable. I’m sure you paused for a moment of silence.

At least the Mayan Apocalypse has a date. Not so with the impending Zombie Apocalypse. Despite the dire warnings from various movies and video games over the years, we still don’t know exactly when this will occur. It looms over us waiting, watching … just like your next hard drive crash.

I count myself lucky—this is only the second hard drive I’ve lost in 17 years of owning a computer. (The first was actually my fault … I ran an older version of Norton Utilities that wasn’t compatible with my current OS.) Fortunately, I’ve always been diligent about backing up. Ten years ago, storage was expensive, so anytime I completed a significant amount of work for a client, I copied the files to one of the multiple Zip discs I kept on hand. Once the job was finished, I archived everything to CD-ROM.

I lost one file in that first crash. This time around I wasn’t so lucky. My most important files were stored on a cloud server. But others were backed up on a network drive which I didn’t have set up with a regular, automated backup—I used the drag-and-drop method. Unfortunately, the last time I remembered to “drag-and-drop” was two months ago. So in the spirit of closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, I started looking into an automated process. In case you don’t know, there are three basic types: disk imaging, file-based, and file synchronization.

Disk Imaging

Even though IT re-installed the OS and the majority of my software, I spent most of Monday changing defaults settings, reconfiguring my Outlook email rules, re-bookmarking my most-used websites, and adding people back into my contact list. (Even the toolbars in Word and Excel reverted to their defaults.) With a disk image backup, none of that would have been necessary. It backs up the complete contents and file structure of your hard drive, allowing for a rapid full-system restore of your entire operating system and all your software, preferences, and settings.

File-Based Backup

A File-Based backup is simply a mirror image of the files on your hard drive, or in a particular folder or set of folders. This is how I backed up my work files. Like I said, I used the “drag-and-drop” method, but there are literally thousands of software applications to automate this. Most allow you to do incremental backups—meaning only files that have been changed since the last backup are included.

File Synchronization

Technically, File Synchronization is not a backup method, but you get the same end-result, plus the added benefit of being able to work on the same set of files in different locations. File Synchronization is how services like Dropbox work. With a backup, you have a “source” and a “destination.” But file synchronization involves two or more sources, such as two computers. Files changed on any one of the computers will be reflected on the other(s). Tools like Microsoft SyncToy allow you to set up a one-way sync, which functions more like a true file-based backup.

Utilizing Cloud Backup Services

In September 2011, Tropical Storm Lee caused New York’s Susquehanna River to rise 11 feet above flood level, forcing 20,000 residents in the Binghamton, N.Y., area to evacuate. Our sales office, including all computers, files and backups were lost.

You can use any of the three methods to backup to an external or network drive, but it still won’t protect you from theft or natural disaster. That’s where a cloud backup service can give you an extra layer of protection.

Just as different marketing methods have their strengths and weaknesses, the same holds true with local vs. cloud backups. The biggest downside is, unless you have a robust Internet connection, backing up and restoring your data can be time-consuming. That’s why many companies employ a hybrid of local and online backups.

If owning a Chevy Silverado can help you survive the Mayan Apocalypse, then you too can survive a hard drive catastrophe unscathed. Deciding which to use or whether or not to utilize a hybrid solution depends on how you’d answer this question: “How disastrous would it be if I lost all of my clients’ files?”

There are myriads of backup solutions available. I found one I think I’ll try.

What backup software do you use? Are you even backing up your data at all? Post your comments, experiences, and recommendations below.

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  • Once upon a time I had a cute app on my Mac that caused Oscar the Grouch to pop up out of the trash can every time you deleted a file. All great fun, till my daughter and her friend decided to trash my entire client folder so they could watch Oscar do his thing. Amongst the several important lessons I learnt – chief is that my kids have no access to my computers now! – I learnt that intelligent file naming is also an important part of successful back-up restoration. I recovered all the files but had to then work out what was what from the one enormous folder of similarly named files.

  • Hurrah, that

  • Aankhen

    I lost a hard disk back in 2009, and with it, every personal document I had, going back to around 1999. I can tell you one thing: it wasn’t the computer that BSOD’d that time. :- Ever since then, I’ve been using Super Flexible File Synchronizer to back up files daily. It works pretty well and involves minimal effort (you can schedule backups too) once it’s configured. I also back up my personal folder to the cloud. I was using Dropbox for this initially, but then I switched to Spideroak, as it encrypts your files before they ever leave your computer, and no one can decrypt them without the password.

  • Dear John, we started coping with your problems and questions almost 20 yrs.ago. As a young Data Recovery company the crashed drives (and tapes, and discs, and even diskettes) were the source of our income. However, we didn’t want to suffer on our own flesh the pain of lost data. Our engineers started checking every technology and every methodology available to protect our personal and business data. We must acknowledge that many new names have entered the survivability arena since then, but they are all based on the same principles. What to do? They decided to invent the wheel. They first created an idea, a philosophy. Then started programming the most universally flexible survivability (should I say backup&Recovery?) set of tools.
    Since then, whenever a customer has a new and unthinked strategic problem, we just use the tools or adjust them. We backup and recover from any to any format, physical, virtual, cloudy…
    You name it.
    There’s more info in the site but we’ll be glad to answer any questions. The tool (BOS) is patented and a free version is distributed for private users or pilot installations.

  • Since we’re sharing war stories, I forgot to mention one other type of threat to our data—viruses. In the mid-90’s, there was a virus targeting Macs, and I ran a department with eight of them. It came in on a client’s disk and it was new, so our virus software didn’t catch it. I watched as one Mac after the next shut down. Total chaos ensured as we ran around, collecting every client disk in the house. When I came in the next morning, our system admin was sitting in one of the chairs, clutching a pillow. Jokingly, I asked, “Did you sleep here last night?” He looked up at me and all he said was, “Uh-huh.”

    We got a hold of the virus definitions and our software began catching it. But a week later, a new variation of the virus got released. It was like an instant replay of the previous week.

  • Tim

    Deja Dub, Back in Time or Pybackpack are very good Backup Tools in the Linux world. Time Machine is the best for Mac…

    Windows? Come on! It is 2012 and we are all IT professionals, get yourself an up to date Operating System!

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