Creating emergency-resilient electronic file backups

Most computer users know about the importance of backups as it’s all too common to have years worth of information and memories wiped out by a computer crash. Generally though, the average backup strategy involves copying files into some sort of device in your home or office. This may be of little use if the building is destroyed. Furthermore, fragile electronics may not survive an evacuation should you need to leave your home in an emergency.

The key to creating emergency-resilient electronic backups is to have both local and remote copies to create several layers of redundancy.

  • Local backups (or on-site backups) are kept in your primary location, such as at home or the office. These are for convenience since it’s usually easier to make more frequent and larger backups. Should you need to restore, they are easily accessible.

  • Remote backups (or off-site backups) stored at another location are for redundancy in case your local ones are destroyed. These are likely to be the ones you’ll fall back on after a large-scale emergency.

Local backups

Your local backup storage options include CDs, DVDs, external hard-drives or memory sticks. Since they can be connected directly to your computer, you can quickly backup and restore large files. Unfortunately, they’re also the ones most likely to be lost in the event of a house fire, earthquake, flood or any number of emergencies.

To help protect them, these should ideally be stored in a strong, waterproof and fire resistant container. There are commercially available data safes that are rated to protect your backup media from fire, water and theft but these are expensive. A cheaper but still pricey alternative would be to use professional waterproof hard cases from Pelican or Wonderful. Those on a very tight budget can simply try putting the backups in a sealed plastic food container such as those from Lock & Lock or Tupperware.

However, the biggest drawback with these local backups is that you are faced with a dilemma:

  • You can keep your backup media stored in the protective case and schedule regular backups. They’ll have some protection in the event of an emergency but it’s easy to postpone or forget about making the backups. You also won’t have a copy of any files that have been edited between the backups; or

  • You can make frequent backups to a constantly attached drive, usually automatically through backup software. This makes your backup process more reliable but leaves the media at risk since they’re left out.

Image of laptops and hard-drives in temporary office space during an emergency
A make-shift office of laptops and backup drives laid out on the dining room table

Remote backups

The most convenient way to keep remote backups is to use an online service like the following:

By far the easiest to use are Dropbox and Carbonite but the most secure are rsync, SpiderOak and JungleDisk. (There are many more services available but these are the ones that I’ve personally tried.)

*SpiderOak and Dropbox have a free option. If you want to try one of these, use my referrer code and we’ll both get free extra space.

These types of services host their servers in business-grade data centers; your data will be housed in a secure facility with its own disaster recovery systems. In other words, they do the job of keeping your data safe for you. (Of course, you should never give full trust to a third-party so local backups are still important.)

Keep in mind that due to storage fees or internet speed limitations, some types of data, such as a large music or video library, may not be practical to store online. You should also expect your first backup to take a while since you’ll need to copy everything onto the remote server. For example, the first time I used SpiderOak, it took several days to backup almost 30GB of data. Fortunately, subsequent backups are quicker as most services copy over only the changes.

A solution to keeping remote backups of large files is to create a ‘backup-ring’ with friends and relatives from out-of-town. The principle behind this is quite simple: make backups and then swap disks when you visit your out-of-town friends; you keep their drive and they keep yours.

Synchronization

File synchronization is a technology that’s matured over the past few years and combines benefits of local and remote storage. It works by copying files from your computer onto online storage and when any changes are made, the older file is automatically updated with the new version.

Most services also allow you to synchronize several computers so if you have a laptop, desktop and office computer, they can all be updated with the latest changes. This feature alone can greatly simplify your backup and restore process; if one computer is unusable, you simply log in to another, synchronize then pick up where you left off. The same process applies when buying a new computer. Just install the synchronization software and your files will be copied over from the servers.

Some even offer web and mobile device access so in an emergency, you don’t even need your own computer to get hold of your files.

Dropbox, JungleDisk and SpiderOak offer computer synchronization. Note that these services require an internet connection to synchronize. During a wide scale emergency, internet links may be down or unreliable so it’s a good idea to ensure that your computers regularly go online to get updates.

Other tips

  • If your email provider supports it, try using the IMAP protocol for your emails. This essentially keeps your mail server synchronized with your computer’s mailbox changes. Even if your computer is destroyed, you can still connect to the server and have your emails in the same state of your last access: new, read, saved and deleted emails will appear as they did on the destroyed computer. Those who use web-based email, like Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo won’t need to worry about this.

  • Remember that your backups may contain confidential files. For privacy, make sure that all backups are encrypted. Your backup software may have this feature built-in. If not, you might want to try TrueCrypt which is well-known and trusted encryption software.

  • Some files use special formats so make sure you also backup any software you need to access your files. As much as possible, try to save or export files into a widely used format. For example, PDF files can usually be opened in pretty much any operating system and most devices come with some sort of PDF reader.

  • Don’t forget to run a test restore. You may be diligently making backups but they’re useless if some error in your process means that you can’t retrieve the files when needed.

It’s all about continuity

While keeping your data safe might seem like a low priority in comparison to other preparedness tasks, the purpose behind creating emergency-resilient electronic file backups is continuity. Crises always pass and life eventually returns to normal. Since a large part of our assets, both business and personal, are now electronic, rescuing your data files will speed up your recovery.

More than anything, having data backups provide emotional security. Knowing that your digital archive of family photos or vital business documents are safe can help you focus on the immediate needs of getting through an emergency.