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Your data has become more valuable than your computer, how to protect it

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More valuable: Computers or Data?

Computers used to be very expensive. Throughout the 90s and into the 2000s, the prices of desktops always seemed to be going down, but as someone that loved computers and worked in technology, no matter what I did, in order to get a computer that was fast enough to satisfy me and would allow me to get many years of use, the price tag always ended up in the $2500 range. There were – and are still – several important questions to ask before you buy a computer.

Now, the computers are works of art. The 21” iMac can be had for $1,300, while the 11” MacBook Air – what I consider one of the most impressive pieces of technology anywhere – starts at $999. And PCs can be had for much less.

And who even needs computers? For under $500 you can get a killer tablet or the latest smartphone. The geeks of today are truly spoiled.

But when given the choice of having your laptop or phone stolen – but retaining all your data, I think the choice is obvious.

Computers, phones, iPads – those can be replaced. Thousands of photos, your podcast archive, or your year long grad school thesis? That is what’s critical now.

Losing something valuable: Not if, but when

In 1992 I was young, impressionable recent college graduate working in my first full time job at a software company. We had dozens of products, everyone had their own computers, and the internet didn’t exist.

floppy-diskIt was an era of floppy disks, slow computers built from spare parts, and hard drives that failed often.

One of my greatest triumphs from that job was a mom that sent in a letter, along with a floppy disk – yes, a hand written letter in an envelope – with a heartbreaking story. Her young daughter was just learning how to use a computer, and had spent months writing a story. She worked on it every day, saving it directly to the floppy disk.

But then one day, the disk stopped working and gave an error. She could no longer access her story, and was crying at the loss of her hard work. Her mom didn’t know what to do, so she sent it in as a last resort.

Using some disk recovery software that we had and a little bit of magic, I was able to hack into the corrupted file, save about 90% of the content, reformat it, put it on a new disk, and send it back. Needless to say the mom was thrilled, and I like to think I created an author and computer enthusiast for life.

After telling the story to my boss – who had seen far, far worse happen – he told me something that scared me into paranoia about backing up:

“It’s not a matter of IF one day you’ll lose your entire life and thousands of hours of work to a catastrophic hard drive crash, but when. Save early, save often, and make multiple backups.”

Backing up data: My routine

I’m not saying I’m perfect or have every base covered. I’m a stubborn old man so I probably do things a little old school. In fact, I’m sure you can write to me to tell me where I’m vulnerable. Please do.

But I thought it would be interesting to take a peek at how one geek does it.

Desktop computer: 21” iMac

This is my main workstation and I’d say I do 75% of my work on this machine. It contains everything from blog posts to podcasts to writing assignments to online courses, as well as photos, videos, and other files.

wd-passport– I use Apple’s built in Time Machine software, which I find incredibly easy to use
– I generally do a back up once or twice a week, or after I’ve worked on a major chunk of work that I am paranoid about losing.
– I back it up using a 1 TB Western Digital Passport external hard drive, which usually runs about $100 on Amazon. I’ve used the Passport for several years now, and have never had a problem, so I stick with them.
– Actually I just looked it up in my Amazon history, I’ve purchased one in 2006, 2009, 2011, and 2013.
– The reason I get 1 TB is because that is the size of the hard drive on the computer… even if you just have 100 GB of data you want to back up, in order to use Time Capsule, the external backup drive must be as large as the hard drive

BACKUP TIP 1: Note that I do NOT keep the backup drive on my desk and continually have things syncing to it. I do this for two reasons… first, I don’t want to have any lag in performance. And second, I am paranoid that if someone were to break into my apartment, it would do me no good if they stole my computer, and then proceeded to steal my backup drive which was attached to the computer! Instead, I keep it in a safe place out of sight.

BACKUP TIP 2: About once per year I buy a new hard drive, and then bring the old one home to my parent’s house in Boston. The reason is that even if my hard drive is in a safe place in my apartment, it could be lost if there as a fire, a flood, or water damage from another apartment. Make sure you have some offsite storage.


Laptop computer: 11” MacBook Air

– You’re probably going to think I’m strange with this one. I use this laptop about 25% of the time, when I’m working from coffee shops or traveling and working remotely. I know this goes against plenty of modern technology that lets you sync files across several machines in real time, but I prefer to keep the laptop virtually empty of files.
– In other words, if I am writing a column, I will open up a Word doc on the laptop, write the column, and when I get home, transfer the file to my desktop and clean out my laptop.
– In reality, I actually just have one huge folder on my laptop called “Synced” which contains most of the files I’ve created once I’ve copied them over to my iMac as a redundancy, but I know the final versions are at home.

Phone: iPhone 4S

– About once a week I connect my phone to my iMac and sync things up, downloading a new batch of all the podcasts I listen to and removing the old ones.
– At the same time, iTunes backs up my entire phone to the cloud, and I think to my hard drive as well.
– Additionally, a dialog box opens and automatically backs up all the photos I’ve taken on my phone to a Dropbox folder. I always take a quick minute to go back through what I’ve captured in the past week or so.

Websites: JimHopkinson.com, TheHopkinsonReport.com, SalaryTutor.com, others

– I’ve gotten into the routine of backing up all of my websites on the 23rd of the month, right after I do all of the billing and accounting for my business.
– I’m fine with this schedule because most of my sites only have a few minor changes each month, and even if my website crashed and I lost a month’s worth of work, it’s just 4 episodes and I have the original files on my hard drive and could recreate those posts if needed.
– I open up each blog that I maintain in a different tab in my browser, and do two things for each blog.

how-to-back-up-wordpress-databaseStep 1: In WordPress go to Tools -> Export and download the XML file to my computer.
Step 2: In WordPress go to Tools -> Backup and download the database file to my computer. I used the WordPress Database Backup plugin.
Step 3: I head over to my hosting company, Dreamhost to do a complete backup of my account. You click a button and it tells you that the backup is in process, and then they send you an email within a few hours once it is done. They allow you to do this just once per month, and then I save it to my hard drive.
Step 4: Just to be safe I download a copy of my Google Docs spreadsheets. While I trust Google to keep my files safe in the cloud, it’s always good to have a backup since you never know what can happen. Additionally, sometimes important spreadsheets are shared (such as when collaborating with several people on a project), and all it takes is for one person to accidentally delete a document or cut and paste something incorrectly in your annual budget and then the whole group is in trouble.
Step 5: I take some key files from my hard drive (business records, financial info, etc) and throw it in the monthly backup folder.
Step 6: I do a Time Machine backup so that it is on my external drive
Step 7: I copy the files into a monthly backup folder on Dropbox so that it is now in 3 different places.

Other resources: Dropbox, thumb drives, and cases

dropbox-logoDROPBOX: Because I am a freelancer and often have to transfer large video or presentation files to companies or individuals I am working with, I have a premium account on Dropbox.

While I am only using 20 GB out of a 100 GB, the cost of $9.99 per month is cheap enough that I’d rather pay that and have plenty of room, vs. needing to transfer a huge amount of files on a deadline and being forced to move or delete things in order to make it happen.

The fact is, it is so useful and so easy to use (and free!), that if you don’t end up signing up for an account yourself, chances are eventually someone will share some data with you and you’ll need to access it via their Dropbox account.

sandisk-cruzerSANDISK CRUZER: I also have a Sandisk 16GB USB thumb drive that I use quite often. It comes in handy when I am doing presentations and want to get them from my desktop to my laptop without waiting for Dropbox to sync.

It’s also a great backup for when I am giving a presentation in the event that there is an issue with my laptop, and I use it often while traveling on vacation or working remotely. It’s amazing to have that much space on something that inexpensive — as of July 2013 a 4GB version is just $7.50, and a 64GB version (half the hard drive space of a Macbook Air!) is under $40.

amazonbasics-hard-case-wd-passportCARRY CASE: The last cool recommendation is AmazonBasics Hard Carrying Case for My Passport. The first time through I bought the Case Logic Portable Hard Drive Case for $12 and it worked great, and I used it when storing and protecting my old hard drive at my parent’s house.

For my latest drive, I tried the Amazon version, which is only $5.89 and comes in hassle free packaging. It’s basically the same thing for half the price. Now, whenever I travel with my laptop, I just throw my backup drive and case in my backpack, and it’s like having my entire home computer accessible from anywhere. It’s even great for storing and protecting other small electronics like your iPhone or iPod since one side has an elastic band to keep the item in place, and the other side has a little mesh pocket for cords, chargers, or headphones.

So when was the last time YOU did a backup? Are you prepared? It’s key to get in the routine, so hopefully this helped.

Note: I am a member of Amazon.com’s affiliate program and links were used in this article where available. I’ve tested and used every product in this article.

Check out my free online salary negotiation course, “How to Negotiate Salary: The Negotiation Mindset.”

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