Dodging Disaster: Protect Your Digital Assets

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| February 17, 2021

I’ve used computers for the majority of my creative career and everything I have to show for about the past ten years of my life lives in a little hard drive sitting on my desk. Thinking about things in those terms makes me feel anxious, but it’s not something I think about often, or at all really. The thought doesn’t cross my mind when I sit down to work, nor when I power off and call it a day. In fact, it isn’t until something happens that jars me from my false sense of security that I start to think about just how little precaution I’ve taken to avoid imminent disaster.

Working digitally is great. It allows us to accomplish things faster, more easily, and cheaper. But it also gives us a false sense of confidence. Reliability is something we tend to only consider at the time of purchase. Before we bring a new device into our lives, we want to make sure it’s dependable. But once we’ve done our initial due diligence, we expect things to just work, and when they do, we don’t have reason to consider the risks.

This puts us in a dangerous place because the risks are ever-present, and when disaster strikes, there usually aren’t warning signs. During my time working at an electronics store I saw just about every that could possibly go wrong involving a computer. If you’ve actually taken measures to protect your data before suffering some sort of electronics-related tragedy, you’re one of the few. The rest of the world is living blissfully unaware of just how close they are to the edge of disaster. I’m not really one to speak, though, because until recently, I was one of them.

When it comes to dodging bullets, I’ve had better luck than most. My first scare was some years back when I spilled a drink all over my laptop. Fortunately, I had the tools on hand to open it up, disconnect the battery and boards and leave it in front of a fan overnight. 6 years later and even though I’m not using it personally, I’m proud to say it’s still in service, going strong. That wasn’t enough for me to learn my lesson, though. If anything, narrowly avoiding disaster bolstered my confidence. Sure, I would take the basic measures like using a surge protector and doing the occasional backup to a spare hard drive, but I never had a system in place to protect my data. Until recently.

Every year in Arizona, we have a monsoon season. We’re hit with strong winds, heavy rain, and walls of dust. Usually, as long as you stay indoors, you’ve got nothing to worry about, beyond the occasional power outage. This year, one such outage happened while I was working and corrupted a huge file I was working on. Sure, it was disheartening, but ultimately, nothing more than a few hours down the drain, nothing that couldn’t be replaced. There were another couple of outages over the following months, but fortunately, there were no repeats of my corrupted file fiasco.

I would just wait for the power to come back and carry on working. It wasn’t until maybe the 3rd or 4th power outage this year that I was confronted with my own nearly fatal negligence. I had forgotten that surge protectors have a lifespan. While each power outage alone wasn’t enough to do any serious damage to my computer, together they had collectively rendered my surge protector useless. When I powered my computer on, my main drive was nowhere to be found.

I found myself greeted with the same feeling I had all those years ago when I spilled a drink on my laptop. I sprung into troubleshoot mode and started trying everything I could think of, but to no avail. As a last ditch effort, I decided to dig through my spare parts hoping I had an extra SATA cable. Fortunately for me, I was able to find one and when I replaced the cable connected to the missing drive, it magically reappeared.

Let my story serve as a cautionary tale. Even without user error or carelessness, things can just happen on their own as a result of time and general wear. With that said, let’s explore some of the options we have for protecting our work. The different types of data backup available fall into one of two categories: on-site and off-site. You’ve probably used both without even realizing it. If you’ve ever used a thumb drive to make a copy of a file for sharing, that would be considered on-site, and if you use cloud storage to back up the camera roll on your phone, that would be considered off-site. These examples are just a taste of what each category has to offer, so let’s take a look at each in more detail.

On-site Solutions

When it comes to backing up our work locally using physical drives, we’ve got a few options at our disposal. The first of which is called RAID, or Redundant Array of Independent Disks. In total there are 6 standard types of RAID configurations available, each offering benefits in speed or data reliability, but the general premise remains the same. Rather than using just a single disk, or hard drive, data is stored across an array consisting of at least 2 disks. Depending on the configuration, data is either duplicated or partially stored across the disks, making for easier recovery in the case of data loss. An added benefit of RAID is the performance boost that results from the disks working in tandem. The downsides to RAID are that it requires a larger upfront investment and only provides you with on-site protection. Should something happen to your machine, you’ll be out of luck. RAID is also better suited for desktop machines with room for additional drives, though caddies can be used for laptops as well. While RAID can help to protect your data in the case of disk failure, it should be noted that it is not a backup. RAID configurations are still susceptible to damage and degradation so they should not be your last line of defense, for that, you’ll need a dedicated backup.

When it comes to dedicated physical options, like the previously mentioned thumb drives or external hard drives, the amount of data you’re backing up will be the main thing to consider. If your machine has multiple disks, with one used for booting and one for storage, you’ll have the option of selecting either a single disk or both for backup. If you are using the same disk for booting and storage, commonplace for laptops, the decision is already made for you. That doesn’t mean you should just grab any drive with enough space, though. Your machine will give you the option to schedule the frequency with which backups are created and overwritten. If you select a drive that only has enough space for a single backup, it will be rewritten every time a new backup is created. If something goes wrong during this process, you risk corrupting the only backup available, so consider a drive that has enough space for at least 2 backups.

In either case, memory has become relatively cheap, and external hard drives as large as 4TB can be regularly found for under $100. As far as on-site solutions go, backup drives are great because most operating systems have some sort of configurable automated backup. These solutions only work if you remember to use them, so the more you can automate this process the better. As far as downsides go, depending on the way the drive is formatted, you’ll be limited in which machines can read it. If you forget to choose a device-agnostic format before you put it into service, you’ll run into problems in the future if you switch systems. I have some data stuck on a drive that I forgot to transfer before switching from macOS to PC and no longer have a machine that can read that drive. But oh well, I was mostly just photoshopping big swords into my hands for profile pictures anyway.

Off-site Solutions

While on-site solutions can provide you with some peace of mind and are part of a winning data-protection system, they still leave you vulnerable to physical threats to your machine like fire or theft. Off-site solutions, those that are based in the cloud, help to overcome any physical threats to your data. Additionally, they play nicely with any type of system, which provides a degree of future-proofing. Within the realm of off-site solutions, there are many different options, but they generally fall into one of two categories: backup and storage. Apple’s iCloud, Google One, and Dropbox all fall into the latter category. They offer the option to back up files from your device but their primary purpose is to provide a decentralized location for storing your files. This makes them a popular choice for mobile devices with limited physical storage. On the other hand, services like Backblaze and IDrive are dedicated backup services that are more useful for creating duplicates of desktop or mobile workstations. On the surface, both categories are similar. They utilize cloud storage to offer users a place to store and access data. Where they differ, however, is in their pricing structure.

All of those mentioned in the storage category offer a maximum of 2TB per individual at a rate of $9.99 per month. For the backup category, it’s a different story. IDrive offers 5TB for $69.50 per year and Backblaze offers unlimited at $60 per year. Cloud storage can also be automated to run in the background and perform backups at predesignated intervals just like an external hard drive. Cloud storage is great for accessing files remotely which can lessen your load for travel and removes the risk of a physical drive being damaged or lost in transport. On the other hand, if you find yourself in a situation where you need to access your files but don’t have access to a reliable or secure internet connection, you’ll be in a pinch.

There’s a lot to consider when it comes to making backups, but the best way to protect your data doesn’t lay in any single solution. It’s impossible to predict the exact way in which disaster will strike so it’s best to spread yourself out and reduce risk across the board. The more layers you add to your data-protection system the safer you’ll be, but the more you’ll spend. Whenever the option presents itself, take advantage of things that are free, like Pinterest, which is now where I’ve taken to building up my reference library.

Don’t set yourself up to lose everything. Take measures now to protect your work. It’s easy to put these things off because they don’t feel like immediate threats and cloud storage or backup services can be expensive, but nothing beats having the peace of mind knowing all of your hard work is safe. Whatever you decide to do, start today, don’t wait until it’s too late.

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