Your computer will fail, and what you can do to prevent disaster

13083795569QQSB1When it comes to computers, I think I have been considered a fairly knowledgeable fellow by my friends and family. I am frequently asked for advice or help. Sometimes, for repair. I am proud of this, but I do not really consider myself an expert. I have been building PCs since I was about 14 years old. My first, a Timex Sinclair 1000, was donated to me by a computer engineer who wanted to encourage my interest in computers and knew that we did not have the money to buy one at that time (the TS 1000 kit was around $200 back then – a lot of $$ for a 14 year-old). I attached ribbon cables, screwed together a case and turned the power on. Success! It was a good feeling.

In the early 80’s, there were no disk drives for hobbyist computers – you could buy and attach a tape recorder to save or load your programs if you wished, and that could be a tricky process in which you could often lose data. The alternative was to spend three hours coding a game (from a magazine or a manual – remember, there was no formal internet back then), and then spend six hours playing the game and finally lose all your work and play whenever you had to shut down the computer. I have to correct myself a bit. If memory serves, I believe you could get a floppy disk drive for later models, but they often cost more than the computer itself. Can you imagine?

So, here I am 30 years later, and a lot has improved. But some has not. Our data is still at risk on our computers. Hard drives fail all the time. I read on ZDNet a few years ago that hard drives are prone to failure even when new. Consumer drives are really only good for about four years and after that, you are playing Russian roulette with your data with every additional month that passes. What is the one part most likely to fail on a computer? The hard drive. If you haven’t lost one yet, be prepared. It will happen.

With that in mind, it seems like a no-brainer to backup your data.

“But how do I do that?”  you ask. I know a lot of people who keep their data on USB flash drives, or use Time Machine with a USB hard drive, but these solutions are portable and subject to damage from dropping, or to loss. As a former IT person, I cringe at the thought of these solutions, since they put your data at unnecessary risk. Somehow, they make the people that use them feel better, though.

If the thought of losing all your personal pictures, financial records and videos doesn’t make you cringe, I don’t know what will. Unrecoverable. Gone forever. Shudder.

Before we go into solutions, let me define “backups” and “copies” as I understand them. For me, a backup is a full system “image” or copy of your entire computer held in a remote location. Some versions of Windows 7 offer this functionality, but maintaining those backups is complicated and requires a lot of drive space. OS X doesn’t offer this functionality, strangely, with Time Machine backing up only your personal files and not the entire computer. I define a “copy” as just a duplicate file of whatever information you are storing. Most people generally make copies of their data, but this requires going through loads files and copying them back to a new computer or drive after a critical failure. Not a very fun thing to do after the stress of a critical failure.

So here’s my solution:

I have installed a home server. Wait, don’t stop reading. It’s not as outrageous or complicated an idea as you think. About four years ago, HP came out with a Home Server appliance – you attach it to your network (cabled), power it on, stick a disc in your laptop or desktop, and run through a simple installation process. From that point forward, the server tracks all the changes you’ve made to your PC and backs it up every night. You can add hard drives easily as your needs require. Here are the advantages:

  • Automatic backups. Only one copy of any individual file is kept on the server, but the server catalogs all changes you make, for future restoration. This saves a huge amount of drive space and saves you money in storage costs. Keeping multiple copies on one drive only takes up space and does not protect you against failure or other loss with that drive. You deleted a document five weeks ago but you need it now? Go back to that backup and put the document back on your PC. No problem. My home server automatically runs a backup overnight (if my computer is powered on) and I never have to manage that process. About the most I have to do is make sure my desktop and/or laptop is powered on overnight once a week.
  • Multiple copies (duplication). In addition to my whole-computer backups, I keep all my photos and music duplicated. If any single drive in the home server fails, another drive will have a copy. I currently have four drives of varying size in my server, but you could use less or more as your needs dictate. The home server maintains duplicate copies automatically. This is one of my favorite features of the home server, since I really do not need to worry about hard drive failure as long as I keep important pictures, music (less important, I’ll get to that later) and videos on the server.
  • Space for a family. The server comes ready to support 10 accounts (10 logins) and unlimited physical computers (PCs or Macs),
  • Access to my files wherever I can find the internet. I can access my files from anywhere via the web. I just sign in to my home server website, and get to work. This is almost like my own personal cloud service – which Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and other companies offer to some degree for free. But, if you do not trust those companies or are very worried about privacy, you can provide yourself your own cloud service with a home server.

This is a really simple solution. It is easy to set up, it can automatically make duplicates of important files (for peace of mind) and data is easily accessible from anywhere access to the internet can be found. Not only is it something I can use personally, but my family can use it as well, reducing the time I have to spend supporting them if they lose something important. No more carrying backup hard drives with me everywhere. No more lost USB sticks. No worries about someone picking up that lost drive and going through my personal financial records or photos. No more worries about your computer being destroyed by a virus. It’s all good.

If there is a hard drive failure (or loss due to viruses) on my laptop or desktop, I just buy a new hard drive, replace the failed one and restore last night’s backup from the home server. The recovery process takes about an hour. In an hour I can go from having a dead computer to having everything back to way it was before. Simple.

One last backup strategy I use? Online or “cloud” storage. Google and Amazon (and a few other companies) have free online storage for you. If you use Amazon Cloud Drive which is assigned automatically to your Amazon account, you are given 5 GB of free online storage. I also purchased storage for 250,000 songs with Amazon, called Cloud Player Premium for $25 a year. Cloud Player Premium automatically syncs with all my music on my server, so there is no chance of ever losing a music file again, and I spend no time backing it up after the initial set-up. Google offers a similar deal for music, storing 20,000 songs for free and providing 5 GB additional storage for other files. Currently, I have about 5,500 songs in storage, and that includes all the music my entire family uses. If you have a family, create a family account on Amazon or Google. That way your entire family can have secure access to the same ebooks, movies, photos or music.

I recently lost my desktop PC (motherboard failure) and had to get a new one. There was no point in recovering the whole computer, since I went from a desktop to a laptop. But the process was still pretty painless.

I recovered my files easily and lost not one thing. Not one picture, not one resume, not one song. The only weakness in my backup strategy now is that I have no real remote/online backup for the vast majority of my pictures and personal videos beyond my home server. I expect to address that soon, but that will primarily be for peace of mind in the case of house fire or earthquake or some similar disaster. Remote backups is the last step in personal file safety. Or the first, depending on your priorities.

Many of you may be aware that most smart phones include a plan for remotely saving all the pictures and videos you capture. For the iPhone, there’s iCloud and for Android phones, there’s Google +. I think Windows Phones use SkyDrive in a similar fashion, but I have not dealt with a Windows Phone in many years. Make sure you sign up for one or all of these services if you have a smartphone. I cannot tell you how common it is to have your smartphone lost or damaged, and most people keep all their important photos on their phones these days.

Please, even if you don’t want to go so far as getting a home server, at least sign up for and maintain a cloud services account. Don’t keep multiple copies on a flash drive or depend on one single USB hard drive to keep your backups safe. A few simple steps can save you from losing important data.

SSDs (Solid State Drives) may not be as reliable as you thinkzd.net/reZfYS

Some good info on hard drive failurezd.net/WQ1Uon

Some technical info on drive failure ratesbit.ly/17apFK