A Comprehensive Home Backup Solution

We live in a digital world. Gone are the days of taking rolls of film to the photo store to get developed then storing them in photo album binders stashed away on some obscure basement shelf. We are taking many more photos than we used to, mostly because we can, and because it’s really, really convenient.

But then we leave them on our phones, on our digital cameras, on our computers. And we are playing roulette with them, hoping that hard drives won’t fail and phones won’t get lost or dropped in the swimming pool.

In addition to these precious memories, most of our important documents are on the computer. Or at least easy to access copies are on the computer. 

I used to worry about losing everything, but not anymore.

What is the point of this post?

I am paranoid. In 2001 when I was working on my advanced degree I had a hard drive failure and lost a tremendous amount of work three days before a major project was due. Worse, I lost the work given to me by my group members. Since that day I have been on a constant search for great ways to back up my work and my growing collection of digital media.

Now that I have a family, the digital photos of my kids and wife, and those special precious moments, are one of the most important things I have. I couldn’t stand to lose them.

I think I have done a pretty good job of finding an inexpensive and effective solution to backing up and I want to share it with everyone who will listen. This is a big topic, and this is a long post. Please settle in…

What can possibly go wrong?

When you think about protecting your digital life there are a number of things that can wipe out everything electronic that you have if you’re not prepared.

  1. The most likely thing to happen is that you or someone else will accidentally delete a file or folder from your computer. It has happened to me more than once and I’m sure will happen again.
  2. The second most likely thing is that your hard drive will fail where all your information and media is stored. I have lived through one hard drive failure since 2001 and know a number of people at work so have had failures. It is more common than you think.

These two things can become a non-issue by keeping a “local backup” which would let you quickly and easily recover your photos and documents.

But what if something much more terrible happens – your computers and drives all get stolen, your house burns down, or you have a massive flood that destroys all your local copies?

  1. Now you need to think about “off-site” backup. Don’t get scared, it’s not as tricky or expensive as you might imagine.

The point is to have multiple copies of your data quickly and easily available any time you need it.

It. Must. Be. Automatic.

A number of years ago I thought “backing up” meant burning a CD once in a while and throwing it in the drawer. Then I thought making a backup meant copying some stuff to a small external hard drive whenever I remembered. And I thought that “off site”  meant talking the hard drive to work and storing it in my desk drawer. While better than doing nothing it was a manual process that required me to actually DO something, and as a result after a month or so it rarely got done. Maybe you are more diligent than I was. Maybe not.

This is not what I am suggesting you do. Everything I outline is automated and can be executed daily or even multiple times per day depending on how paranoid YOU are and how much you care about your photos and other digital information.

Let’s get started.

The first two problems mentioned above can be easily solved by making a local backup of all your information. “Local” for the purposes of this post means that the backup copy is located in the same physical premises as the master copy, probably your home or small business, and on your local / home network. I’m considering the requirement for this to be a separate physical device, be it an external hard drive or another computer.

For the moment forget about your cell phones, tablets, etc. that generate digital media. We’ll deal with those in a later post.

There are a number of different configurations that you might have in your home network:

  1. The simplest of all: one computer in the house. This is easy. All you need to do is ensure your digital media is on the computer and stored in a consistent couple of folders. An external hard drive will be your local backup.
  2. Two or more computers in the house, no central storage.
  3. Doesn’t matter how many computers in the house, you use a centralized storage device already.

Let me make one simple comment regarding backup versus redundancy. Many people buy Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices, or home build fancy NAS devices with RAID drive arrays. While these setups are great to protect you from a single hard drive failure, in most cases a consumer level RAID array should not be considered a BACKUP. While a home NAS can survive a single drive failure depending on configuration, they may not be able to survive a drive controller failure. Also, since most drives in a home NAS are typically the same age and have had nearly identical use, in some raid configurations it is not uncommon to lose a second drive during the rebuild process. In my opinion you still need to back up your NAS. I have a NAS and I back mine up every night…

One simple solution

For one through to many computers in your house, the best way to create a local backup is to use a single external hard drive that is available to all computers. (It will also be available to all your mobile devices.)

If you are using centralized storage already, fantastic! If you are like me, nothing gets saved to the computers EVER, everything gets saved to storage. This approach simplifies your local backup since all you’re doing is backing up the NAS device. However if you save many things to your computers AND to your central storage, your backups will need more configuration but the solution is the same.

The simplest solution is to have your external hard drive connected to your router itself, which is of course always on. Newer routers often come with USB ports that can be used for this purpose. It is worth the investment to buy a new router to make the backup solution work really well if your current router doesn’t have USB.

This post will not cover which routers are good ones to use. There is a lot of great information out there that can help you. I bought the ASUS RT-N66U which is reviewed HERE and HERE. There are a number of other blogs who have reviewed many higher end routers such as THIS and THIS.

So how does this all work? The Planning…

Let me start with a couple of assumptions.

  1. You are connecting to the Internet through some sort of “always on” connection  (ie not dial up)
  2. You use a router to connect your computers to the Internet
  3. You are using any version of Windows, XP or newer. The software I’m recommending is only built for Windows based computers… I have not done the research to find equivalent software for Mac or Linux. Reader suggestions would be appreciated!

I want you to have the big picture before we get into the details of making it all fit together. At the highest level:
– on a daily basis (or any other schedule you choose), each computer will automatically back itself up to the local storage. If the scheduled backup is missed, it will automatically start the next time the computer is started.
– on a daily basis, or more frequently, all your mobile devices back themselves up to local storage (to be covered in a later post).
– on a nightly basis, normally when everyone is sleeping, the local storage will be backed up to the web. This backup will be executed by one of your computers that is most likely to be left on. I will cover this in another post of this backup series.

If you’re going to buy a new external hard drive or try to use one you already have, the first thing you need to do is figure out how much storage space you need. To assess this, determine the current size of your storage by right clicking on each of the folders you want to back up.

You will have to make your own assumptions and do your own math about how fast your storage requirement will grow. To give you some basis, I assumed a 4 year life of my external storage. The drive may last longer but in four years I’ll likely change things around anyhow. I made a number of assumptions about how my storage would grow over the next four years:

  1. I estimate my documents would grow by 20% per year
  2. I estimate I will take about the same number of photos I have in the past, but that the size of photos would double every 2 years.
  3. I estimate that my music collection will not grow over the next 4 years
  4. I estimate that my ripped movie collection will grow about 5GB per month over the next 4 years (1-2 movies per month)
  5. And finally, I estimate that my home movies / clips will double over the next 4 years

I currently am using about 2.6TB of space. I estimate that in 4 years time I will require about 3.5TB.

Once you know your requirement, round up to the nearest terabyte and find a great deal on an external hard drive. If you’re going to spend a little money anyhow and don’t yet need the space, there are fantastic deals to be had on 4TB or 5TB external drives. I just bought a Seagate 4TB for about $140. Extra storage doesn’t hurt to have around.

The second thing you need to do is figure out where you’re going to plug in this hard drive. If you already have a router with a USB port, use that. If you don’t want to buy a router, pick a computer to be always on and plug it in there. A new router is a good investment though since they offer some good features not found on older routers, such as parental controls.

So how does this all work? The Doing…

Now that you’ve planned your backups, bought a new drive and maybe a new router, it’s time to actually get the backups working.

Software

The software you choose will make the difference between success and failure of your backup solution. For this to all work you need something that you can set up once that will run automatically on the schedule of your choice.

I am using software called Syncback Free from 2 Bright Sparks. The FREE one. I chose this software for a number of reasons:

  1. It can backup / mirror / synchronize to both local drives and the web via ftp. This is an essential part of the solution.
  2. You can choose whether to delete from the central storage or not when performing your backups.
  3. It does not run as a windows service. It creates a task in Windows task scheduler that launches at the correct time whether or not you are logged in. This means it does not tie up any resources when it’s not running and it doesn’t leave yet another icon in the tray – this is good on low resource machines and a better implementation than others I’ve tried.

You will install this software on each computer you want to back up. If you already use centralized storage, you should only install this software on one windows computer that will be always on so that it can execute the backups on the right schedule.

Setting things up

The first thing to do is to connect the external hard drive to either your router or a designated always on computer. You will need to set this drive up as a shared drive so that all your other computers and devices can see it over the network.

First Things First

The first thing you should do is give the external drive a meaningful label so you can easily find it on your home network. I called mine “backup4tb”. To do this you’ll need to first plug the drive into a windows computer. Once the drive is recognized, open windows Explorer (or click my computer) to show the listing of all your drives and folders. Right click the external drive and you should see a menu item for label. Click it, and type your meaningful name. Click OK.

If you’re going to attach this to a router, read on. If you’re going to leave the external drive attached to this computer, skip the next section.

Connecting to a Router

Right click the drive again and click eject so that it becomes safe to unplug the drive.

Now you can plug the drive into router and continue configuring.

The only experience I have with this is on my ASUSrouter. Your menus will differ but the concept is the same. On this ASUS router, once you log in, navigate to the USB menu. The router will realize there is an external drive attached and will show you the name of it. (which is why we named it in the previous step.)

Installation of Backup Software

Let’s pause here for a moment so you can think about how you want to back up. You will use the mirrored setting, but you need to decide whether to delete on the external storage or not.

Mirroring means that any changes you make on your computer will be reflected, or mirrored, on the backup drive. If you choose to mirror with delete, then anything you delete on your computer will also be deleted on the backup. This is great to keep an exact copy, but if someone accidentally deletes a folder it might get deleted from the backup before you realize it’s gone.

My preference is to mirror but not allow deletions in the automated process. You can create a separate manually executed process that will delete for you.

There are times when deleting in an mirror makes sense, such as when you are frequently renaming files. But most often a manual run whenever you remember should be sufficient to keep your backup fairly clean.

This post is not about all the individual settings that you should set in Syncback Free. There is a lot of information on their website that will help you dig into the individual settings. The most important, by far, is to choose your type of backup…

Install the software on each computer you want to back up, and set a schedule for the backup to happen. Test your settings thoroughly before you walk away and forget about – once it’s set up properly you CAN walk away and forget about it. That’s the beauty of this solution – it is set-and-forget but keeps you almost entirely backed up all the time.

What about cell phones, tablets?

Here’s a brief sneak peek of an upcoming post sometime in the future… If you have an android, you’re in luck. I only have androids in the house so I know them. There is an app available on google play that I’m using to automatically back up my photos and video to local storage every couple of hours. If you prefer you can copy to a given computer as long as the folder is available on your network. Then, the nightly backup will copy to your local storage. If you’re taking photos at home, it has the ability to make a backup immediately.

The app is called Folder Sync. There is a free and paid version. It works flawlessly, and I highly recommend it for any android device you have. I’m sure there’s something similar for iphones as well, but I haven’t searched for it.