Back That Up!

Imagine for a moment what your day (or week, or semester) would look like if your laptop got stolen out of your car, or you turned on your workstation on this morning to find it only says [Boot device not found] on a ominous black screen.

I’ll give you a moment.

Would this hypothetically represent an inconvenience, or a disaster? The answer to that question depends highly on your backup strategy.

Plan for the Worst, Hope for the Best

The horrible scenarios you imagine happening with your computer files should be directly proportional to its value, on a scale ranging from, “Oh well,” for MP3s from a CD in your collection to, “My house and my work building burned down on the same night — what are the odds?” for the book you’ve been working on for the last three years.

Your backup strategy does not have to be complicated, and it barely has to involve technology. The simplest method is to just have multiple copies of valuable files in different places. For example, when I was working on my Master’s practicum (in the days of floppy disks) I kept my working copy in my bookbag, a copy on my computer, a copy on another diskette in my house, and a copy on the school’s mainframe. These days, it’s incredibly easy to implement this kind of backup, between cheap USB “thumb” drives (which I can report will live through a wash sometimes, but I wouldn’t bank on it), relatively cheap external hard drives (you can get a LOT of space for $90), and “cloud” services like Dropbox, Google Drive, and Apple’s iCloud for Mac users. In addition, every campus user has their own personal network storage (the “H:” drive). If you’re running large datasets, or have many large documents, you might need to go the external hard disk route.

There are automated solutions as well. My favorite personal backup system yet is Apple’s Time Machine. It’s easy to set up (every Mac user has seen, “Do you want to use this volume for Time Machine?” when they plug in a disk drive), automatic, and comprehensive — lose your old Mac? Plug your Time Machine backup into your new Mac, and you’re more-or-less back in your old environment. Windows has a built-in backup system as well, but it’s a little clunkier. However, a lot of the time when you buy an external hard drive, it will come with some kind of backup software, gratis. Most automated solutions are set to run at a certain time, so you do have to be careful to make sure your computer isn’t asleep whenever it tries to run.

Another thing to look out for with automated solutions (well, with all of them, too) is backup size. Time Machine lives up to its name, and doesn’t just take a nightly snapshot of your computer — it will keep different versions of things going back some (finite, depending on settings and disk size) period of time. Many PC-based backup schemes will do the same thing. Another thing I’ve found is that antivirus software will cause some backup programs to assume that *every* antivirus-scanned file is a new version that needs backing up. (While I’ve seen plenty of folks online complaining about this phenomenon, I haven’t found a way around it).

Do What Works for You

I know that for some folks it seems too cumbersome to make multiple copies every time you edit a document, and time-consuming to learn how backup software works. Even so, do a *little* something. Hey, if you only make a copy twice a month, then that’s a couple of weeks’ work lost if you suffer some data disaster — far better than a year’s worth, or, heaven forbid, a lifetime’s. I’ve done a few hundred computer swaps for faculty, and some of them have had thousands of documents with no backup. The potential for heartache is of Shakespearian proportions.

We don’t have grief counselors on staff, but we do have several support engineers and academic technology specialists. If you’re a faculty member or academic staff member and would like advice on backup strategies for your specific situation, contact Academic Information Services.

About John Drummond

John Drummond is the Academic Technology Manager at the College of William & Mary. Originally from Mathews County, VA, John graduated from James Madison University with a BA in English in 1996 and an MS in Technical and Scientific Communication in 2002, and is currently studying for an Ed.D. in Higher Education at the W&M School of Education. He has been with W&M since 2007. In addition to working in IT, John has taught occasionally at W&M and previously at Tidewater Community College, and in other roles has been an author, a musician, a Perl programmer, a UNIX systems engineer, and a network manager. He resides in Toano with his wife Andrea and daughter Rebekah.