Dan Misener: Calgary floods show why backing up your digital memories matters

From precious family photos to your most important digital documents, it's important to have reliable backups of your digital life, writes Dan Misener.

A good backup strategy is about control over the safety and security of the digital stuff that matters most to you

Backups matter. From precious family photos to your most important digital documents, it's important to have reliable backups of your digital life.

The flooding in Southern Alberta this past week has been a good reminder of that. We don't yet know the full extent of the damage, but in addition to the lives, homes, and physical possessions that have been lost, the floods will undoubtedly have claimed a good number of digital possessions, too.

If you haven't experienced catastrophic data loss yourself, you probably know someone who has. Flooding and fire aren't the only worries. CDs and DVDs that you burn things like your documents and photos onto degrade over time. Laptops get dropped or stolen. Hard drives die.

A few years ago, my friends' hard drive gave up the ghost, taking with it every photo from the first six months of their newborn twins' lives. No backup. Heartbreaking.

Yes, backups matter. But the problem is, backups aren't sexy. Effective backups take time and money to set up. Some people don't bother. Or they don't back things up as regularly and rigorously as they should.

But good backups are worth the bother, especially since so many of the things we care about these days exist in digital form.

The Holy Trinity

I'm an advocate of what Merlin Mann calls "The Holy Trinity of Backup" — automated, redundant, and off-site.

First, backups should happen without you having to think about them. Automated backups are increasingly easy to set up with modern software and operating systems. You want to "set it and forget it."

Second, your backups should be redundant. That means more than one copy. Why? Single copies can fail. Storage is cheap.

Finally, your backup should be off-site. That means physically storing your backup at a trusted friend's house, or the office, or in a safety deposit box.

Cloud backup

In recent years, cheap storage and fast broadband have made cloud backup services possible. Some of the big names are Carbonite, Mozy, Backblaze, and CrashPlan, though there are many others. The pricing and options differ, but generally, you can pay a couple of bucks per month to store lots of your data on someone else's faraway server.

Online backup services can be great, because they let you tick the "automatic" and "off-site" checkboxes easily. But, there are two things worth watching out for when it comes to cloud backup, particularly from a Canadian perspective.

First, it's important to note that many of these services store your files in the United States. That means your files may be subject to laws like the U.S. Patriot Act. Depending on what you're backing up, you may prefer to use a cloud backup company that promises to store your data in Canadian data centers on Canadian soil.

Another thing to keep in mind are bandwidth caps. Here in Canada, we have some of the most expensive broadband in the world, and many plans have restrictive usage caps. So if you're planning to back up several gigabytes or terabytes of data, you could get dinged for overage charges from your ISP.

Documents in the cloud

But what if you store all your documents in the cloud already? Are local backups still necessary?

I'd certainly recommend one.

Over the past few years, we've seen a real trend towards documents in the cloud. This might mean keeping all your documents in something like Google Drive, or Dropbox, or iCloud. The upside is that your stuff lives off-site. Your house can burn down, or your basement can flood, and you can still log in and get your files.

That said, I wouldn't consider cloud-based document services a proper "backup." I certainly don't trust them enough to be the only place I keep my stuff. People get locked out of their accounts all the time. Companies go out of business, or get bought up and shut down. I've seen so many online services come and go over the years that personally, I like to have a local backup that I control.

That's really what a good backup strategy is about: Control over the safety and security of the digital stuff that matters most to you.

Baby steps

If you don't have a solid backup strategy yet, but you want to do something proactive today, here's here's my recommendation: Think about the stuff that you would hate to lose. The wedding video. The baby photos. The novel you're working on. The digital stuff you have that's irreplaceable.

Then make a copy of that stuff and get it somewhere safe. Today. Put it on a USB key and leave it with a trusted friend. Or burn it to a DVD and put it in a safety deposit box.

What I'm describing isn't a comprehensive backup strategy, but it's a baby step. It's something you can do right now, cheaply and easily, while you figure out your larger backup plan.