Pro Audio Files

7 Deadly Data Backup Mistakes to Avoid

I used to be the worst with backups. They were simply too easy to neglect. Finally, after several stressful situations over the years, I decided to pull my act together. I did my research, created a plan and dealt with the backup issue once and for all. In this post I am sharing with you the lessons I have learned along the way.

I used to be guilty of all the mistakes mentioned below (no kidding). But since I fixed up and invested a little bit of money in sorting things out properly, I’ve felt so much better. I very well remember that constant feeling of insecurity I used to have and I would never want to go back to that now.

Now, I fully understand some of this stuff may seem like a bit of an overkill at the first glance. Before you dismiss these ideas though, ask yourself the question: How much is your work, your art, your digital life and your peace of mind worth to you? Think about that and scale your backup solution according to your needs.

Let’s dive in.

1. Backing up manually

First of all, let me get this very important thing straight. If you are relying on your memory to do backups manually, you are doing it wrong. You will be much better off automating the process.

This is for two reasons:

  1. A manual backup process cannot match an automated one in frequency and consistency.
  2. By relying on your memory you are causing yourself unnecessary stress, especially when you know things could be done better. You’ll be much better off not having to worry about stuff like backups.

All professional backup software allows a way to schedule backups and you should definitely make use of this feature. I am not going to recommend any specific software here because you really have to tailor things according to your specific setup and situation.

I do think it is worth spending a little bit of money to obtain professional backup software though. The free solutions out there almost always seem to lack some important features (such as scheduling). Have a look around and try some different ones — most backup software providers offer a free trial.

2. Relying on a single backup

Hard drives are fragile and complex electronic devices. They are destined to fail and can do so at any moment. You simply cannot trust them. This goes for SSD drives as well.

We must understand that when it comes to consumer-grade hard drives, the manufacturers are not out there to make the most reliable drives possible. They are simply making the most reliable drives that are economically feasible.

Two drives can fail at the same time. Yes it’s tough luck, but these things happen. This is why it is important to keep at least two different backups.

Hard drive and storage space prices have kept coming down so do yourself a favor and make sure you are not relying on a single solution for your backups.

3. Relying on a single location

Your data is not really protected unless you have a copy of it off-site.

There are all kinds of horror scenarios ranging from burglary to a fire or flooding. While these things are unlikely they shouldn’t be ignored.

However, here’s something to really think about: A single power surge could damage all your hard drives at once. What then? This could happen as a result of lightning or other interference in the power lines.

Please, don’t put those eggs in one basket.

A good way to solve this problem is to use an online backup service in addition to a local backup. There are many good cloud backup services available. The one I use and recommend is Backblaze (it’s affordable and great for us audio workers as it offers unlimited space).

Different peer-to-peer backup services such as BitTorrent Sync have also started emerging. These could be interesting to someone who is concerned about privacy.

4. No history

To have automated live backups is great. But what about when you’ve accidentally deleted something and only notice that after your backup has updated (oopsie — I hope that wasn’t your main work folder)?

Or what if you would like to go back to an older version of a project you are working on?

This is where backup history comes in. Most professional backup software offers an option of keeping modified/deleted files for a certain amount of time (or for as long as space on the drive permits).

I work on a Mac and I like to use the Time Machine software that comes as part of OS X. You don’t need to buy the expensive (but admittedly elegant) Time Capsule drives that Apple are offering unless you want to. I use a regular USB drive with Time Machine and that has worked very well for me.

For Windows there are many good options out there too, but with my limited experience on that I’ll leave the research up to you!

5. Inability to restore your system

I have been through several hard drive crashes in the past. Even if my data was backed up (not always the case), my system never was. So it was always a huge undertaking to get a new hard drive, install the operating system and all of the software, then configure all the preferences and data to get anywhere close to how I had things set up.

Besides a mental breakdown, this always amounts to at least a day or two of downtime from the work you should have been doing. Not cool, especially when facing deadlines.

So make sure you have some way of recovering your system quickly when the worst happens.

I went for running a clone drive that gets updated hourly. This drive is identical to the one inside my computer.

If (when) the drive inside my computer crashes, it takes me a maximum of 20 minutes to switch drives and boom — I am back to work. Not bad huh?

6. No archives

Data backups and archives are two different things. Yet people confuse the two all the time (I know I have).

Think of it like this:

  • Backups are there to protect your short term, active data that is changing on a frequent basis.
  • For storing your finished projects, you should have a separate and reliable archiving solution in place.

There are a few different options for archiving data on a consumer level. You can use regular hard drives, optical media (mainly DVD/Blu-Ray) or a combination of the two.

I’ve gone the combination route personally. I use a portable Blu-Ray writer to make permanent archive discs. I then copy the contents of these discs onto a dedicated USB drive. This is for three reasons:

  1. This way I have backups of my archives, too.
  2. I like to have the backup of my archives in a different format.
  3. I can store the Blu-Ray discs away from where I work. This provides location independence (and I still have easy access to the archived material via the on-site hard drive).

7. Not verifying

Whatever way you choose to go for backups and archives, it is very important to periodically verify that things are working as they should.

Both hard drives and optical media can go bad just sitting on the shelf. Optical media is sure to degrade and become unreadable over time. The manufacturers of CD’s and DVD-R’s generally claim a shelf life of 5 to 10 years before recording.

When it comes to Blu-Ray, we don’t have long term data yet but we cannot afford to assume anything at this point.

Because the discs degrade over time, it’s not advisable to stock a large pile of empty optical discs for years. Even though it is more expensive to buy discs as you need them, it will ensure that the media is fresher when you record and is likely to last longer.

What comes to hard drives, atmospheric moisture can be deadly. There are also claims that sitting hard drives on the shelf without using them for too long could cause problems with some drives.

In any case I would never trust on a single hard drive as an archiving solution — you should at least get two different ones or back the data up on optical media.

So the final takedown is this: verify your backups and archives regularly. The only right way to do this is to actually pull files and test that they work. This is the last step in keeping you out of harm’s way.

My personal backup strategy

I have a detailed post about my easy automated backup strategy up on my personal website. Have a look — and do let us know in the comments about your thoughts and further ideas.

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Ilpo Karkkainen

Ilpo Karkkainen

Ilpo Karkkainen is an electronic music producer who has a passion for writing about all things related. Read more at www.resoundsound.com

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