You’re Probably Doing Backups Wrong.

If you care even a little bit about your digital life, you should probably read this and think about it. What do you have on your computer, your phone, or in “the cloud”? What’s on social media? What’s on some CD you burned 20 years ago? Is it pictures of your wedding, or your child’s first steps? Maybe it’s a copy of your thesis that’s taken you 2 years to write. Or, maybe it’s a picture of your wang, at a moment when the sun was JUST right, and somehow this is the most triumphant and proud you’ve felt in the past decade. Three cheers for toxic masculinity.

What would happen if all of that was permanently deleted, right this moment? No warning, nothing. Gone. Would you be sad? Would it change your life? Would it make life harder? Would your business be in jeopardy? Are your passwords backed up? What about your browser bookmarks that you’ve spent 10 years curating? Poof. I’m going to tell you how to prevent this.

I Lost Everything Once. It Sucked.

1/10, would not recommend. I built a NAS device (like a storage server) about 10 years ago. I spent a few days carefully putting it together and was SO proud of it. I’d built it on Ubuntu server 18.04. There were 5 x 2TB drives in it, configured in RAID6 using MDADM, giving me 6TB of storage. Dope! For the layman, this means I had 5 hard drives in a computer, and they were all doing this funky dance together whereas I could have 2 of the drives completely die on me and I wouldn’t lose a single bit of data.

The thing ran for about 2 years before Armageddon hit. I realized my file storage was acting weird and I couldn’t see all my files. I rebooted the server, and it never came back up. I FREAKED OUT. Long story short, I lost every.single.thing. that was on that server. About 4TB worth of data. In that were pictures of my youth, my old cat who’s long been dead, a whole ton of programs I’d written over the years, and most tragically – my entire digital music collection.

I still haven’t recovered from this to this day. How could this happen when I had double drive redundancy in place?! What caused the problem was as simple as the system setup to alert me if a drive was dying (or dead) was sending to an email address, however I never got a single message as the server that was supposed to relay them changed something I wasn’t aware of, and no longer allowing messages to pass through.

After looking into logs I was able to determine one drive likely died after about a year. A second dropped off about a year later. At this point I’m still running perfectly fine however have absolutely no protection. Then it gets bad – a third drive encounters some corrupt sectors and drops from the array. Rebooting the system was the nail in the coffin as now my machine can’t see the drives at all. Essentially those 5 drives are combined using software to look like one hard drive, and if not enough of them are “working”, none of them work.

I’m not a specialist in recovering failed RAID arrays, and although I have a great skillset with computers, if I screw something up, I’ll only make the problem worse, so I haven’t tried. The people who can will cost about $2500-$3000 to do so, only payable if they recover anything. I’ve yet to justify spending that money, and I’ve lived with my loss for the past 8 years. There’s a bunch of stuff I’d love to get back, however I’ve lived without it for this long, I think I’m going to make do. $3k to get back some old DJ sets I loved, pictures of my cat, and a few memories is hard to justify that spend. Maybe one day – but rest assured, I’ve made sector by sector level copies of those drives and it all sits in a safe place until I do.

Since, I’ve Been VERY Diligent.

Here’s how my setup looks today. I have a “server”. It’s a Synology DS1520+ NAS device. This is kind of like a box with 5 hard drives in it, and they are setup in a fashion that two drives can die and I’ll be OK. Kind of like what I had before, but this time I continually test it’s ability to notify me if something goes wrong and I get monthly reports to my inbox that I actually read. That server then backs itself up to two places. There’s a second server in my house that also has drive redundancy, but only if a single drive dies. That’s my second point of backup. However, what happens if there’s a fire, or flood, or theft? Well, it also backs up to an off site server – this being an almost identical server at my mother’s place. It holds 5 drives as well, and allows for double drive failure. My most important files end up also being copied to a secure location in the cloud, and encrypted with a key only I know (just so nobody can snoop into them if they tried).

My laptop, and various other computers back themselves up in real time to that server – and that server does it’s backup sync every evening, so at any one time my backups that are located all over Canada are no more than 24hrs old.

I’ll admit, I have an overly robust backup solution. It’s likely too much for the average person, but it’s what makes me feel secure. It comes with the added benefit that I can also implement this with my mom’s digital life, and a few people that trust me to backup their data. It all kind of rolls into the same scheme I have setup.

You Should Do It Yourself.

Maybe not to the extent that I have, but here’s how you’d set it up. Follow a 3-2-1 backup rule, being that you have 3 copies of your data, on at least two different media types, and one of them being off-site. This seems complicated, but it’s really not. For most people this will be their phone/laptop as the first source, a small NAS (network attached storage) device in their home, and then a cloud backup destination.

First, buy your family a Synology NAS. This will run you about $450 CAD for a current line one that’s small (2 drives). They can get up to $1200 if you want more horsepower (you likely don’t as a small family or single person). You then fill it with hard drives ($80-$200ea depending on size). Most people can get away with 4TB of storage which is about $80/drive right now. That puts you at $700 with taxes included. You’ve now just created an on site storage solution that will backup all your home computers, phone, and whatever else. It’ll also have redundant storage so if a drive dies, you’ll be OK.

Now, you back that server up to a cloud solution. My personal recommendation would be Synology C2 storage as it’s cheap. You can get 2TB of cloud storage for about $200/year. It’s one of the best deals out there, my data can be stored in Germany (meaning it will be subjected to the very strict European union privacy laws), and it is insanely easy to setup and maintain.

Even cooler, if you buy a half decent NAS, you can run docker on it, which means you can run a whole ton of awesome little programs to make your life a lot easier. Things like the ability to automatically download any TV show as soon as it airs, and build your own version of Netflix that’s completely free. Wild, right?

Here’s your shopping list:

  • Synology DS220+ : $449 – The brains behind this whole operation. This is the best bet for general use.
  • Synology DS220J : $279 – A cheaper option, but it’ll ONLY really be good for backups. You won’t be able to do much else with it. This is a bare bones option.
  • Synology DS1522+ : $1019 – If you want to go all out, this is the choice. It’s a slightly updated version of the one I use (I’m a model behind). It also offers up to 5 drives which will allow a lot more flexibility in the future if you plan on storing a lot of data (ie: over 4TB)
  • Western Digital 4TB Red Drive : $89 – You’ll need at least 1 of these, but I HIGHLY suggest 2 of them. They’re excellent and cheap drives, and have yet to fail me.

That’s literally it. Choose a NAS, and then buy 2 hard drives. They’re easily available from CanadaComputers (support local over buying on Amazon), but if you’re outside of Canada, look to your local computer shop and they should be able to supply you with this stuff fairly easily. It may take a few days if the Synology is special order, but the drives should almost always be in stock around the world.

Configuring it is a breeze and literally takes about an hour from start to finish including setting up user accounts, network shares, the backup solution, and getting it all going. If you’re on a Mac, use TimeMachine for backups to the destination. On a PC, you can use Synology’s For someone who’s maybe not super agile in computers & setting this stuff up it could take a few hours of watching some tutorial videos, or of course you can hire me for consulting if you’d like – my rates are incredibly reasonable.

It WILL Happen To You.

Never a question of “if”, but “when” you’re going to lose data. If you somehow go through life never having a hard drive die on you, having a computer crash, losing a cellphone, or getting attacked by ransomware, you may just end up in the Guinness Book. I’ve lost 1 cellphone, had one stolen, had a server die on me (the one I told you about earlier), and also had a laptop crash entirely. I lost all that data forever (probably). Since implementing my 3-2-1 solution, I’ve never lost a single piece of data despite having 2 servers die, multiple MicroSD cards die in RaspberryPi’s I use for various things, and an incident where I accidently deleted a ton of files by accident without realizing it. All of that was recovered instantly (well, almost – it took some time for the files to transfer).

Heck, in the summer of 2022 I literally had my NAS device die when the power went out. Even though I have it on a battery backup & surge device (which you should ABSOLUTELY do), when it went to power back on a small resistor failed and the device was dead. I was able to buy a new NAS, swap the drives out, and was back up and running within 20 minutes of getting home from the store – no data loss. If I hadn’t have designed my backup solution the way I did, I would have lost 7TB of movies, critical personal documents, and so much more.

I even backup my Google Drive to my NAS, and then to the cloud. Who knows if Google will ever lock me out of my account arbitrarily because I violated some obscure point in the terms & conditions. And, if they ever do, I won’t lose a thing.

Every single client of mine that I have has lost data at some point before I set them up with a backup solution that makes sense. Not one of them has lost data since. One of my clients has suffered no less than 4 instances of potential data loss in the past 3 years, but the backup solution I put in place has saved their business each and every time. Sure, it costs a couple bucks for me to restore a computer or rebuild something, but it always works. If they didn’t have this – in at least 2 of those cases, their business would be in dire jeopardy as their accounting, client info, and very sensitive information would have all been gone for good with nothing they could do.

What Would You Pay For Your Data Back?

Think about it. You’ve just lost your laptop, or the server in your office just dies one day. What would you pay to get it back? $500? $5,000? $50,000? Maybe even $500,000 if your entire business is on the line? I suppose if you don’t care then this whole article isn’t for you and I’m shocked you’ve read this far – but if you’re suddenly thinking about how much you’d actually spent – well… you’re probably in need of a solution like this.

It’s all in how you frame the question. Nobody thinks it’ll happen to them, or almost worse – they just put all of their data on a USB hard drive and think “it’s backed up, I’m good”. You’re not. Those drives die ALL the time, and they are notoriously unreliable. Plus, it’s still only a single point of failure in a lot of cases and let’s be honest – how often do you ACTUALLY back your computer up to that drive? Monthly, at very best? I bet you haven’t done it in a couple months, have you?

So, spend the money. Put together a proper backup solution for your computer. It’s a lot easier than you think. And, if you’re just a single computer and don’t particularly care about your data privacy or where it’s stored, you can always pay someone like BackBlaze, or Apple TimeMachine to store your data in the cloud. Whatever you do, just at LEAST have a single continuous backup running on any of your important devices. If you want to do it right, do the 3-2-1 solution I’ve explained, and if you need a little help getting that off the ground, give me a shout.

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