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Think about everything you have stored on your computer… documents, emails, photographs, videos, music – the list goes on.

Now imagine losing it all. Horrific thought, isn’t it! Unfortunately it’s all too common.

We have an increasing reliance on computers to keep our lives in order and our memories safe, however you may not realize how precarious all of this data is.

Let me take a step back and explain how data is saved on a computer. Most computers rely on a “spinning platter” type of hard drive. The technology behind this is loosely based on the old vinyl record way of storing data. A head (similar in concept to the stylus) is positioned on a disk to read and write data. Instead of using bumps and valleys to store the information, the head uses magnetism to create a pattern of 1’s and 0’s to represent your files.

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The scale of this technology is however, mind boggling! The disk, which stores the data, rotates at up to 10,000 times per minute (beats the 33 1/3rd RPM of a vinyl record, doesn’t it!). Even more impressive, per square inch there can be as many as 1,000,000,000,000 bits of data! One more statistic that brings me back to how precarious this data is – the distance between the read/write head and the platter/disk is around 40 atoms. Yes, you read that right. That’s smaller than a bacteria or virus! And if that head touches the disk, then you risk losing data.

It’s only because disks are so precisely manufactured that they work so well given the tolerances mentioned above. But now that you know what’s involved – do you feel so confident about your precious family photos stored on there?

This is why backups are so important. Can you afford to lose everything on the computer if the hard drive fails? Thought not.

A backup is simply a second copy of your files in another location. Now a backup can take several forms, and sometimes multiple backups can be a good idea.

The simplest and least resilient backup is to keep two copies of your files on the same disk. This way, should you accidentally delete a file (or if it becomes corrupted) you have another copy that you can resort to. Of course this doesn’t help if the disk dies so isn’t a good solution.

The next type of backup is to another disk, for example a USB external disk. Now you have a proper backup! If the disk in your computer dies, you have another working copy that you can get back to once you replace the failed drive! The drawback to this is that you must remember to keep the backup up to date. There are some utilities that can help you with this – they run periodically and look for changes/new files and copy them to the external location for you.

It’s also important to have a backup service keep a history of changes. For example, there is a type of virus called “Crypto-locker” which, if triggered, encrypts all of your files and demands a ransom to recover them. With a backup, you can restore your files, but what if your backup runs first and copies all of the encrypted files to your external drive. Unless you have a history of the files (i.e. copies of the unencrypted ones from before the encryption), you have no way of getting them back. A good backup service will often keep multiple copies of your files for such eventualities. In a previous business I worked for, we kept a copy of all file changes throughout the week. We then kept a snapshot of each month, and a snapshot of each year. This way we could go back to any day of the week, any month, or any year in the last 10 years and still get our data back. This involved a huge fire proof safe (larger than a refrigerator) and off-site rotation of backup tapes, but at least the data was safe!

The business was worth nothing without the data, so we had to take every precaution!

Great – you’re covered now if the computer dies. But what happens in a disaster?

Say your house burns down, or there’s a flood. Potentially you could lose both the computer and the backup disk?! It might be unlikely, but there is a solution that covers this kind of eventuality – cloud backup. Cloud backup is just a fancy name for backing up your files to the Internet. A cloud backup program runs on your computer looking for new and changed files, but instead of copying these to an external disk, it places a copy of them on the Internet. You can then use any computer (with a password) to recover these files should the worst happen. So why would anyone use an external disk, when cloud backups provide so much more protection? Well, external drives are much faster than your Internet connection. If you need to recover all of your files from the Internet, it may take days if not weeks to download them all. If you’re a business who is reliant on access to your data, you might not be able to wait weeks. This is why some businesses use both external drives and cloud backup. This way, you’re covered in a disaster, but if you need a quick recovery because a disk dies (or even if a file is accidentally deleted), you have a quick way of restoring the data.

Backups don’t need to be difficult, or expensive. There are free services such as Google Drive, Dropbox, etc. that provide an amount of cloud storage for free to get you started. Investing in a backup disk/service now might save you a lot of heartache in the future should the worst happen. If you’d like help establishing a good backup procedure – please get in touch.

Until next time, keep backing-up!

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Nick Gunn moved to Tatamagouche from England and started up Scotia Systems, a computer support company. He is now the “go-to” guy in the community for computer problems. These articles are here to help spread advice and awareness of computer issues. Contact Nick at ngunn@scotiasystems.com or call 902 957-2575.