The Importance of Backups

The Importance of Backups

A few years ago I received a frantic email from a friend. At the time, he was a doctoral student finishing his dissertation (an original contribution to human knowledge–in most programs this is the final paper required for a doctorate). Unfortunately the hard drive in his computer crashed. He had no backup copies, and was desperate for help. Eventually, he had to send the hard drive to a recovery company. The company did recover the lost files–but the bill was easily over a thousand dollars!

All devices fail. MAKE BACKUPS! No one wants to redo their work. My friend could have spared himself a lot of grief had he simply maintained reasonable backup copies of his work. However, just having copies does not guarantee safety.

During high school and college, I worked for my home town paper. Prior to my employment, the building had burned down. Fortunately the publisher made daily backup tapes (yes, magnetic tapes) of all work. Unfortunately, he stored those tapes in the desk drawer above the computer. The computer and all backups were lost in the fire.

Backup copies should not be stored in the same location as the computer. However, most people are more likely to make backups if the backup device is right there. Consider maintaining TWO (or more) sets of backups: one local and one offsite.

What Is The Best Way to Make Backups?

There is no ONE BEST WAY to make backups. The best approach will depend on your situation. If you often use multiple computers or devices, you may need a different solution than a person who uses a single computer. Many of the approaches listed below can be used in either situation (of course).

Single Computer

If you always (or almost always) work on a single computer, there are many different options for backup. Keep in mind that backups should really be stored offsite–in a different physical location.

Automatic Backup Service

Many companies will maintain a backup of your data for a fee. These typically require a reliable internet connection. Since the files are stored offsite, they’re safe from localized problems. However accessing the files after a disaster may be less convenient.

External Hard Drive

This is an excellent solution IF you store the external hard drive offsite! Note, however, that hard drives do fail occasionally.

This is my primary choice for backups, although I also use cloud storage. Personally I recommend TWO external hard drives: one stored locally and one stored offsite.

Flash Drive

Flash drives are typically lower in capacity than external hard drives. However they are relatively inexpensive and can be used for backup. Keep in mind that flash drives do occasionally fail. Remember to store these offsite.

Multiple Computers (Typical University Setting)

If you routinely use multiple computers, backup is a little more complicated.


You can always email files to yourself. This is effective for a single file, and is better than nothing. However larger files may exceed e-mail file size limits.

Portable External Hard Drive

Most external hard drive manufacturers also make portable external hard drives. Really, most external hard drives can be physically carried from place to place. The portable versions tend to be smaller physically, and are powered by usb cables. These work quite well; however, they can be damaged if dropped. Also, carrying your primary backup around in a book bag is not a good idea–it can easily be lost or stolen. Finally, if you use this to back up a laptop also stored in that book bag, you run a horrible risk: what happens when the entire bag is stolen?

Flash Drive

Flash drives are a great way to transport files from place to place. Unfortunately, backing your files up to your primary flash drive does not make sense–two copies of the file on the same device is not safe. You could carry a secondary flash drive but they could both be lost easily, especially if stored in the same book bag.

Cloud Storage

A number of companies provide online storage capabilities. These differ from the automatic backup systems in that you choose which files are stored online. Most of these services offer free and paid options. Typically the paid versions simply have greater storage space. In most cases, these services allow you to access your files using a web interface as well as software installed directly on the device. Software is typically available for most platforms (Mac, PC, iOS, Android, etc). These services are terrific since you can access the files from anywhere.

Cloud storage can also be used as an excellent backup method for a single computer user. In fact it’s an excellent solution!

Several companies offer cloud storage. I’ll post a review of some of these shortly.

I use cloud storage as well as external hard drives. Cloud storage provides access from anywhere and serves as a secondary backup method (for me).

There are multiple online backup services which act as true backups. Most of the cloud storage items discussed above sync, rather than acting as full backup systems.


Evernote is an excellent online note taking application. Numerous smart phone apps utilize the service, and you can email files to your Evernote account. Note, however, that Evernote is primarily a note taking system and will treat incoming files as such. A free Evernote account is limited to 60 megabytes of bandwidth a month–not much.

Evernote is a great service when used for it’s intended purpose. However it’s not really intended as a full-blown backup service. You could use it to store a few files, however.


Back up your files! Use whatever method works best for you in your given situation, but back up your files. I’m sure I’ve missed some great solutions–but back up your files!