Backups are so important!

Most have been guilty of it at one time or another—failing to save work regularly and/or not backing up. It is not a matter of ‘if’ you will lose data, but ‘when?’ This applies to anyone using computers and wanting to retrieve documents or other files and programs at a later time. It is of particular importance to me now, looking forward to several years of research that I would not want to lose and have to repeat. I do not intend to do that. Hopefully you have a plan or will make one right away. If you are a supervisor, of students or others, it could be a discussion point for the next supervisory or tutorial session.

There are many different strategies for backups, including choices of technologies, which I won’t try to cover here. I do believe in having the original file and at least 2 copies, and there is certainly merit to retaining historic copies in case you do need to go back to earlier versions. Some backup services or programmes may save older versions, but I also like to be in physical control of this myself. You may have heard of the ‘3-2-1’ rule: 3 copies, in 2 places, 1 of which is a different format, also seen as 3 copies, 2 different media, 1 stored off-site. The different format can be DVD or CD.

Here’s what I do! The main working files are kept in My Documents folder on the PC, and some are contained within a Dropbox folder. Those contained within Dropbox are synchronized to the web and to the same folders on my laptop and mobile device. These are typically files that I wish to access from different locations, but I am contemplating adding more files for the added backup. The first 2 gigabytes of storage are free! When I recently reformatted my computer, I prepared a copy of my documents on a DVD for ready access if needed. This copy is kept as a historic record in case I need to go back to an older version of a file, and I periodically prepare such copies. Another habit is to convert email messages to PDF files for storage and to reduce the size of the email program file.

I also use an online backup service that backs up my files soon after they are created or updated. With encrypted data and me managing the access key, I am comfortable about the level of protection. However, due to ‘cloud’ security concerns, I encourage others to do their own research as they make a decision. One thing, though, is my unwillingness to make that my only source of backup in case of an inability to retrieve for reasons such as company demise. An offsite backup of some sort is essential, in case something were to happen to the building or neighbourhood in which the computer and files are kept.

Due to the large size of photo files, I have reduced the amount that I backup online to the current year. Instead, I use a separate external drive for them, and yearly I prepare a DVD for storage at another location. In addition, photos in the recent years were uploaded to my Flickr account.

Do you have a strategy that you would like to share? I’d be interested in the reasons for what you do, or don’t do! 

A.E. (Tony) Ratcliffe
PhD Research Student, BDRA

Leave a comment


  1. Thanks for this, Tony. If people are interested, I wrote a piece a while back which shows how to use a low level, cross-platform tool, Unison, to synchronize a folder to Dropbox.

    This is useful because, if you simply store everything in Dropbox, you are relying on the integrity of that cloud data and at the mercy of the fact that changes will instantly propagate between machines.

    Anyway, in case it’s of interest, the post is at:

    • bdra

       /  March 9, 2011

      Thanks, Martin. I found it interesting and certainly a good approach, albeit a bit technical for some. Tony

  2. bdra

     /  March 14, 2011

    Thanks Tony; it’s always good to see the promotion of a professional approach to backups.
    In addition to my version of the 3-2-1 rule, I do two things:

    a) When I’m working on a long-term document, such as a paper, every morning when I open it I do a “SaveAs” with that day’s date, so I have a daily history I can go back through if I lose a paragraph or something

    b) When I upgrade my PC, I take the old hard drive, remove any encryption, and lock it away somewhere safe for long-term storage.

    Also, I have backed up the SWIFT artefacts from Second Life, see

    Backups really *are* important!

    Paul Rudman, BDRA


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