July 19, 2005

NY Times: Floss Your Teeth & Back Up Your Hard Drive

If you've ever had hard drive problems, you're not alone. If you don't back up your system regularly, try reading this NY Times Technology article, "E.R. for Hard Drives" for some motivation. It provides real-life examples of those who've experienced hard drive failures and highlight various companies who came to their rescue -- for a fairly hefty price.

Consider the following quote:

"If all computer users backed up their hard drives, the data recovery industry would barely exist. But the routine, like flossing teeth, is practiced regularly by few.

And as hard drive capacity explodes, the consequences of catastrophic failure mushroom. Hard drives now store not just documents but photos, music and movies as well, electronically embedded on a platter spinning at 10,000 revolutions a minute (300 times the speed of an LP record); access is by a read/write head floating a hair's breadth above, and flying back and forth at 60 miles an hour.

If the head falls onto the platter or picks up a jot of dust, the data can be rendered unreadable."

I've always used the analogy of crashing a jumbo jet flying hundreds of miles per hour, just inches off the ground, without landing gear. It would leave a good-sized divot.

While post-crash data recovery rates are up dramatically from just a few years ago, hard drive reliability is still an issue. Despite improvements, hard drive failure is not a matter of If, but When -- it's only a matter of time. When it comes to precious data such as home movies and digital photos, be sure to back them up regularly to multiple types of media and physical locations. No single media will last forever. USB hard drives, flash media, optical storage (e.g., CD's and DVD's) all have different strengths and weaknesses, but I've seen them all fail at one time or another. ASP-type online services are another option, but it should never be a primary repository. Unsuspecting users have seen them wink out of existence, taking the data with them, or putting them through the seventh circle of Hades to get them back at additional expense.

Backing up home or small business PCs is not difficult, but it takes our precious time. While Windows XP allows system restore points to be generated, it doesn't help you if the hard drive dies. I've always been more partial to non-Windows backups or drive images (e.g., Norton Ghost) because they generally don't require you to reinstall Windows before you can restore your data. It's also fairly inexpensive, but like flossing, you have to remember to do it. That's the problem with most backup solutions -- We're the Weakest Link.

Thus some of my fellow bloggers are partial to solutions such as the Mirra Personal Server, and for good reason. While a tad more expensive than drive imaging, once set up, it takes a lot of the human error out the equation. It also backs up multiple PCs and can synchronize data between them. So backups should occur regularly and frequently -- very good.

However, it's an online powered device plugged into your home electrical system and computer network. Thus power-related events (e.g., lightning) that could fry your PC's hard drive could also affect the Mirra device. Accordingly, Mirra recommends that you plug it into a UPS or power strip with surge protection. Yet those devices do not always prevent extreme power surges from damaging your system (although a UPS may provide more protection against brownouts by providing some temporary power). Likely recognizing this, Mirra offers their MirraGuard data protection guarantee. It's not complete protection, but it's nice to see a company put their money where their mouth is to try to help you recover your files. I'll also note that I haven't yet used the Mirra system, but am considering it.

Which is why a combination of backup approaches, media, and locations is best. While there is a cost, compare that to the examples in the NY Times article, where recovery costs have run upwards of several thousand dollars depending on the effort required and timeframe requested. In this day and age, I still hear regularly about home and SOHO PC's crashing, virus infections, and the like -- probably even more regularly than in the past.

So back up your critical data, brush your teeth, and don't forget to floss. ;^) To morph a phrase, the data and money you save just may be your own.

Topic(s):   Mobile Tech & Gadgets
Posted by Jeff Beard