Do yourself the most mundane – yet valuable – of favors in the new year: back up your data.
If a hard drive has ever failed you, you’ll know the feeling. It's like that scene in the horror movie when the victim, in the stroke of a nanosecond, realizes the peril. At that point, the knife is through the curtain and the damage is done. It's all over.
And you're asking yourself, “Why didn't she just run when she had the chance?”
So why didn’t you back up your data when you had the chance?
Through five failed hard drives of our own in the last two years – some data backed up, some not — we've had to ask ourselves the same question too many times.
We’ve learned a thing or two through this pain. Here’s all you’d ever want to know about how we manage and back up our data while living a nomadic life and bouncing around on chicken buses.
The Reality: All Hard Drives Are Dying
In a previous professional incarnation, I did consulting work at a major hard drive manufacturer in Silicon Valley. Based on what I witnessed there, I have always found it a miracle that spinning hard drives actually function at all.
And if you’ve ever seen the inside of a hard drive – a lesson in absurd fragility – you’ll understand that it’s not a matter of if the hard drive will fail, but rather when. All spinning hard drives are in the process of dying. It’s only a matter of when they decide to call it quits.
The imperative: back up your data before it’s too late.
Our Requirements for Data Backup
While data backup applies to everyone – we all have data we don’t want to lose – we realize that our special requirements are significantly more complex because of our chosen lifestyle and how we make our living. To digital nomads and travel bloggers, this will be familiar territory. To the rest of you, be very thankful you don’t have to deal with all of this.
- We have extraordinary amounts of data (well over 3 TB of photos, videos, etc.) that we are continually adding to. We need reliable access to all of it regardless of our location.
- We are often in places that feature slow internet connections, as in speeds that recall the dial-up era.
- We need a data contingency plan in case theft or natural disasters take away everything on us.
- We are often in places where shipping can be expensive and/or unreliable and where receiving electronic items from home can set off the greed of local customs officials and more paperwork than Kafka’s worst nightmare (try sending something to Lima, Peru if you don’t believe me).
How We Back Up Our Data
By no means is ours a perfect setup, but it fulfills our needs. And, of course, we welcome your suggestions.
1) Back it all up before you leave home (or when you return periodically)
Make sure you have a master copy of your data (copy of your laptop and any external hard drive data) backed up in a safe place at home. We now have a copy of our basic data on a 2 TB drive stored at a friend’s place in San Francisco. Before this, we kept backups of data on hard drives stored in Prague.
In this case, if you lose a hard drive on the road, you can have someone copy your data to another portable drive and mail it to you. We can vouch for this from experience; this saved me an early heart attack. The tricky part is to continually update your master copy with new data while on the road.
2) Back up your laptop with something like Time Machine
We both own MacBooks, so using Time Machine for regular backups of our laptops is a no brainer. If you have a PC and are using Microsoft Windows, you can try the native Backup Status and Restore functionality. Outside of that, there are dozens of 3rd party products, many of which come already installed on the external hard drive, that will do the trick.
For Time Machine (or a similar alternative), format an external hard drive that is larger than your computer’s hard drive (ideally, find one that is more twice the size). From there, you just need to be diligent to plug in the external hard drive regularly to keep up with your new data.
Don’t do what I did in 2009 and put it off until it was too late; my 2010 started with the loss of months of unsaved notes, drafts and other files. I then spent way too more money than I’d like to remember at three different places trying to recover the data to no avail. It still pains me to think about it. Please, please don’t do this to yourself.
3) Back up to multiple locations
It may sound like overkill to have data backed up in at least two places. After three drives died last year without warning, paranoia began to sink in.
Extra external hard drive. This essentially means saving the same data on two external hard drives and carrying this with you until you are able to transfer the data to your safe place at home. Although it could happen, the chances that both your external drives will fail at the same time is unlikely. However, theft is always a possibility so try to keep your drives in separate bags while traveling.
4) Sending new data home
We are always planning for the worst-case scenario — that all our laptops and external hard drives die or get stolen. This means that we need to keep updating the data we have stored at home with new data. We’ve found this can be tricky, time intensive and expensive. Here are some ideas on how to do this.
Periodically, copy your new data onto a smaller external hard drive (you can find these in most places nowadays) and send it home or to a person you trust. The downside: shipping can be expensive from certain parts of the world and there is never a guarantee the drive will arrive. Be sure never to send any data you don’t have backed up elsewhere.
Burn DVDs of your data and send it home. This is cheaper than sending back external drives, but DVDs do degrade over time. So, we don’t advocate this as a reliable long-term approach.
5. Online Back-Up
This is an ideal way to secure your data. Not only is your data stored remotely, but you can have access to it as long as you have an internet connection.
When you are sitting at home in the luxury of a strong internet connection and you’re not producing gigabyte upon gigabyte of data on a daily basis, this works great. Out on the road, the reality is that this can be so slow going that it becomes impractical.
Some online storage options:
a) Cloud storage
There are many services that offer online backup for a reasonable price. These services often run in the background so you don’t even have to worry about remembering to turn it on. Although this all sounds great in theory, if you generate huge amounts of data on a regular basis, the service will probably not be able to keep up.
To put into perspective how long this type of backup takes, we’ll use Audrey’s experience with BackBlaze, a cloud storage service that runs $50/year. After almost six months of regular use with better-than-average internet connections on the road, the 300GB of data on her laptop hard drive are almost fully backed up (she has 41 more days to go). She hasn’t begun to touch the terabytes of data we need to back up from our external drives. BackBlaze provides a great service, but the large amount of data we produce makes it difficult for the service to keep up.
However, if you don’t continually generate large amounts of data, a service like BackBlaze might be the best option for you. Our suggestion is to sign up for one of these services months in advance of your departure and get a copy of your laptop hard drive (and any other data) backed up online before you set off to travel around the world.
b) Backing Up to a Remote Server
During our last trip to the U.S., we set up remote access to a hard drive stored at our friend’s house with a MobileMe account. This means that we can remotely add new data to this hard drive and we can also download data that we need from it. This sounded like the perfect set up when we tested it out in the United States.
While on the road, however, it's not quite as ideal as we first thought. The downside is that access speeds are slow, so we have to leave our laptops on overnight for many nights in a row to upload just a day's worth of data from our photography. However, it is great peace of mind to know we can access data from anywhere.
c) FTP Upload
Most web hosting accounts offer unlimited storage online (if your webhost doesn’t offer this, consider switching). We find that FTP upload speeds tend to be faster than uploading via MobileMe and cloud storage. The downside is that you’ll need to leave your laptop on overnight for days at a time and if you are sharing your internet signal with others at a hostel you will – rightfully so – quickly draw ire for eating up the bandwidth.
Choosing a Portable External Hard Drive
Data storage takes up less space and becomes less expensive by the day. When we began traveling in 2006, finding a 200 GB portable external hard drive was cause for celebration. Today, it’s possible to get 1TB (1000 GB) for the same price or less.
We still dream of a solid state terabyte on a stick without all the moving parts of spinning drives. Until then, you can check out these external hard drives.
Western Digital Passport (1 TB): This is our current external hard drive of choice. We have several of them and we find them light, easy to use and as reliable as hard drives can be. For whatever reason, Western Digital decided to make a Mac-specific drive in addition to a normal drive. We’ve tried both versions (the Mac used to be more expensive) and find that the regular drive works just fine with a Mac, provided you reformat it “Journaled” when you receive it.
Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex (1 TB): This drive is a bit heavier and bulkier than the Western Digital Passport. Our first drive failed within six months (not good). Seagate support was terrible; returning the drive under warranty was unnecessarily hassle-ridden. One customer service person almost hung up on us when she found out we were calling from outside the United States. We are now using the replacement drive – and keeping our fingers crossed.
Buffalo Technology MiniStation Metro: We have an older version of this line of external hard drives and it has lasted the longest. The external case also features a shock absorber, which is much appreciated. The prices have come down a bit; this will likely be the next drive we purchase.
And once you have your portable external hard drive of choice, consider our low tech travel hack. Pick up a few Tupperware containers to keep them protected as you bounce around on your travels.
This is a long way of saying to you digital nomads, travel bloggers, photographers and everyone else at home: take advantage of the data storage tools out there and back up your data.
After all, you don’t want to end up like that silly character in the horror movie.