Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Backup Your Stuff... Please?

I'm interrupting the regularly scheduled blog post, which would have been Part 2 of my Smashwords: All Function and No Form series, for this brief public service announcement about backing up your data.

First thing yesterday morning I discovered my web site was not behaving well. Long story short, my web hosting provider had somehow switched the version of .NET out from underneath my site. If that makes no sense, suffice to say they rendered the site unreachable. We only discovered this and got the site back up and running after speaking to three different customer support reps and wasting an hour and a half of my morning. I then spent a couple more hours throughout the day and last night fixing the last lingering problems. But the site was up and, most importantly, I didn't lose any data.

This little episode reminded me that it's been a while since I'd copied over the data folder off my server onto my local hard drive. I use GoDaddy to host this and other sites, and I've no idea if they perform backups of my content. I know they have something called Managed Backups, but that's an extra service you have to pay for. Besides, I don't want to have to rely on them. I need to know where my backup is and that I can do a restore at a moment's notice.

Here's how I do backups and restores of my web content. Restoring is so important a lot of IT people call it a "Restore Plan" rather than a backup plan. It makes sense. If you can't restore, what's the point of having the backup in the first place?

Backup Plan

  1. FTP files from web service down to local disk. This doesn't happen as often as it should and really is the weak link in my plan.
  2. Each blog post is emailed to me at the end of the day. This email goes in a special folder.
  3. Windows Backup runs weekly on my laptop, rolling up a backup to my home server.
  4. On my home server I have Carbonite running. Carbonite is a great, cheap service that allows you to have continuous backups running to their cloud storage with no limit on the amount of data. This means that as any file changes on the server, including my Windows backup files, those changes are uploaded to the cloud.

Restore Plan

I have two options: restore from my Windows backup files or restore from Carbonite. I've tested both approaches, so I know they work.

Conclusion

This is by no means a sophisticated backup/restore plan. My worst fear is I lose the hard drive on my laptop before Windows backup has had a chance to run. That's a distinct possibility. But then at least I already have everything on the web server. If that were to then go down, I'd lose a week of posts. That's not really that big of a deal.

As for my novels, works-in-progress, etc., I store those in my Dropbox folder. Dropbox provides continuous backup to the cloud and even keeps a version history. Their versioning actually bailed me out about a month ago when I accidentally deleted the draft for a post which for some reason I thought I'd already posted.

So, there you have it. Hopefully this will serve as a reminder to all to make sure your data is backed up. You just never know what's going to happen.

It's a New Year: Time to Review Your Backup Strategy

I've talked about backing up your data before. In that discussion, I outlined some of the methods I was using at the time to insure my data was always safe. Chief amongst those were:

  1. Make a new copy of the file in question at regular intervals.
  2. If your application supports a "make backup copy" feature (like Microsoft Word), use it.
  3. Periodically copy your data files to a secondary hard drive or other device.
  4. Make backups to removable media, like a DVD, and take that media to an off-site location.
  5. Use cloud storage.

That was 2008, and here we are in 2012. Fours years might not seem like a lot of time, and, in truth, the methods outlined above still work just fine. I still use most of them, actually. But in my constant quest to become more efficient while not compromising the safety of my data, I've evolved the steps above into a process that is both automatic and most definitely centered around "the cloud" (fun fact: apparently The Cloud is, in fact, a company unto itself, despite the ubiquitous phrase we use in the computing field to denote the collection of data centers a company may have at their disposal).

My new backup strategy looks something like this:

1. Make a new copy of the file in question at regular intervals.

This step hasn't changed. Once a day or, for things not frequently updated, each time I'm about to make changes, I take my current WIP—whether it's my novel-in-progress, one of my already published novels, or even a book cover—make a copy, and prepend the current date to the filename or add the next version number to the end. This way, I've got the previous file, untouched, to fall back on if necessary.

2. If your application supports a "make backup copy" feature (like Microsoft Word), use it.

This should be automatic. Disk space is cheap, so keeping a few backup copies hanging around shouldn't be a big deal.

3. Periodically copy your data files to a secondary hard drive or other device.

4. Make backups to removable media, like a DVD, and take that media to an off-site location.

This is so 2000's. I don't do this anymore.

5. Use cloud storage.

This is where I've made the most changes. I use a combination of Dropbox and Carbonite to keep my files backed up in near real-time. Current WIP's go into Dropbox where I can access them from anywhere, across any of my devices (laptop, desktop, smartphone, tablet). I'm still on the free program, so space is somewhat limited (I have 2.5GB; if you want to try the service out—you start with 2GB—and give me an additional 250MB from the referral, click here). 50GB on Dropbox runs $99/year. Not too bad and something I'm considering upgrading to.

Carbonite, for which I pay a very reasonable $59/year, picks up the slack with respect to storage space: I have roughly 140GB worth of docs, photos, and other data stored in the Carbonite cloud. That's because $59 buys you unlimited storage space. Automatic backups, no limit on space, the ability to access files anywhere from any device (similar to Dropbox, though Dropbox has much better ease-of-access and integration; it appears as just another folder in your system). Carbonite at that price is a steal, IMO.

I like the 1-2 backup and productivity punch Dropbox and Carbonite give me.

With Dropbox, I get tight integration with my devices and the ability to access files seamlessly just like any other file on my system. Also, when I make a change to a file on, say, my personal laptop, it's then auto-sync'ed to the Dropbox folders on my other devices. Since I switch back and forth between a personal and a work laptop, this is very handy.

With Carbonite, I get all of my data—not just my writing—seamlessly backed up off-site, where a house fire isn't going to steal years (decades?) of work and memories from me.

It's a New Year. If you're already got a backup strategy, maybe it's time to give it a quick review. If not, maybe some of the above ideas will give you a jumpstart.

Dropbox

Sign-up for your free space nowDropbox has become my cloud storage vendor of choice, replacing Office Live Workspace for those times when I need to synchronize files between multiple machines (think home vs. work; no more sneakernet with USB keys), when I want to make sure files are accessible from anywhere, and when I just need to get a large file (or files) from one place to another. It's also great as a secure backup solution.

Dropbox is free (2GB of storage, 50GB is $10/month, prices/storage go up from there), secure, and fast. One of the best things about it--and what ultimately made me abandon Office Live Workspace--has to do with the way Dropbox works.

You can access your Dropbox account through their web site, sure. But they also have a client application you install that creates a special "My Dropbox" folder:

My Dropbox folder

You save/copy files into this local folder. The first time you do so, the Dropbox client app will auto-sync with the Dropbox servers, copying those files up into the cloud. Further, if you have Dropbox installed on other machines, those machines will have their individual local Dropbox folder sync'ed as well. In other words, since I have the Dropbox client app installed on my laptop at home and my work machine, anything I copy into my Dropbox folder on either machine is sync'ed with Dropbox's server as well as all machines where I have the client installed. Not only is it excellent redundancy, it's a great way to transfer files (especially when they're large) from one computer to another.

This differs from Office Live Workspace in one very crucial way: With Dropbox, you're in effect saving to your local machine. The Dropbox client software takes it from there, sync'ing automatically in the background when it notices changes. Office Live Workspace, on the other hand, saves files remotely into the cloud exclusively and in the foreground. This is slow. If you're like me and lived through the unreliability of computers in the 80's, you save a lot. Sometimes I add a sentence and hit a quick Ctrl-S. Then I have to watch as Office Live Workspace proceeds to save the document. Twenty seconds, thirty, or longer, and the save is done. I can't deal with that kind of slowness when I'm trying to save my work; I need to keep my thoughts flowing onto the screen.

The Dropbox client is unobtrusive, sitting idle in your tray (in Windows) until it detects a file change:

image

When it performs a sync it briefly changes the icon.

One of the best features of Dropbox: file versioning. Whenever you do anything with a file, including creation, modification, and deletion, a change event is recorded and a new version of that file generated. A typical file version history might look like this:

image

In this particular case I actually accidentally deleted this file. The deletion event is at the top. Fortunately, Dropbox created a new version of the file along the way so restoring to the last good version was easy. This saved me a ton of time as otherwise I would have had to re-create that content.

Some other features taken from the Dropbox web site:

  • 2GB of online storage for free, with up to 100GB available to paying customers.
  • Sync files of any size or type.
  • Sync Windows, Mac and Linux computers.
  • Automatically syncs when new files or changes are detected.
  • Work on files in your Dropbox even if you're offline. Your changes sync once your computer has an Internet connection again.
  • Dropbox transfers will correctly resume where they left off if the connection drops.
  • Efficient sync - only the pieces of a file that changed (not the whole file) are synced. This saves you time.
  • Doesn't hog your Internet connection. You can manually set bandwidth limits.

I'm happy with the service and have yet to have any problems.

If you're at all interested in giving the service a try, you can use this link to sign-up. I get 250MB of additional space for the referral. Thanks!