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The 4 Drive Backup Solution for Mere Mortals

In this post I describe a minimal, yet comprehensive personal backup solution. It is relatively easy to implement, using only the built-in features of your operating system, and is quite cheap as it requires only 4 hard drives (and can be accomplished with even fewer). Despite being extremely simple, it has the characteristics of a complete backup system and protects against several causes of data loss. It is a sensible backup strategy as of June 2014. This post is aimed towards the technologically-inclined reader.

The solution
  • Preparation: Acquire 4 external hard drives, each as large as you wish, all of roughly the same capacity. I will refer to them as A1, A2, I1 and I2.
  • Archival drives: Drives A1 and A2 are archival drives. They contain data that you no longer keep on your primary computer, and data that you no longer expect to change. This might include photos, music, and old work. You must ensure that A1 and A2 always have the same content as each other.
  • Incremental backup drives: Drives I1 and I2 are incremental backup drives. They will contain a versioned history of all the files on your primary computer. For instance, you can set them both to be Time Machine drives. Time Machine is the incremental/differential backup software that comes standard with Mac OS X (alternative solutions are available for other operating systems).
  • Location: Drives A1 and I1 are stored at the same primary location, such as your home. Drives A2 and I2 are stored a different, secondary location, such as your workplace.
  • What you need to do: Update the content on A1 and A2 at your convenience, making sure they are always in sync. Make incremental backups with I1 and I2 as frequently as possible (at least once daily). With Time Machine this amounts to merely plugging in the drive (or connecting to the same network as the drive, if you use Time Capsule, or you can use something like a Transporter).

And that’s it.

What this scheme protects you against
  • Under the event of data loss due to a hardware or software failure, that is, if one of the drives fails or the data on one of the drives gets corrupted, there is always another drive with a copy of the same data. This drive may be used until the failed/corrupt drive is replaced.
  • Under the event of data loss due to human error, such as accidentally deleting or overwriting a file, there are two incremental backups from which any historic version of the file can be restored.
  • Under the event of data loss due to natural disasters (such as a fire, power surge, or flood) or theft, which causes the drives in one location to be destroyed or stolen, there is always a duplicate of the drives in another location which may be used until the destroyed/stolen drives are replaced. This is what is known as an offsite backup.
What this scheme doesn’t protect you against
  • Both archival drives or both incremental backup drives failing simultaneously: this is extremely unlikely, but if you’re worried about it you can add a third drive of each type.
  • Failure to make incremental/archival backups often enough: this is your problem, not a problem with the scheme.
Modifying the scheme if it doesn’t work for you

This scheme can be directly implemented if:

  1. You primarily use one computer, which is a Mac
  2. Your day-to-day work does not create huge (i.e. comparable to the size of your hard drive), constantly changing files
  3. You do not care for third party services or cloud services (which often require recurring monthly fees)
  4. You are somewhat conscious of but not too restricted by price
  5. You are okay with waiting a few hours to get going again from your backups in case the hard drive in your computer fails and you can no longer boot

If the above do not apply to you, it is easy to adapt this solution for other use cases. For instance, you can easily modify the solution if:

  1. You use Windows/Linux: I believe Windows has an equivalent to Time Machine called “Windows Backup“. Linux users can probably fend for themselves and find something that works for them.
  2. You primarily use multiple computers: You will need an additional pair of incremental backup drives for each additional computer you use.
  3. You need to be able to immediately continue from where you left off in case your computer stops working: You will need to start creating bootable clones, which can be achieved using software such as Disk Utility (comes standard with Mac OS X), SuperDuper or Carbon Copy Cloner. For Windows users, Windows Backup can also create bootable clones. These can be stored on additional drives or on your archival drives.
  4. You don’t mind third party or cloud services: I recommend looking into a solution such as Crashplan or BackBlaze. You can use these services to augment the 4 drive solution or to replace it entirely, depending on your level of trust and the quality of your Internet connection.
  5. You are extremely price conscious: It is possible to implement this scheme with only two drives. In this scenario you will have to create two partitions on each drive, one for archival and the other for the incremental backup. The drives must of course still be stored at separate locations. I personally prefer the 4 drive version because (1) hard drives are not yet capacious enough that cheap commodity drives can be partitioned into useful sizes for those with lots of data, (2) partitioning necessitates erasing the drive, (3) I am leery of increased opportunities for filesystem corruption with multiple partitions, and (4) it is much less effort to replace drives if they only serve a single purpose.
Choosing a mix of drives

Since you will be acquiring multiple drives, you have the opportunity to spread your risk even further. By buying drives from different brands, you reduce your vulnerability if any single manufacturer or hard drive model has a faulty run. It is also good to have a mix of hard drive ages, since very young as well as very old drives appear to have a higher failure rate than those between the ages of 1 and 3 years.

I hope this is of some use. I was tired of thinking about backups and tired of researching third party backup solutions, so I settled on this compact, no-frills setup that can cope with all major threats to your data. If you have a suggestion or notice a deficiency, please leave a comment!

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