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This Doesn’t Need to Happen

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I lost a huge amount of research and work when my computer crashed this summer.

That’s a quote from an email I received from someone who, honestly, I expected better of. He’s a prominent figure in my industry, and someone who has a large team of people supporting him.

To have a simple computer crash cause “huge” data loss … well, as I said, this doesn’t need to happen. Ever. Not to him, and not to you or me.

Sadly, he’s not the only one running the risk.

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Summary

  • What would happen if your computer disappeared?
  • I often hear heartbreaking stories of data loss.
  • It happens more often than you think.
  • It doesn’t have to happen.
  • Start backing up. Now.
  • Spread the word.

Look at your computer, right now

I was traveling recently when a colleague mentioned that should her laptop fail or be lost, it would be a serious problem. Apparently, significant work would be lost.

Again, this doesn’t need to happen. Ever.

Look at your computer. Right now. The one you use most, perhaps the one you’re traveling with, the one that has your work on it.

Now, imagine it gone. Without warning, without recovery, just … gone.

If that would result in serious data loss for you, that’s a problem.

And again, it doesn’t need to happen. Ever.

And yet it does, over and over again. I hear stories.

Tales of data loss

In the early years of Ask Leo!, I received a plea from an overseas graduate student working on his master’s thesis. Something had happened to his online account, and he could no longer access it. He’d been hacked, and all the recovery methods were failing. And of course, this was a free account (Hotmail, if memory serves), so there was no hope of help.

CatastropheCalling it a “problem” doesn’t do the situation justice. It was a disaster. That account held his only copy of his thesis. Without access, it was gone.

He had to start over from scratch.

A good friend of mine contacted me a few years ago and told me that all of a sudden, pictures wouldn’t open properly on his computer. After a lengthy investigation, we determined that the machine had been infected with one of the early instances of ransomware. The malware hadn’t completed, so he hadn’t been presented with the ransom demand. The process had been interrupted, presumably by security software detecting and neutralizing it as it encrypted his files.

Unfortunately, it was too late for a vast majority of his pictures — pictures kept only on that PC. Pictures that remained encrypted without hope of recovery.1

Pictures of his late granddaughter.

A bit extreme?

You might say those are relatively extreme examples, and I won’t disagree.

But they’re still too common. I hear tales like these often, from desperate people grasping at straws to recover something critically important, sentimental, and ultimately irreplaceable.

It doesn’t have to be extreme to be painful. It might not be your life’s work; losing the photos on your digital camera or your smartphone is one example of data loss that might not be tragic, but can certainly hurt. And it does happen. Small, portable devices get lost. Memory cards go bad. Well-meaning friends or technicians accidentally delete things.

Stuff happens. You know it does.

Prepare.

I harp for a reason

Significant data loss doesn’t need to happen, and yet it does.

It happens more often and more easily than we might think.

My frustration is that it’s so easy to prevent. Yet people are scared away by details they don’t understand, poorly written and poorly documented tools that are supposed to help, and systems that have become so complex it’s sometimes difficult to understand exactly what’s where.

I get all that. I truly do. But the fact remains it can be easy, and it’s important. Even if it weren’t easy (which, I know, many disagree with) it’s still important. In fact, if something is important enough for you to work on, if you’re doing “a huge amount of research and work”, then it’s well worth investing the time to protect yourself, even at the most basic level.

The most basic level?

Envision your computer suddenly gone.

All the things you’re thinking of that would be lost forever?

Make a copy. Put that copy somewhere else.

That’s it. That’s all. Everything else is refinement. Everything else is about what gets copied, where it gets copied, and automating the process of making those copies.

But ultimately, it’s all — and only — about making copies.

If there’s only one copy, it’s not backed up.

Concrete steps

So start making copies.

Learn how to use the tools if you have to, but start. Today.

Get over your fear of the cloud, and start using any of the free services for some basic automation. Encrypt if you’re working on highly sensitive documents or if you’re just paranoid.

Read An Eight-step Back-up Plan Using Windows 10’s Built-In Tools, even if you’re not running Windows 10. Many of the specific steps will work on any Windows version, and the concepts are universal.

Read How Do I Back Up My Computer? for a nice high-level overview of the various options and approaches to backing up. (In fact, have a look at all of the Best Articles: a Collection for articles on backing up and security in general.)

But above all, no matter what you read or how you do it, start backing up. Now.

If a sudden and unexpected loss of your computer and data (or phone, or account, or …) would be anything greater than an annoyance, you’re not sufficiently backed up.

Preach

I’ll continue to preach the word about backing up. To me, it’s the one thing that could save more grief than just about anything else I can talk about.

If you feel the same way — if you feel that this article and the ideas behind it have merit — share it. Share it on Facebook. Share it on Twitter. Send the link to this rantpost up there in your address bar to the people you know aren’t backing up as they should. (And I’m betting you know quite a few.)

Spread the word.

Podcast audio

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Footnotes & references

1: I actually keep an image of that hard drive, with the small hope that perhaps someday that the master keys for that particular ransomware variant will be found.

31 comments on “This Doesn’t Need to Happen”

  1. AMEN, a thousand times over. I lost my HD last December. Fortunately, I had an image backup of the OS (thanks for prompting that, Leo) and automated cloud storage of files, so the recovery was straightforward. It did take time because of software updates since the full image was made but that was no problem. The silver lining was I upgraded to a hard drive much better than OEM. Happy ending.

  2. Insurance is a hard sell. It seems us critters don’t plan so well for the future, or keep putting off actions for the future when there are actions for the immediate moment that can be done.

    So we are busy. And don’t make backups.

    And then we cry when it happens – because bells can’t be unrung.

    Those few who buy my MySQL backup software I *know* are conscientious about their business.

    OK, a rant for your comment section ๐Ÿ™‚

    Will

  3. Thanks so much for that! Your article prompted me to check my EHD backup and I just discovered it is full and stopped backing up a couple of weeks ago. I do have cloud storage as well.

    It reminds me of a time ten years ago when my hard drive crashed and I discovered then that my backup had failed months before… Thankfully I was able to get a forensic guy to recover all my files (business records) – at a cost of $500!! – and his comment was that a backup is only as good as the person who checks that it’s actually working!

  4. the problem i have with back up is it backs up everything you do. if i click on and read an article in the news its backed up.
    if i look up a recipe, its backed up. in a matter of months we`d have a few hundred flash drives or disks with stuff we don`t need
    backed up. i don`t need constant back up.
    is there a way to just back up what i choose and only what i choose?
    i`m still on win 7 ult.
    PS. how do i get notified if someone responds to my comment?

    • You WANT everything to be backed up, precisely because you DON’T KNOW exactly what should be backed up. To solve your issue you don’t want to keep all the backups forever, just keep them for “a while”, and then start recycling your backup drives.

      I used to have comment notification enabled here, but it turned into a haven for spammers to abuse so I had to remove it. Sorry.

      • Thanks for the info on comment notification. I always thought I did not receive any (but wasn’t sure), always thought that I might have done something wrong… now I know.

  5. Just happened to me this year! And it sucks. I was using an external hard drive as my cloud and it went bad. There are services that have proprietary mechanisms to recover a failed drive. The cheapest I found was $1800! and that was if they recovered just a bit of the drive, like one document, or all of it. Photos of the kids and vacation photos with the wife for the last 4 years were important to me. A list of contacts for future income work was very very important. Original ideas for songs was extremely important to me. One song could make a million right!? I was willing to bite the bullet and pay the $. The service couldn’t get anything off the drive. As a blessing they did not charge me. I found an old Tbyte drive that had everything before 2014, and was able to recover up to that date, but I basically lost 4 years of data. What do I have now?! That same old Tbyte, a current “new” drive hooked up to my desktop as my cloud and a mirror drive in the safe deposit box, just in case my house burns down to the ground. Seems like a lot of Type A behavior and redundancy….but loosing 4 years of data was depressing and stressful, and recovery is insanely expensive. I still don’t trust the cloud. My work takes me to the cloud. I have seen the cloud. A block long, unmarked building with very high security. Like mission impossible to gain access without an invitation. Seriously. Armed guard and fingerprint verification on at least 2 doors and to get out. Whats inside you ask? Rows and Rows of databanks. Very cold inside to keep the databanks cool. Generators outside in case of a power failure. So how are they going to get gas for the generators is there is a major disaster like there was recently in Texas (2017) where pumps were out of gas for over a week. Think about it. Lesson learned…have more than one backup.

    • I too years ago suffered from loss of data. I started backing up then, with Acronis for years. Then I got an Acronis specific infection and once again ate it. I switched to Macrium Reflect and haven’t lost anything for years. Been infected multiple times, but always had the backup. I live in Mexico where the power fails all the time, am grid tied and island solar systems so complete grid failure I can get by without.

    • As you’ve noticed from your work visits, the Cloud is just someone else’s computer, and a copy of your data on someone else’s computer is great, as you need a remote backup of some sort. I do my own system image backups, but in addition I use the Cloud, specifically Microsoft’s OneDrive. I synchronize the files on 4 computers all 4 machines have all of those files holding copies of all of my files automatically without though after I had OneDrive configured on them. So if the Microsoft servers go down, I have 5 copies of all of my files. And I believe the serious players like MS, Google, Dropbox and Carbonite etc. have enough backup fuel to keep those generators running a long while

  6. In addition to actually backing up your data to two different locations, you should, at least monthly, test the effectiveness of the backup by restoring something. This is especially true if you’re in a commercial environment using equipment more than three years old. I once had a client that used high density tape cartridges and two separate tape drives. At a time of crisis they discovered tapes could only be read on the specific tape drive they were created on. Essentially, the existing tape drives became as important than the computers.

    We seem to be beyond the problems that arose when machines were replaced without regard for the archived backups on 5.25″ or 3.5″ floppies but access to archives should be a consideration when upgrading technology. Converting archival material to new media may be annoyingly costly but it keeps available things that you don’t need until you really need them.

  7. Here we go again, for the gadzillionth time, discussing backups data and people who don’t. Let’s face it, for someone who doesn’t take backing up seriously, there is little point in discussing multi-step approaches, tools, images, encryption, cloud, etc. They are not going to do it because it’s either too intimidating or too time consuming. The other side of the story is that if someone thinks using a tool is fool proof and uses the tool without understanding what it does, how it does it and how to recover data, then it all becomes a big waste of time and false sense of security.

    For people that are not amenable to backing up (for whatever reason), it doesn’t have to be complicated. Leo’s advice can be boiled down to “make a copy”. Forget everything else and put a flash drive in your computer, make a copy of your data, then put the flash drive in your pocket. You’re done. You’re certainly better off than not have any backups.

    But even this simplistic advice has a problem: many people have no idea what their “data’ is and where on the computer it is located. I know people you can’t tell the difference between files, folders, browser, desktop, application, or whatever else shows up on the screen. For such extreme cases, there is no hope.

    A partial response to GlenLW above: What should be important to you are YOUR documents, files, pictures, movies โ€“ that is, the stuff you created, not the stuff that came with Windows or that you installed. Everything else can be replaced or recreated. Under the worst circumstance, you’ll throw out your entire computer into the trash and buy a new one. So, all that you need to back up are YOUR documents. The biggest obstacle to knowing what your documents are is not knowing where they are stored. No thanks to Windows and applications that you install, the files that you create can be stored anywhere, even in the cloud (ugh). But you can tell Windows and your applications to store files at a specific location, where you can find them easily. Say you create a folder and put everything you create in that folder. Then all you have to back up is that folder by just copying it to a flash drive. Yes, yes, I know this isnโ€™t the most elegant solution, but remember, weโ€™re talking about people who wonโ€™t back up and then gripe when they lose everything.

    • For those who you call “people [who] canโ€™t tell the difference between files, folders, browser, desktop, application, or whatever else shows up on the screen”, there are automated solutions like Carbonite and Backblaze which you simply install and the data that Carbonite deems your data will get backed up. Even it Carbonite misses something, you get the vast majority of your data backed up.

  8. Leo,
    Its thanks to you that I have backups today. I use Macrium Reflect free and it works great. Before Macrium I used Windows Home server, which still runs by the way. I figure an extra backup can’t hurt anything!

  9. I’d stress that bit about “leave a copy off site”. A friend had a house fire and lost everything in the house – all those carefully kept backup disks were toast. I now have a regular backup placed in a family member’s house, just in case, and an encrypted file with all my logins with another.
    I think one has to be pretty paranoid about backing up.

  10. I also lost personal stuff at a point in time when I had a single drive pc with being very upset without being able to recover it. Since that time I went with adding a second hard drive just for saving my personal folders as Docs, pics, vids, downloads, Drivers, contacts & music. I made the D drive as the default (1 and only) save location for these folders. My thoughts are if the OS goes haywire on the C drive, I can always reinstall it and the programs I use. Then just redo the linking again to the D drive and I’m good to go.

    • If you keep your data on a second hard drive, it’s still essential to make regular backups of that drive, as that drive is still vulnerable to failure. As Leo often says, “If your data is only in one place, it’s not backed up.”

      • In my thinking, Yes my data is in one place on a second hard drive “but” I believe it is “a safer one place” then everything being completely on one hard drive? ๐Ÿ™‚ I do have an external hard drive I could use for backing up my D: drive, and with this I’m thinking my backup could just simply be done with Copy all my folders on D: and Paste them to the external drive with no need to learn a program to use/run.

  11. I second the idea of BackBlaze. Having some experience with helping people with their PCs, I’ve found that a lot of “non-techy” people feel a bit helpless when it comes to backing up. They just don’t know where to start – so they don’t. Even if you explain the concept and steps involved, they feel incompetent to get it done. They don’t know how to pick a solution or how to implement it confidently – or consistently. Backblaze is awesome in this regard because you just install it (also a user-friendly process) and forget it. It finds and backs up all your data automatically and continually in the background wherever your PC is turned on…and it’s backed up to their servers away from ransomware threats. AND you can “test restore” simply by accessing (downloading) one of your files by logging into your BackBlaze account online. I love that program. It addresses some of the main reasons people don’t backup. I recommend it to everyone. Customer service has been amazing, too.

  12. i have the majority of my files on an EHD (drive D:). i have another another EHD (drive F:).
    my files = word docs, excel files, powerpoint files, text files, zip files, images, and install programs for all software on my systems.
    i decided on a copy/replicate technique instead of using proprietary backup formats.

    using FreeFileSync (https://www.freefilesync.org – free!), i setup two daily schedules – 1) copy from D: folders to a specific folder on C: and 2) copy form D: to a specific folder on F:. FFS lets you set what kind of copy you want (update, mirror, etc).

    using iDrive (https://www.idrive.com – $60/yr for 1TB), i setup a daily schedule to copy from D: to my iDrive cloud storage. iDrive copies any file 500MB or less w/in 30mins of when it was created or modified (you set the time frame). they also have a) a once-a-year free service where they’ll mail you an EHD to copy all your files onto which they’ll then copy to your cloud once they receive it and b) a once-a-year free service where they’ll mail you an EHD w/ all your cloud files on it. i currently have 330GB stored in my iDrive cloud storage (85GB i uploaded from my computer; i used the free EHD service for the 245GB of photos). very little gets uploaded each day. i can also backup some iPhone files to my iDrive cloud storage. i can access this cloud from any internet connected device (desktop, laptop, tablet, iPhone).

    so, i have my files on D:, C:, F: and iDrive (in case house burns and my computer and two EHDs melt).

    i do something similar w/ my laptop, plus added a FFS job to copy from laptop to a folder on D:, which then gets copied to C:, F:, and iDrive.

  13. Hi Leo, thanks for your regular reminders to back up, it’s easy to forget when you last did it. Many backup policies suggest scheduling a backup overnight, implying that your computer is left on all the time. I always turn my laptop off overnight, and sometimes during the day as well, so is it OK to leave it on mains power for long periods?

    • I most certainly do. In my opinion if it makes the difference between backing up and not … leave it on. ๐Ÿ™‚ The alternative is to schedule your backup to a time you know it will be on, or to configure it to happen WHEN you log in.

  14. One more point: check your backup to make sure it works. This isn’t as important as it used to be, but I used to back up on a tape drive. Back in those days, I used to reinstall Windows a couple of times a year, just to ensure a clean working copy. I was faithfully following a back up schedule. But too late I discovered that my backup was scrambled. It took me several weeks to recover (this was the days before cloud storage).

    Second point: I changed computers recently, and I’m using both OneDrive and Google Drive. OneDrive is my main online backup since I use Office 365, but I keep a local backup as well. When I read this on the Best of Ask Leo this morning, something caught my attention and I checked. Sure enough I had OneDrive flagged to only download files as I needed them. Which means that my only copy of about 95 GB worth of files was online. My backup routine was actually missing a lot of reasonably important files because I assumed (wrongly) that I was backing everything up. That could have been a rude awakening.

  15. Good article Leo! There are so many scenarios where one could lose their data:
    * accidental deletion
    * hard drive crashed
    * theft
    * fire
    * flood
    * computer failure
    * Microsoft’s wonderful updates
    * a child playing with his/her parents computer (yes, my son-in-law, who owns and runs a business – had Quickbooks up and running and stepped away from the computer for a minute. A minute! My two-year-old grandson decided to be like daddy and tapped away on the computer. Somehow, the files in Quickbooks were deleted – gone! Fortunately, being a geek most of my life has rubbed off on my daughter and she was able to recover the .qbb file to a point where my son-in-law could recover what he was doing that night. And yes, my daughter is the one who insisted that his Quickbooks files be backed up nightly. And yes, my daughter is the one who set that up for him – because he’s somewhat technically challenged (haha)).
    * and many, many more
    .
    Taking backups of one’s data, if it’s even remotely important to you, is a necessity. However, taking backups on a continuous basis is very important if your data is important to things like your business and/or your life. Taking backups nightly, weekly, monthly, are not good enough any longer. Consider using a backup application that backs up your data continuously.
    .
    Then consider where that data is being backed up to so regularly – an external hard drive? the cloud? both? Consider both!
    .
    I’m using a Mac computer and use the application “Time Machine” to back up my data continuously, only the changes that is, to an external hard drive. I also use a cloud backup service from “Backblaze” where every few minutes my computer is checked and any changes made during that time are saved to the cloud.
    .
    Then too, consider how many backups you want of certain data. How important are those pictures of your kids from 30 years ago? ones that can NEVER be replaced. You’ve got them saved on your computer – good enough, right? Wrong! Oh, you’ve also got a backup of them on an external drive – good enough, right? Wrong! Some data, like those precious photos that can NEVER be replaced, are important enough to back up to even more locations. With my photos – yes, it’s excessive what I do. They are on my computer’s hard drive, three external hard drives (two that are only connected for monthly backups), a USB drive, my wife’s computer, and on multiple DVDs and CDs that I possess, my daughter has, and for family pictures – multiple members are provided them as well. Yes, excessive, right?
    .
    Wrong!
    .
    I’ve had a computer’s hard drive crash on me in the past and everything on it was lost. Oh, I could have paid big bucks to have someone try to recover what was on it, but why? Those files were backed up in multiple locations and I was able to recover them once I put a new hard drive into the computer.
    I’ve had many external hard drives fail me (never to purchase from Seagate again, by the way), but all the data on those drives were located elsewhere.
    I’ve had USB drives fail me too – but that data was saved elsewhere as well.
    .
    I’ve been fortunate not to have a disaster (fire, flood, theft, etc) where my computer equipment was simply gone. But had that happened, all my important files and data are found on other devices in other locations – and let’s not forget about the cloud. That people, can be a real life saver for some. This summer, I knew of some people badly affected by the severe flooding we in Wisconsin had. They lost their computers, hard drives, data, everything. However, one person I knew was using the cloud for backups and all of his files and data were safely recovered once he got his new computer up and running.
    .
    Don’t take chances with your important data. For me, using a Mac, that application “Time Machine” is free. It comes with the Mac computer….nice, right? And “Backblaze”? Read up on that one folks – it’s clearly the best cloud service one could ask for. For a mere $50.00 per year you get UNLIMITED storage backups for one computer – yes, UNLIMITED. I’ve used other services previously and anytime you increase your storage needs – it costs you money. Nice money maker, right? I’ve also extensively tested “Backblaze” and restored files successfully – the most recent backup and several versions previous. It worked flawlessly!
    .
    With “Time Machine” and “Backblaze” and the backup strategy that I use – my data, in my opinion, is safe.
    .
    Excessive, right? What is your data, your files, your photos worth to you? I can NEVER replace pictures of my child’s second birthday, first day of school, etc – but they are safe in the multiple locations I have them saved. Think about yours now!

  16. I’ve been a firm believer in backups for years. I use Norton Ghost in my desk tops to backup to an internal 500gb hard drive. Then I also have 3 dedicated 500gb hard drives for each computer that I use Acronis Disk Director 12 or 15, depending on if it is a 32 bit or 64 bit computer, to clone the main hard drive at least once a month, then take it out and keep it in safe storage. This method has saved my bacon several times in the past. As you said, it’s not if but when a failure will occur.

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