My wife and I recently returned (or rather are returning; I’m writing this at 31,000 feet somewhere over the Pacific Ocean) from a three-week trip to Australia and New Zealand. Being who I am and doing what I do, both for fun and for business, you can imagine that some technology accompanied me: my laptop and my digital camera.
Prior to leaving, I put some serious thought into how best to ensure that I was prepared for various misfortunes that can happen on the road. Given how often I cajole, preach and harp on “back up, back up, back up!” I also needed to set a good example; Nothing would be more embarrassing in my position than suffering catastrophic data loss that could have been prevented by some form of backup.
Understanding what I needed to do began with a simple assessment of what data I would have, what might go wrong, and the relative priorities of it all.
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Just taking a laptop and a camera on a trip means you’re taking a lot of data with you. Operating systems and applications, of course, but also programs, the data used by those programs, email, photographs, and more.
As I looked at the data I would carry and generate while on my trip, I came to a realization that there was really only one class of information that was truly and irrevocably irreplaceable: the photographs I would take on the trip itself.
To make that even more scary, I frequently get questions that begin with “Help! I’ve lost all my pictures!”
Clearly, photos warrant serious consideration.
Literally everything else could be recovered — at cost or inconvenience, perhaps — but it could be recovered. My laptop and camera could be replaced. The operating system and applications could be reinstalled. The data carried with me was backed up at home prior to leaving. My email is backed up on both my own email server and Gmail. The only thing I would truly lose if I lost both my camera and laptop would be copies of any email I sent after leaving home (a loss I was willing to accept), and all my trip photographs (a loss I was not willing to accept).
My backups took two forms.
External hard drive
When I travel, I carry a Seagate FreeAgent Go 500-gigabyte external USB drive. At the end of each day, I do a system backup. In my case, that’s a custom script, but a traditional daily incremental backup using any of a number of backup tools would have been just as appropriate. This duplicates everything that changed since the prior backup. On this trip, that means that photographs downloaded from my camera are copied to this backup daily.
I also took the extra paranoid step of making sure that the external hard drive and my laptop never traveled together: as I type, the hard drive is in my luggage and my laptop is with me in the airplane cabin. If I lose my luggage, I still have my laptop. When we left for day trips and the laptop remained at the hotel, I threw the hard drive in my backpack that came with me. If my laptop were to be stolen, I’d still have my backup.
The thinking here is something along the lines of off-site storage. It’s all well and good to have a backup, but if that backup gets stolen, lost or destroyed along with the original, it does you no good. Hence, I tried to make sure that when practical, the laptop and the backup drive were in the same place together as little as possible.
But my paranoia didn’t end there.
This was a pretty special trip for us, and the pictures I was to take would be incredibly important keepsakes. Even though remote, the possibility of losing both the laptop and hard drive — and all my photographs — was something I didn’t want to let happen.
One approach that I discarded early was to upload everything daily to my own server; I have lots of space there, after all. Unfortunately, internet connectivity was to be questionable, slow, and often expensive. It wasn’t practical to upload what in the end turned out to be roughly 24 gigabytes of photographs (roughly 2,300 images).
Instead, I went old school.
Before I left, I purchased 10 four-gigabyte compact flash cards and prepared self-addressed envelopes in which to mail them home. At the end of our stay in each city, I copied the accumulated photographs to a CF card and dropped it in the mail. Some of my photographs would be home before me, and the rest would trickle in shortly after my return. Even if the absolute worst happened and we lost everything short of our lives, we’d still have our pictures.
A note About sequencing
The rule of thumb when considering important data is to never have only a single copy. Always have a backup.
I kept that in mind even as I downloaded photographs from my camera to my laptop.
A common approach is to “move” photographs — deleting them from the camera as they are placed on the laptop so as to make room on the camera’s memory card for the next day’s pictures. But that still results in only one copy of the pictures, and a copy operation that can, in some cases, be destructive (if a hard drive goes bad during a move, for example, the file being moved could conceivably be lost).
My approach was to follow this sequence:
- Copy the photographs from the camera’s memory card to my laptop. This immediately created the desired two copies of everything.
- At some point, I would backed the laptop, effectively creating a third copy of the pictures on the external drive. (One in the camera, one on the laptop, and one on the external drive.)
- Only then would I delete the photographs from the camera’s memory card.
The result: two copies as soon as possible and never less than two copies thereafter.
A note about security
I’ve not talked about security, because this is primarily an article about backing up, but the two cross paths, as you might expect.
The question to be answered is this: will someone have access to my personal data if:
- My laptop gets stolen?
- My backup drive gets stolen?
- One of those compact flash cards I dropped into the mail gets intercepted?
My laptop’s data is encrypted in a TrueCrypt volume. Without the passphrase, it’s so much random data to a thief.
My backups use 7-Zip, and they’re password-encrypted with an exceptionally strong password.
The surprising one as I was setting all this up was the compact flash memory cards that I was mailing to myself. I decided I didn’t really want some random person to have access to my photographs should the memory cards fall into the wrong hands. So I encrypted those too: each four-gigabyte memory card contains a single file: an encrypted TrueCrypt volume inside of which are the photographs I’m mailing home. Once again useless without the passphrase.
Are you protected?
I’m sure that some of you will consider the approaches that I’ve taken excessive, and I can understand that. Others may have different ideas to achieve similar results that work better for them.
I share my paranoia and my approach for two reasons.
First: you would not believe the number of people I hear from that have lost their precious photographs because they’ve not performed even the most basic of backups — sometimes never even downloading from their camera. If you take away nothing else, take away this: have two copies of everything as soon as is practical.
Second: even when you do back up regularly, it’s easy to overlook scenarios like losing both your original and backup, which is especially easy while traveling — often when what you might lose is more valuable than ever. It’s worth thinking through the scenarios, the importance of what you have, and taking appropriate measures.
Losing all your vacation photos can be painful, and taking the trip again just isn’t the same.