Technology in terms you understand. Sign up for my weekly newsletter, "Confident Computing", for more solutions you can use to make your life easier. Click here.

What Is Your Most Trusted Method of Backing Up?

I love how this question is phrased, because it made me examine backing up — a topic I’ve written about frequently — in a completely different way. Instead of looking at just the tools and techniques, it made me consider trust.

In so many ways, all the tools and techniques are secondary to your ability to trust a backup. And trust itself can mean several different things.

Spoiler: I don’t trust any single method completely. Instead, I trust several methods a lot.

Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!

Summary

I spread the risk across several types of backups:

  • Nightly image backups of my entire machine
  • Ongoing file-and-folder backups of my work in progress
  • Encryption, applied appropriately to secure what needs to be secured
  • Additional archival backup

Your backups might be a different combination of methods, but do back up.

Image backups

My most trusted backup, I suppose, would be the nightly image backup of my machine’s internal drive to an external hard drive.

I happen to use Macrium Reflect, but EaseUS Todo is also good.

An image backup backs up absolutely everything on the disk. I recommend keeping image backups for at least 30 days. Should I need to revert my machine to a previous state — say prior to a malware infection — or simply recover files from within that time period, it’s just there, ready and waiting for me.

But I don’t rely on that alone.

Almost real-time file backups

Backing Up FilesI also back up many of the files I work on as I work on them by having my default document folder set to a folder managed by one of the cloud storage services I use.

I use Dropbox, OneDrive, and Google Drive — each for different purposes — but the items I place in those folders are automatically backed up to the cloud without needing a thought on my part.

All the files are still backed up nightly by the image backup I mentioned above, but the cloud backup catches all the various changes that happen to files throughout the day. It’s also what’s considered an “offsite” backup. Other cloud storage features make it easy for me to move data from machine to machine, access files on my mobile devices, or in some cases, even detect and recover from a pernicious ransomware attack.

Between image backups and cloud backups, it would be difficult for me to lose anything important.

Of course, I don’t stop there.

Trusting the cloud only so far

I have a lot of information in the cloud.

A lot.

Some of it would be considered sensitive. I don’t trust the cloud storage providers — any of them — to absolutely positively guarantee that no one will ever sneak a peek, or worse, hack into my account.

I take that security seriously, and it’s my responsibility to protect myself.

Hence, I encrypt. I use BoxCryptor to automatically and transparently encrypt the sensitive files and folders I keep in cloud storage. This combination gives me cloud backup with a nearly1 unbreakable level of security.

Me being me…

I’m still not done.

In addition to everything I’ve discussed so far, I have yet more backups.

  • Several folders on my primary machine are replicated each night to a (Linux) machine in my basement.
  • Many of the external drives on that basement machine contain archives of files that exist nowhere else — so they’re replicated to other external drives every night as well.

My most extreme backup is probably for my photographs. As I’ve discussed before, photographs, once lost, cannot be re-created. Thus, my approach to backing up my photographs involves:

  • Copying the photographs from my camera into a Dropbox folder as soon as I can after taking them.
  • Photographs taken by my phone are automatically uploaded to Google Drive.
  • These cloud storage providers replicate those files to all the computers on which I have their software installed.
  • One of those computers is the machine in my basement, where they’re also copied to a second external hard drive every night.

It would have to be quite the catastrophe for me to lose a photo I’ve taken2.

All that is just me being me and perhaps a bit over the top.

What and who do you trust?

The best program for exercise — or backup — is whichever one you’ll actually do.
What Backup Program Should I Use?

Trust is important, but more important is getting backed up. Put another way, I don’t want your questions of trust to delay or prevent you from backing up.

If you trust me, then trust the tools and the approach I recommend. If you don’t, find someone you do. Find backup utilities you trust to be there when you need them. Find hardware you trust to last. Find services you trust to have your back(up).

But above all, don’t trust that your files will always be there on your computer when you need them. Someday, without warning, they won’t.

Trust me when I say stuff happens. I see it all the time.

On that day, you’ll be glad you backed up.

Podcast audio

Play

Video Narration

Footnotes

1: Before you jump on the “nearly”, realize that I do not believe in absolutes. All encryption is crackable, for example, given enough time and resources. Good encryption — such as that used by BoxCryptor — sets the bar so incredibly high as to be pragmatically uncrackable.

2: Indeed, intentionally deleting a photo can be challenging.

17 comments on “What Is Your Most Trusted Method of Backing Up?”

  1. What I don’t trust is only one backup copy.
    What I trust is the 3-2-1 method. 3 copies, 2 different formats, 1 copy kept offsite’
    3 copies: 1 system image backup with automatic nightly incrementals. I periodically copy the backups from one external drive to another, (2 copies). All my personal files except my media files are in my OneDrive folder for continuous backup. Those are then automatically downloaded to my other 3 computers via OneDrive (4 copies)
    2 Formats System image and cloud
    1 Offsite: The OneDrive cloud copies and the laptop I leave at work has a copy of the OneDrive folder (2 copies)
    https://askleo.com/how_do_i_backup_my_computer/

    I keep my media (music, movies and e-books) on an external drive which I copy to a few other USB drives, one of which I keep at my brother’s place.

    Reply
    • We’re on the same page with multiple backups, including off-site physical copies.

      Want to point out two issues I’ve had related to Macrium Reflect over the years, both of which stopped my daily, scheduled incremental backups – could have been disastrous. I have no idea how these happened, but if this helps others, then I’ve done my bit.

      The first was an alteration of the Backup Definition file; somehow a space (character) got inserted at the end of the actual file so the scheduler couldn’t locate it. That was tough to chase down.

      The second was that the drive letter of the (external) destination drive changed, so the Backup Definition file had no destination for the data.

      Now I check the MR Log and the external drive contents about weekly when I’m home … better safe than sorry.

      Reply
  2. I back up my Windows 10 laptop using AOMEI on two external hard drives and one portable hard drive (which I then store in my safe). With each back up, I format the drive and do a full back up — no incremental for me. I use Time Machine for my MacBook on a USB flash drive and Time Shift for my two Linux Mint computers, each on a separate USB flash drive. I use to use only one external drive for my Windows 10 laptop, but when reading Leo and suggesting having multiple back ups “just in case,” I decided to have the multiple back ups. Thanks Leo for the tips all these years.

    Reply
  3. I’ve used Shadow Protect for many years with ultimate reliability. I also use Macrium Reflect now as a backup to it and they both give me a lot of comfort knowing I’ve 2 images each time I do it (monthly). Thanks Leo for a continuing great newsletter!

    Reply
  4. Well, I run Slackware Linux on all my systems, so my “trusted” method will be somewhat different than Windows/Apple folks.

    I have mirrored drives on my system (4 in total). My primary drive has my operating system (Slackware Linux) on it. The second drive has a copy of Win 7 Enterprise (crippled – no network access) which I use for gaming. There is also a large storage (common) partition on this second drive for archiving and sharing between Linux/Windows.

    I back the primary drive up using Rsync. This is a mirroring application in Linux. It syncs the primary drive to an exact duplicate drive on my system. The sync reads for changes in the primary compared to the mirror and then updates and deletes as it goes along. I perform this backup every Sunday morning, usually. If my primary drive fails or becomes corrupted, I will only lose a weeks’ worth of data at most… and this is usually a minimal amount.

    I backup my secondary drive (Windows and Storage) using Clonezilla. I also perform this once a week on Sundays, usually. Clonezilla is a remarkably accurate and easy backup/mirroring app for vfat drives. Works very well for me.

    Also, once a month, I will backup critical data like pictures, music files, etc. to hard copy (DVDs). It never hurts to have extra backups. 🙂

    P.S. Still here, Leo… still reading your output with much interest. Damn! Seems I’ve been doing this for eons now. I first found you years ago (early 00’s) when I was still in my MS Windows daze. Keep up the great work, my friend! 🙂 ~Eric

    Reply
  5. A backup is not any good if you can’t recover the data reliably. So, it’s not sufficient to just “trust” the tools, the methods, or the number of backups. If you haven’t tested a recovery with your backup, you can’t trust it. If you’re afraid to test a recovery because you might lose your data or drive contents, then you don’t trust it. Of course, if you have lots and lots of backups (like Leo) you increase your chances of at least one of them recovering successfully.

    One caution about image backups and tools that use proprietary methods of archiving: Always save the original version of the tool that you used to create the backup. Reason is that we’re living in the age of forced obsolescence and at any time a new version or update of the tool may decide it doesn’t like to restore data created by an older version of the tool.

    Reply
  6. Leo:
    I used to use Acronis for backup but it seemed way too complex to try to recover a file I wanted. The backup was in a mysterious file system that I couldn’t understand (isn’t that the norm?). All that I seemed to be able to do was to rebuild my entire system, erasing everything on my main machine. I didn’t trust my ability to get anything back and just abandoned the project.
    Therefore, I would ask you to devote more time in your discussions of backup to the ways of retrieving data, as well as all the one-way flows of data to backups.
    And it sounds like you much have rooms full of hard drives just for backup and hundreds of large hard drives, all a major investment. I don’t have the space and time for such a massive installation. Instead I just back up my working files in a form I can actually understand and no longer use a dedicated backup program.

    Reply
    • Paul, a more direct response to your issue: simply copy your personal files to a different drive, such as an external drive or a USB stick. That way, regardless of what happens to your system you can recover your own personal data, which is the component of your data that is not replaceable. You can always buy a new computer or applications (disregarding cost for the moment). There is very little that can go wrong in being able to recover your simply copied personal files, as opposed to attempting to use an application that uses a proprietary backup and retrieval method. Heck, you can even recover your copied files on a Linux or MAC machine, or even on a smart phone!

      There is nothing wrong with doing an image backup, but you are completely dependent on the application you use, which is as if you asked and trusted your neighbor to do your backups. A word about “How To Back Up Windows 10”: The problem with a Windows built-in backup is that you’re making the unjustified assumption that your OS will be sufficiently functional to access the backup and restore menus. If you truly have a disaster and you’re not very technically savvy, you are out of luck with a built-in Windows backup. Besides, the last OS I would depend on to recover a backup is Windows 10 because, at any time, an update can render your backup and its recovery useless.

      Refer to my previous comment above (July 9). If you cannot recover, you don’t have a backup.

      Reply
      • You can still access Windows 10’s internal backup created images from a recovery disk, from an install disk with recovery tools, and from a fresh installation of Windows 10 which will at least let you recover individual files. That said I prefer tools like Macrium Reflect and EaseUS Todo to create image backups, and I still believe that image backups are a critical part of a backup strategy.

        Reply
  7. I run Linux Mint Cinnamon 19.1. A really excellent system backup program, Timeshift, is included by default in the distro. I have Timeshift set to create a daily full system backup (root and user) of my 250GB SSD to an external USB 1GB hard disk. I also run user data backup program BackInTime nightly to back up my user directory separately to the same 1GB external drive. Both these backup programs create incremental backups as front-ends to rsync. Both programs create multiple incremental backups so I can fall back to an earlier version as necessary. All my photographs and videos and my Calibre database are on my internal 1GB. I also have a 3TB external USB drive. Weekly I run Timeshift, BackInTime and FreeFileSync to backup my Root, User, and the entire contents of the 1TB internal and 1TB external drives to the 3TB external drive, and then dismount and physically unplug it. In addition I use Megasync to dynamically sync my documents, photos and Calibre database to Mega’s end-to-end encrypted cloud. Mega incorporates versioning.
    Same as many Linux users, I tend to “experiment” a lot and often as not wind up with a bricked system due to bone-headedness. My first line of defense in that situation is to boot a live USB of Mint and run Timeshift from the live copy, restoring the entire system in a few minutes. I’ve never had to resort to anything else so far, but if necessary I have the multiple layers of backup to call on. The weekly backup to the 3TB disk and unplugging it is absolute defense against ransomwear, (beside which I run a Linux desktop which so far AFAIK is immune) while the encrypted cloud backup provides offsite disaster recovery.

    Reply
  8. Every few weeks I take a complete backup of all my data and place it in a safety deposit box at the bank and bring back the old set for the next cycle.,

    Reply
    • It’s great to have an offsite backup. If you only perform a system image backup every few weeks, you could lose any data created since your last backup. I suggest you do daily incrementals in between those full backups. And additionally use OneDrive or Dropbox to back up your data nearly instantaneously.

      Reply
  9. After trying a few backup programs I settled on Macrium. For several years I have used it as the primary backup. At the same time I started using Carbonite. After a year or so I left Carbonite and switched to DropBox. So, like Leo, I have my daily automated system image incremental backup, but it is to a secondary internal drive. In addition I have weekly and monthly incremental backups to external drives. The feature of DropBox and similar cloud backups is that they preserve immediate changes. As a result, from time to time I make a mistake, and DropBox duly records it, such as deleting or changing a file. Due to the wisdom of the designers I get a grace period of recovering the result of the erroneous deletion or change so that at the end of the day my automatic Macrium backup still backs up my recovered file instead of the mistake. Still, I have yesterday’s backup, so all I would lose is one day’s changes.

    Reply
    • A backup on an internal drive is better than no backup but it isn’t a good idea. If your computer is damaged, the backup will also be damaged. Dropbox, OneDrive or any cloud backup are all great. If you lose your local backups, you can recover most of your data from the cloud.

      Reply

Leave a reply:

Before commenting please:

  • Read the article.
  • Comment on the article.
  • No personal information.
  • No spam.

Comments violating those rules will be removed. Comments that don't add value will be removed, including off-topic or content-free comments, or comments that look even a little bit like spam. All comments containing links and certain keywords will be moderated before publication.

I want comments to be valuable for everyone, including those who come later and take the time to read.