How I Create Multiple Backup Copies of Critical Information Stored in my Computers

I recently republished an article that I post here every month: It is the First Day of the Month: Back Up Your Genealogy Files. A newsletter reader wrote and asked a simple question: “How do I make backups?”

I answered the question in email but thought I would copy that reply into a new article here in the newsletter in case other readers have the same question.

I cannot write a precise answer that will work for everyone as computer owners use a wide variety of hardware and software. Also, each computer owner’s needs may vary from what other people need. Do you need to back up EVERYTHING or only a few files that are important to you?

I decided to answer a few generic questions about how often to make backups, how many copies, and so forth. Then I will describe what I currently use. Admittedly, I constantly experiment with new things so what I am using today might not be what I will be using next month. Still, this article should give you some ideas about how you should constantly back up the important files that you do not wish to lose. I will suggest you do not need to do exactly what I do. Instead, this article will hopefully give you some ideas for creating a plan that works best for you.

First of all, I use a Macintosh as my primary computer.

NOTE: I have several other computing devices, including Windows, Chromebook, Linux, iPad, and Android tablets, primarily so that I can experiment with different products and then write about them in my newsletter. I don’t worry about backing up those other systems simply because there is no information on any of them that I consider to be valuable if it should be lost.

However, I make sure I always have CURRENT backups on my Macintosh systems (desktop and laptop) because those systems are full of information that is critical to me (newsletter subscriber lists, past articles from 24 years of these newsletters, my own genealogy information, family photos, income tax records that need to be preserved in case of IRS audits, and more).

Also, I never, ever depend upon having only one backup. I insist on having a minimum of two current backups at all times, stored in two different places. Three or four copies, stored in three or four different places, would be still better. The reason for multiple backups and locations is simple: an in-home disaster (fire, flood, hurricane, etc.) could destroy BOTH the Macs and the hard drives at the same time. That is why I don’t trust backups stored in my house.

I use Time Machine, an excellent backup program that is included with all Macintosh systems at no extra charge. It stores its backups in an external USB hard drive that is plugged into the Macintosh. There are a number of good backup products available for Windows systems as well.

NOTE: Chromebooks theoretically never require backups as everything is automatically backed up to the cloud immediately in Chromebooks. However, that is another story for another time. In this article, I will focus on Windows and Macintosh systems.

I have two Macintosh systems (desktop and laptop) so I have two external hard drives, one plugged into each computer. Time Machine and the hard drives automatically make backup copies of every new and every changed file within a minute or so after each file is created or modified.

Each Macintosh also runs ANOTHER backup program (I presently use pCloud but there are several other very good cloud-based backup services) that copies all new or newly-changed DATA files to an encrypted storage space in the cloud, specifically to servers that are many miles from my home. For still better security, some of the file storage space is overseas.

It is possible that the company that runs the cloud storage space could go out of business unexpectedly or have other problems. In theory, I could lose the files that are stored in the cloud (although that has never happened before). I also could lose the files stored on the external hard drives connected to my Macintosh systems, due to a hard drive crash or a fire or other disaster at home.

HOWEVER, I doubt if I would ever lose ALL the copies of my files simultaneously!

In short, I always have THREE copies of everything: (1.) the originals stored in the Macintosh systems, (2.) the copies stored on the external hard drives that are plugged into the Macintosh systems, and (3) the backup copies that are stored in the cloud.

If one set of files gets destroyed, it would be a major inconvenience but not a disaster. I could simply restore whatever I need from the two remaining copies.

Is this a perfect backup philosophy? Probably not. But it does allow me to sleep at night.

14 Comments

I totally agree with you that backing up is a necessary function of using your PC. I have used external in the cloud services, I have used the back up that comes with Windows 10, and currently using AOMEI Backerupper. Is one better than another, I do not know. You just have to remember to do it. My external hard drive is only connected to the PC when I do the back up. Would like to have software that would back up to one external hard drive in real time and a second one to do the once a month back up. Your thoughts on a real time back software to an external hard drive?

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    —> Would like to have software that would back up to one external hard drive in real time and a second one to do the once a month back up. Your thoughts on a real time back software to an external hard drive?

    That is exactly what I do. The Time Machine backup program for Macintosh systems that I described in the above article will perform a full restore to a bare metal (newly-installed) hard drive, restoring everything: data, programs, operating system, and all the miscellaneous files required in a modern operating system.

    I had a chance to test all that about 3 weeks ago when the internal 2-terabyte hard drive in my desktop computer failed entirely. Once the hard drive was replaced, I used Time Machine to restore EVERYTHING. I wrote about that experience in this newsletter in “Oh No! My Hard Drive Crashed.” at https://blog.eogn.com/2020/01/21/oh-no-my-hard-drive-crashed/.

    However, I will admit that not everyone needs to backup everything. Many families have only one computer that is shared by multiple family members. Perhaps one person only has a few files on the system that are valuable, such as genealogy data. In that case, the person may need to only back up those few files. Other family members may or may not need to back up their own files. If it is primarily a game-playing system, there may not be much need to back up everything, only the files that are valuable to one or more family members.

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I keep an external back-up plugged in all time on my primary laptop, ie, the one with most valuable files. Is it okay to keep it plugged into laptop most of the time. I also regularly back up new genealogy files and various photos to dropbox and Google Drive. I think I have a pcloud account so perhaps I should back up stuff from both lap tops onto it.
One more thing; what is the back up drive pertaining to Windows 10, and how do I activate it, or is it backing-up automatically?
Thank you

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Dick you said” I will focus on Windows and Macintosh systems.” but didn’t really mention Windows again – unless I missed something.
What do you use for your Windows machines?

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    —> What do you use for your Windows machines?

    I don’t back up my Windows laptop simply because I rarely turn it on and never store anything on it that is worth saving. However, if I used it for anything worth saving, I would immediately install some sort of backup software that makes backups automatically every few minutes.

    There are many good backup programs available for Windows. I would install TWO backup programs: one that makes immediate backups to hard drives in my home and a second backup program that would make daily or hourly backups to a remote service in the cloud.

    Backup PHILOSOPHIES are the same on Windows as with Macintosh and all other operating systems. If you have something installed on a computer that is worth saving, it needs to be backed up to protect against hard drive crashes, software malfunctions, and against accidental deletion of files.

    In my case, I use the Macintosh systems to save all my email messages, newsletter articles, to-do list, income tax information (including digitized receipts of tax deductible purchases), old family photographs, and more. I don’t use Windows for any of that. Obviously, anyone who uses a Windows system to perform the same functions absolutely needs to be making frequent backups.

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    For my Windows 10 system I use two built-in Microsoft programs: 1) One Drive runs constantly, backing up everything to the cloud in almost real time; and 2) File History, which copies my files at regular intervals to a portable hard drive I keep plugged into my laptop when I’m at home. A major difference between the two is that One Drive tracks all my changes so that what’s in the cloud mirrors the current contents of my computer. File History, however, saves versions of files – for example, if I modify a document since the last time File History saved it, File History will keep both the old and new versions (which can be very handy if you need that old version you overwrote).
    I also copy selected critical files to a Google Drive account….just in case. Stored on a USB thumb drive in a safety deposit box are some files that don’t change – photos and documents, mostly.
    A warning about cloud backup: use a reputable service provider. I trust that Microsoft knows how to competently store and protect my data and I’m pretty sure they won’t be shutting down without warning. Same for Apple (for my iPhone cloud backup).

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My main laptop computer automatically backs up to Microsoft OneDrive. All my data files are under the Documents folder. I back that folder up to two different flash drives. One stays in my desk drawer at work for “off site” storage and comes home once a month for update. I keep the other in my purse so I have easy access to my files anywhere I have access to a PC, regardless of internet connectivity. I sync that to the laptop at least once a week. I use BeyondCompare to update those flash drives.

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I also use TimeMachine for my Mackbook Pro. Monthly do a backup to an external USB portable hard drive and swap it into the safe deposit box at the bank, taking out the backup drive from the prior month. I have a 8T usb desktop hard drive always connected to the computer which TimeMachine backs up continualy. When we travel that drive goes into a seperate secure location outside my home. I also have a and put a bootable copy of my system software (with a then current backup) on a seperate usb portable hard drive so I can do a recovery if the computer has a serious problem and needs to be fully restored. My wife has a similar routine.

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I have just had to replace my old HP desk top with a new one. Have used 3 externals. Until about 3 months ago I would empty them and reinstall most files. Then switched to having the plugged in one go on automatically download. When trying to install information from disks to new computer, I discovered a lot of missing information. Then, was told, “If the disk is full, it would delete old information to make room for the newest”. Yikes! After doing family history for 35 years, there is lots of ‘old’ info on the disks. Lucky, I have been working on getting all the files off the old computer. Is this the problem with leaving a automatic disk plugged in?

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    —> Lucky, I have been working on getting all the files off the old computer. Is this the problem with leaving a automatic disk plugged in?

    That depends entirely on the backup software being used to make the backups.

    With Time Machine (the backup software I described in the above article), the answer is “that is not a problem.”

    However, other backup software may or may not be the same.

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    With my Mac and the TimeMachine backup software in automation mode hooked up to the desktop drive for backup, I have a really deep (8 T) bucket to store the data in. With the doing regular monthly backups (same TimeMachine software) but I typicaly select the portable drive after it is pluged into the other USB port and tell TimeMachine to back up to that one -which it will do untill I see the backup is compleat and then Eject that drive. At that point TimeMachine goes back to working with the 8T. My understanding is that those backups to at least the portables will tell me when the drive is full even though it is only backing up the changes to what is on my computer. At that point I can elect to remove earlier backup versions.

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    Yes, although my understanding is very slightly different from what you stated.

    The following is a more detailed explanation as shown sat https://blog.macsales.com/32972-time-machine-what-it-is-how-it-works-and-how-to-use-it-with-your-mac/

    Once the first backup is complete, Time Machine checks your Mac for new, changed, and deleted files once every hour. Time Machine keeps these hourly backups for the past 24 hours, then keeps a daily backup for the past month. It also keeps weekly backups for as long as the external drive that you’re using for Time Machine has available space. Once the backup drive is full, the oldest backups are deleted from Time Machine.

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