Backing up


21 August 2009


Ever since I deleted the only copy of my honours thesis, one week before it was due to be handed in, I’ve been obsessive about backups, often to the amusement of my family and colleagues. But every time one of them loses a file or has a hard-disk fail, the smiles fade and they ask for advice.

I’ve used many systems over the years, each one a little better than the last. Currently, I have two computers – one at home and one at work. These are kept perfectly in sync. Every file on one is available on the other. So if my house burns down, I haven’t lost my life’s work (or at least not the electronic files).

The simplest way to keep them in sync is to use an online back-up system. I use Dropbox, a truly awesome piece of software. Every time I save a file on either PC, a copy goes flying off into the clouds to be stored on my Dropbox account. So every file I have is also online, giving me three copies in three locations. Even when the university is destroyed in a terrorist attack on the same night that my hard disk fails at home, all is not lost — I can still get the files from Dropbox. The probability of Dropbox’s data warehouse in the US being destroyed in a tornado on the same night that Monash University is destroyed in a terrorist attack and my home PC fails is so small that I’m happy to live with it. Besides, if all three did occur at once I would conclude that God wanted me to do something else with my life.

When I turn on either PC, Dropbox will do a quick check against the online version of my files and download anything that has been updated. So I don’t even have to do any work to keep them in sync — Dropbox does it all for me.

If you have less than 2Gb and only 1 or 2 PCs, the service is completely free. I have paid for 50Gb which costs me $99 per year — not bad given the time it saves and the peace of mind it brings.

One great feature of Dropbox is that it keeps previous versions of each file. Occasionally I will stuff up and want to go back to a file as it was yesterday. No problems. Just hop on to my Dropbox account and download the version saved yesterday.

Another feature that I haven’t yet used is that I can share a folder with another Dropbox user. So we can both have access to the same files without having to send copies backwards and forwards by email. The only trap here is that both people can’t edit the same file at the same time.

By the way, I did get my honours thesis back, but not before feeling nauseous for about 10 minutes, and only because I’d fortuitously installed some neat file recovery software the week before. (This was in the dark old days of DOS before there ever was a Recycle Bin or Trash Can.)