We save some of our most important belongings on our computers. Not all files are equally important, but some you’d certainly like to have safely stored for the rest of your life. A good example are childhood photos or personal photos in general.
As a side note, I believe it’s important to find a healthy ratio of what to keep digitally and what to let go (delete). Likewise, I prefer to be selective of the photos I take, because I, and not my camera, should live the moment.
Having said that, I’d would have a hard time if I’d lose my personal photos or essential documents. Life is unpredictable, but you can protect your things. For example when a loved one passes away, wouldn’t you like to have your photos of each other stored safely?
So, what is a safe strategy? Nothing is 100% bulletproof, but a protection against 99% of the data-loss causes isn’t hard. I believe in a combination of an on-site and off-site backup, which basically means having a fast backup around and another one at a different location. Below I outline my backup strategy, followed with an overview of trustful online storage and backup providers.
How I backup
Layer 1: I have a MacBook Pro with a 160 GB SSD on which I only store my most important photos, personal documents, business documents, and projects. Everything else, like archived documents, music, and movies, is saved on an external 1 TB HDD. Additionally, I synchronize all data from my MacBook Pro with arRsync to the external HDD, which leaves me with one backup of my most important files.
Layer 2: A second external 1 TB HDD backups my first 1 TB HDD daily with Apple’s Time Machine application. That leaves me at two backups of my most important files and one backup of everything else. Therefor my MacBook Pro and one external HDD can simultaneously fail.
Layer 3: Most scenarios should be covered by those two layers, but what about a fire or a robbery? To be protected from such cases you need to have another copy in a second location. You could for example rent a safe deposit box, store it at a friends place, or use an online storage/backup provider. I chose the latter, because of its higher availability and the redundancy that comes with it included.
The next section covers off-site backups.
A backup stored in another location is a great way to be protected in case of a fire or a robbery. A friends place, your workplace, or a safe deposit box are all possible options. You’d have running costs if you settle with a safe deposit box, but can place as much data as you want. The total costs for large data capacities are likely cheaper than an online storage/backup provider. You also won’t be limited by your internet connection, which is especially useful when you need to restore big chunks of data. On the other hand, updating your backup is more time consuming, because you need to travel between locations.
This brings us to the alternative—online backups. The benefits are that your data is most likely stored with redundancy in a secure data center and theoretically available from anywhere. It doesn’t matter if you are at home or on an island, you can always access your files as long as you’re connected to the internet. To do so, most companies provide an application to automatically backup your data and to selectively restore files. The downsides are that the running costs tend to be higher (as technology progresses it will get cheaper) and that you’re limited by your internet connection, which is painful when you need to recover lots of data. Some providers will send you a hard drive with your data for a fee though.
My key decision factors for online storage/backup providers
- Reliability (company size and age)
- Privacy and server-side encryption
- Durability and accuracy
- Backup client
I trust the following three providers and services.
Amazon S3 and Amazon Glacier
Amazon is well known and the pioneer of Cloud Computing. Their storage service Amazon S3 (Simple Storage Service) is the standard of secure online storage and designed for a 99.999999999% durability. As an alternative you can choose the cheaper Reduced Redundancy Storage (RRS) with a 99.99% durability. I use the latter. The RRS storage pricing starts at $0.076 per GB, but there are additional request and data transfer costs. You can use the Amazon Web Services Simple Monthly Calculator to estimate your total monthly costs. For example an initial backup of 50 GB (10,000 files) costs $3.84 with RRS. The month after would cost $3.80 if you don’t add, request, or delete files. By the way, the first 5 GB on S3 are free for one year!
Additionally, Amazon introduced Amazon Glacier in August 2012. Amazon Glacier is a low-cost storage service for infrequently accessed files. The durability is also 99.999999999%, and the storage costs are as low as $0.01 per GB. However the retrieval of files typically takes 3-5 hours, and Amazon charges a lot more for the retrieving process. (You can use again the Amazon Web Services Simple Monthly Calculator to estimate the total costs.)
The downside of both services is that you have to buy a third-party application to automate the backup process. For this I highly recommend Arq, which is very easy to configure, works seamless, and doesn’t kill your bandwidth or your Mac’s CPU while running. You can also set a maximum S3 storage budget to avoid a high bill.
I’ve been using Arq with Amazon for over two years now. My bill for April 2013 was $0.21 for 2 GB on S3, and $0.36 for 30 GB on Glacier. As mentioned I backup only my most important and frequently accessed files on S3. All other essential files are saved on Glacier.
If you want to backup more data online, the following providers might be a cheaper option.
CrashPlan is an online storage and backup provider used by companies like Google, Adobe, and Cisco. Patrick Rhone introduced me to it, and he highly recommends it. 10 GB is $2/month, and for $4/month you can backup unlimited data! CrashPlan provides a client for free, which can however be CPU hungry.
Backblaze is the second, and last, provider for an unlimited amount of data that fits my criteria. It’s the choice of Shawn Blanc and costs $5/month. Backblaze comes also with a client for Windows and Mac, which can however be CPU hungry.
Again, you’ll find many other providers, but I don’t feel comfortable recommending them. All mentioned providers and backup applications offer free trials. The best thing is really to test them individually.