There are no backups in Oz


The twister that took aim at this Michigan village unleashed winds of 135 mph and lingered on the ground for a full half-hour. (Angela J. Cesere/AP)
March 28, 2012

Tornadoes ripped through my town a few weeks ago.

They brought egg-sized hailstones, and turned homes into wood splinters. My family got it easy. We spent the night in the basement without electricity, playing video games on various battery-powered devices. The power came on late in the night, and besides cooking meals and babysitting for the less fortunate, we were almost entirely unaffected.

With so many weighty objects being hurled through the air by the wind, it was a tiny thing that affected me: A wedding photo from a ceremony nobody could identify was found among the dozens of destroyed homes. My photos and home movies are all digital now, and precious to me beyond words. If my house burned to the ground, almost everything in it could be replaced with an insurance claim check. But I have thousands of digital photos and videos of my children’s lives. Those 1s and 0s are worth more to me than the whole house.

My backups are actually quite responsible. I use a Drobo configured with a 4 disk RAID array to protect against the failure of a single hard drive. My computers automatically back up to it using Mac’s built in Time Capsule software. I keep a few extra directories with a complete archive of countless hours of home movies, as well as less valuable stuff like my music collection. Once every month or so, I copy the most important directories over to a USB hard drive, which then stays unplugged in case of a power surge.

Of course, that hard drive should be stored off-site, but that would just create a situation where I wouldn’t actually remember to do it with any frequency. Plus this is sensitive information, so it would need to be encrypted and protected. The frustrating thing is that the whole of this collection is less than a terabyte (TB) of data. You can buy a TB of storage on a USB drive for — and these numbers still boggle my mind -- $130. Welcome to the future.

Friends suggested a variety of options including a commercial product called Synology, and a more geeky solution where I back up to an Amazon EC2 node. But I settled on one called Crashplan since it required an incredibly trivial amount of effort to install and comes with a 30-day trial account. I’m starting by backing up 236.1 gigabytes of data on my laptop. Unfortunately, Crashplan is telling me that it will take 40.9 days to back up just this one machine — and this is only a third of the data I want to save.

Fortunately, they offer an option to speed things up: They will mail you a hard drive that you can dump your backup to, and mail back to them. It turns out that the old Post Office is still good for some things, including the shuttling of terabytes of high latency data around the country.

If you don’t want to fork out cash, they offer a number of far more frugal options, including backing up to a friend’s drive: you can find a buddy and swap drives, and share with each other, and configure your files to backup to each other’s remote location.

But even for Crashplan’s pricing, for more or less the same price as that $130 1TB hard drive, I can backup my laptop, my wife’s laptop and our file server to a location that won’t be subjected to the same catastrophes as my town. That’s for a year anyway. So, if a tornado decides to come visit my house, I’ll lose my guitar and TV, but I won’t lose my child’s first steps, birthday cakes, and day of school. And it won’t be my wedding picture lost in a street.

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