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Losing your project work to accidental deletion or hardware failure can be one of the most stressful situations a designer or photographer will face, especially if you’re under a deadline. To prevent these unfavourable scenarios from ever playing out, you should spend some building a backup strategy that will provide you with peace of mind should you ever endure a data loss. In this article, we will take a break from Photoshop to explore a number of different backup solutions that you can use to help protect your data.
One Size (Doesn't) Fit All
Although some backup services are more popular than others, it doesn’t mean that they’ll necessarily be suitable for everyone.
Different designers and photographers have different workflows and different methods of keeping their work organised. Some may prefer to keep everything on their computer’s internal hard drive while others may be reliant upon external hard drives to store their work. Because of this disparity, what may be the best backup solution for one person might not be any good for somebody else.
Our ultimate goal is to have a backup strategy that we can set up and forget about that doesn’t require us to make a fundamental change to our existing workflow.
The majority of backup services perform something called incremental backups. This means it will back up only files that have changed and, in most cases, you’ll be able to access previous versions of files so that if you saved a change but decided some time later that you’d rather have the old version back, provided the backups are still available then you can.
There’s two schools of thought when it comes to backing up our data, Onsite and Offsite. Either method can be used independently or, for the best possible backup strategy, both simultaneously.
Onsite Backup Services
If your backup is in the same physical location as the computer it’s backing up, it’s referred to as an onsite backup. This is the most common of backup types and is the easiest to set up, as well as the quickest to use, since it will rely upon an external hard drive as the backup destination, which are very cheap, very fast and come in capacities that should cater to almost anyone.
Tip: Whenever possible, always keep your backup drive attached to your computer. The longer it’s connected, the more frequent the backups will be.
Should we ever lose any data or our hard drive crashes, we can easily recover our data from our backup drive by using the same application that we created the backups with.
It’s easy to see why onsite backups using an external hard drive are so popular, but onsite backups aren’t without limitations. Having your home or office broken into, or your home damaged due to fire or flood, is a very distressing and unsavoury experience. In these types of situations, an onsite backup isn’t going to be able to protect your data.
I’ve rounded up a selection of some of the best onsite backup solutions currently available for Mac OS X and Windows.
Time Machine (Mac OS X)
Included with every version of Mac OS X since Leopard, Time Machine has been providing Mac users with the ability to have a constantly running backup solution that combines Apple’s ease of use with all the benefits of an incremental backup system. It remains today one of the best backup solutions on the Mac and one that I highly recommend.
Setting up Time Machine is as simple as plugging in a new hard drive and confirming that you’d like to use it as a backup drive. Alternatively, you can open System Preferences and select Time Machine, where you can then specify your external hard drive as a backup destination.
Once confirmed, your Mac will automatically, and continuously, back up all of your data. As it’s an incremental backup, you can restore previous versions of files if you decided your latest save was probably not the best choice. In the event of a system crash, you can restore your Mac to it’s last backed up point with Time Machine by reinstalling OS X and then selecting to restore from Time Machine.
By default, Time Machine will back up everything except system folders. You can opt to exclude certain folders (such as temporary scratch folders) to reduce the amount of data backed up. Time Machine will also backup other external hard drives, so for designers and photographers who are reliant upon additional external hard drives, just make sure they’re all connected at the same time and Time Machine will take care of it for you.
While Windows 7 and Windows 8 include their own backup applications, neither provide the versatility to backup external hard drives effectively. Instead, there’s an incredible backup application for Windows called FBackup which is free for both personal and commercial use.
FBackup lets you create a tailor-made backup plan, allowing you to specify where to save backups to and the frequency of backups (whether you’d like to run a daily, weekly or monthly backup and at what time in the day).
Once installed, you’re able to set up a new backup plan and, using the setup guide that follows, create a backup plan that works best for you. You can also create multiple backup plans, so you could have one to backup all your data and another for specific projects that can back up to a USB stick.
Perhaps it’s most useful feature is that you can specify exactly what you want to backup, even data stored on external hard drives and you’re able to even drill further down and specify just the files and folders you want to backup, if you wish.
For the security conscious, backups can be password protected so that if your backup drive was ever to fall into the wrong hands, they would not be able to access the data.
Onsite Storage Solutions
If you’re wanting to keep an onsite backup of your data, making sure you select a suitable storage device is critical to keeping your backups running smoothly, especially if you have external hard drives that also require backing up.
As a guideline, it’s advisable to have a backup destination at least twice as large as the amount of data you currently have. So if you have 1TB of data on your computer, then a 3TB storage device would be recommended so that there’s plenty of room for backups to grow.
Let’s take a look at some storage devices that we can use as backup destinations.
External Hard Drive
An external hard drive, like this Seagate drive, are extremely affordable and perfect for most use cases.
The cheapest and easiest of all the devices we’ll look at, external hard drives can be found in capacities up to 3TB and beyond at reasonable prices.
Since performance doesn’t need to be too much of a concern, there’s no reason not to use a USB hard drive. Nowadays, most external drives are USB 3.0 that are backwards compatible with USB 2.0 and come some really big capacities. A 4TB Seagate USB 3.0 drive can be had for less than $165 on Amazon.
Going beyond a single external hard drive is The Drobo 5D, a USB 3.0 / Thunderbolt storage system that you fill with hard drives (up to five to be exact). You can add hard drives at any time and of any size and make. Once it reaches a certain point, the Drobo can protect itself against drive failure so if one of the drives was to fail, you can simply swap the drive out even with it switched on and it would continue running with no interruption.
The Drobo appears as a single hard drive when connected to a PC or Mac that you can then use to back up to. Once your Drobo starts getting full, you can also upgrade the drives by replacing each drive one by one with larger ones.
The Drobo units are more suited to those who do use multiple external hard drive and have far more than 3 or 4TB of data to backup. External hard drive capacities can only go so far and the Drobo units can have multiple hard drives fitted, meaning a huge leap in available storage space.
Offsite Backup Services
Any backups that aren’t in the same location as the computer being backed up are known as offsite, the most common of which are online backup services that provide the same functionality as an onsite backup but instead of saving to an external hard drive, it’s saved to their servers over the Internet. It isn’t limited to just online backup services, either. Taking your backup drive home is a form of offsite backup.
Should your computer and backup drive ever be lost or stolen, having on offsite backup provides a redundancy should something like the above ever happen.
In fact, since OS X Mountain Lion, you can specify multiple hard drives by adding another one via Time Machine’s preferences, which will cause Time Machine to alternate backing up to each drive. One of these drives could then be taken away and brought in once a week to keep it up to date.
Offsite backups tend to be more complex and, in the case of online services, much slower and a little more costly than onsite alternatives. For example, let’s say I have 1TB of data that I would like to keep backed up. With an onsite solution, I could use a 2TB USB drive and it would probably take a few hours to create a complete backup.
With an offsite backup, I’m at the mercy of my broadband’s upload speed as well as any data cap that my Internet provider might have. If we assume my upload speed is 1.5Mb/s then it would take roughly 67 days of continuous upload to generate a full backup!
Dropbox (Mac OS X, Windows, Linux)
While Dropbox isn’t specifically a backup service, it ticks all the boxes when it comes to being used as an offsite backup service. Any data stored in your Dropbox folder is always stored online on their servers so you’re protected against loss or hardware failure.
Dropbox provides access to deleted and earlier versions of files up to 30 days old as part of any Dropbox account. Using their Packrat feature ($3.99 per month) will provide unlimited versioning, meaning every time you change a file and it’s uploaded to Dropbox, you can browse to a previous version.
There are some disadvantages to using Dropbox primarily as a backup. For starters, you need to keep everything within your Dropbox folder so it will likely require a fundamental change to your workflow to use, making it unsuitable.
Dropbox plans are available as follows:
- 2GB account is free
- 100GB for $9.99 per month
- 200GB for $19.99 per month
- 500GB for $49.99 per month
Should you use more space than this then Dropbox won’t have enough space for you to use, not to mention it could take weeks to upload all your data to their servers.
Backblaze (Mac OS X, Windows)
Backblaze is a dedicated online backup solution that is really cheap to use at just $5 per month for unlimited storage, with discounts if you pay annually. The subscription is per computer so if you have two computers, you’d subscribe twice but each subscription covers any attached hard drives that you use with them.
Backblaze can be thought of as an online version of Time Machine. It’s backing up everything all the time, excluding your operating system and applications and whatever else you specify to exclude.
A useful function of the Backblaze backup service is something called “de-duplicating”. Every file that will be backed up is analysed and if it detects identical files then it will only back it up once. Many of us often have duplicates of files all over the place and Backblaze still records this but only uploads the file once, speeding up the backup.
Restoring files can be done via their online web interface. Should you need to restore several gigabytes (or more) worth of data, you can order a USB stick or hard drive with the required information and have it shipped to you, reducing the download time to recovering large amounts of data.
Finally, Backblaze also features an iOS app to access all of your backed up files remotely.
Carbonite (Mac OS X, Windows)
Another popular online backup service is Carbonite. Priced at $59 per year, it also boasts unlimited storage and the ability to back up external drives.
During the Carbonite setup, you can specify whether to start backing up straight away or if you’d like to specify the files and folders you’d like to back up.
Backing up external hard drives is only possible using Carbonite’s “HomePlus” plans and above, costing from $99 per year, making it more expensive than Backblaze.
As well as being able to restore files online, Carbonite offers mobile apps for both iOS and Android, providing access to your backed up data on a wide number of smartphones.
CrashPlan (Mac OS X, Windows)
CrashPlan is probably considered the king of backup solutions as it provides a mix of onsite and offsite solutions. It offers unlimited online storage for backups as part of the $59.99 per year CrashPlan+ Unlimited plan. Companies such as Apple and Google use CrashPlan for their employee backups and with customers like that, you can be sure they're serious about backups.
CrashPlan’s software, although not the most user friendly, is extremely powerful and the backup engine is always running. What sets CrashPlan apart from the rest of the services we’ve gone through today is that it can perform both onsite and offsite backups.
In addition to backing up to the online storage that comes as part of your CrashPlan service, you can also have CrashPlan back up to an external drive (or multiple drives).
There’s a few extra features up CrashPlan’s sleeves, notably de-duplication and compression are as standard. Compression is performed on your computer so it will use some CPU resources and CrashPlan allow you to customise just how much CPU it can use. The more CrashPlan can compress, the less data it has to upload and the more data it can store on a hard drive.
Restoration can be done either within the CrashPlan app or, if the file was backed up online, using the online interface.
For a complete solution that’s easy to use, I’d be hard pushed to recommend anything other than CrashPlan. The ability to set up both an onsite and offsite backup in the same app makes it an attractive choice for someone wanting to have a complete backup solution that’s as easy to use as possible.
If you’re happy with your existing onsite backup setup (such as Time Machine or Windows Backup) but would like to explore the option of offsite backups then Backblaze represents the best price for the features available.
Everyone will have a different requirement for backing up and whilst I have provided a wide range of back up solutions, it’s ultimately something that you’ll need to plan so you can determine which will be right for you.