Protecting Your Files

Written by Chris Powell

An auto mechanic sees many cars brought into their repair shop with barely any oil left in the engine, frayed and worn down timing or serpentine belts, and expired or misfiring spark plugs. The car expert knows that negligence under the hood can spell disaster for an engine, costing thousands of dollars in repair for the customer.

Similarly, though not as costly, I encounter many computers with files stored simply on the desktop or in the My Documents folder. Tons of files, software installers, and downloaded attachments are conveniently scattered all over both Mac and PC computers in various locations. Just like junk mail, magazines, and newspapers quietly stacked up over time in the corner of the kitchen counter, we seem to pay no attention to it. Pretty soon there’s no place to cook a meal.

Here’s my point. Files stored on the desktop or in My Documents are easy to access, but most likely are not backed up. And this concerns me. Let’s go back to the car illustration for a minute.

Most cars have a 200,000-mile lifespan until things really start breaking down. Just like a car engine, the hard drive inside a computer has a limited lifespan, usually about five to six years, before bad things start to happen. Picture a phonograph record that is played over and over again. Eventually the record needle is going to wear out the grooves of the music, and skips will occur. Some people call me the Space Cowboy, pace Cowboy, pace Cowboy, pace Cowboy, pace Cowboy. (Hopefully by now you get my point.) This is the same concept for computer hard drives. Inside the hard drive, there are little platter discs with tiny “needles” quickly writing and reading your data and software. As time marches on, these needles will eventually start creating tiny skips on the platters where it accessed the data. And that’s when bad things happen.

A customer brings a car into a mechanic shop complaining about herky-jerky motion when accelerating. The mechanic tests things out, runs diagnostics on the engine, discovers the problem, and has to tell the customer their transmission is dead. The customer needs a replacement transmission, so the mechanic orders a new one from the auto parts supplier, and installs it in the customer’s car. The customer pays a lot for the parts and labor, and drives away, most likely continuing a pattern of inattentiveness to maintaining their car.

Similarly, a client brings their desktop computer or laptop into my “repair shop” complaining about lots of system error messages and herky-jerky motion when opening their files. I test things out, run some diagnostics on the operating system, discover the problem, and have to tell my client that their hard drive is failing or dead. I’m able to order a replacement hard drive, install it inside the computer, and reinstall the operating system all the software programs. But there’s one important thing I am unable to do for my client.

If the client doesn’t have their pictures, music, videos, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, Powerpoint presentations, and PDF files backed up somewhere, I can’t easily grab them off a dead or failing hard drive. Lost memories, lost budgets, lost letters, lost information. This has happened to me many times in the past, and the knot in my stomach from the remorse over lost data is awful. I want to help prevent this from happening to you, dear friend. Here’s how we can avoid data loss.

I believe in the 3-2-1 backup mindset when it comes to preventing data loss:

  • Three copies of your data
  • Two different media types
  • One copy is stored offsite.

Let’s examine each of these in depth.

Three copies of your data. One “copy” of your data is located locally on your desktop computer. Your second “copy” of your data can be stored in a cloud-based file storage solution, Like Dropbox or Google Drive, where your files are synchronized up on their data storage servers. That way if something happens to your home computer, e.g. theft, water/fire damage, or failed hard drive, your files are not completely lost. Lastly, I recommend purchasing a reliable external USB drive, ballpark price about $75. About every other week, you plug this drive into your desktop computer, copy your files onto this drive, remove the external drive from your computer, and store in a secure place. You now have a third “copy” of your data.

Two different media types. Your desktop files are stored on an internal hard drive. With Dropbox or Google Drive, your files are stored in a cloud-based storage setup. The external USB drive is another physical media type, which is great, but two is the minimum, so desktop and cloud would usually suffice. However….

One copy is stored offsite. Even the cloud is theoretically “offsite,” we need to address the possibility of your data being accidentally deleted from the cloud. Or the company might even shutter its business and close down, rendering your data unaccessible. Now, odds are Dropbox and Google will be around for a long time, but unlikely events like this have happened in the past. In today’s age of reliance on the internet, anything can happen. I’m a fan of having hands-on access to my data. Just in case. With an external USB drive, you can store this copy of your data outside of your home. In a desk drawer at work. At a nearby home of a trusted friend or family member. In a safety deposit vault in your local bank. You get the idea.

My hope is that your computing experience will eventually be a stressless and enjoyable one. By eliminating the possibility of losing important information, we can take one step closer to a better experience.

Do you have a tried-and-true method for protecting your files? Share it with us in the comments below!


  1. Brian Bowker

    I read your article and it’s well written, but I don’t think your conclusion answers your original question. A client brings in a computer that is performing poorly, like an ill maintained car. Could be a failing hard drive. I agree that having a sound backup strategy is a good policy, but it doesn’t answer the question of why the machine is performing poorly.

    Also, you caught my attention when you implied that My Documents wasn’t a good place to store files. I think it IS the right place to store files (keep them all in one place) as long as you back them up. In the days prior to Windows 95 there was no central file storage location, and people would save file all over the hard drive. It made backing them up and migrating to a new computer a time consuming nightmare.

    That said, the advice about having a good backup policy is sound. Another good alternative to using a physical USB hard drive for an off-site backup is a subscription service like CrashPlan or Carbonite. These have the advantage of being “set and forget” so you don’t have to remember to bring in your USB drive and manually perform a weekly.

    • cp

      Excellent points, Brian. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how to wrap up the article after providing so much technical information about backing up one’s files. Plus, it seems that my car analogies may have been more confusing than informative. I would imagine a future article sharing tips to diagnose a poorly-performing computer would be helpful. Also, talking about troubled computers might be a good precursor to actually starting the process of protecting files. If the computer ain’t working well, how can you have confidence in your files being safe, right?

      Regarding the My Documents location. It is a very convenient location for people to store their files, since the My Documents subfolders are easily accessible within Windows Explorer, and normally is Windows software applications’ default location for saving files. With cloud-based storage solutions, users will often get a separate default folder to synchronize their files. I see the challenge to accommodate both camps lies with getting your My Documents folders to be synchronized with cloud-based storage solutions. Setting up symbolic links would be a potential solution, but that’s taking things to a fairly complex level.

      You are correct about off-site subscription services like CrashPlan or Carbonite being a worthy option for backing up your data. I’ve used CrashPlan in the past, and currently am evaluating Backblaze for the family computer. I’m of the mindset when SHTF (stuff hits the fan) and a computer takes a nosedive, I’ll want to access important files quickly, and if those files are stored (or intervally archived) on an external USB drive, I can plug it into any working computer and access my files.

      Thanks very much for your comments, Brian! We appreciate it!

  2. […] while back I discussed the importance of backing up your data files I believe it’s important that we take a step back and review file sizes and how much data […]

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