When you think of data backup plans, you may think of work, business and office solutions. However, home data backup is more important than ever —think of all your digital photos, personal e-mails and music that could disappear if you don’t have them backed up. For students, backup is just as important, if not more so. A crashed hard drive has turned into the new “my dog ate it” when it comes to late assignments, so you don’t want to be faced with trying to convince a teacher or professor that your hard drive did crash and take your essay with it. The idea of a backup is to make recovery as fast and as painless as possible, should you lose your data in any way. Here’s my take on the perfect backup plan.

Backing Up is Important

I worked in IT solutions for the financial industry for many years, so the importance of backing up data is something I’ve learned to take very seriously. I’ve also seen the many different ways things can go wrong with a computer and the impact that has when the victim is unprepared. It can end in hundreds of dollars and many days spent desperately trying to recover data from a damaged hard drive, or the realization that five years worth of your digital photos walked out the door with the laptop someone stole while you were on vacation.

If you have data backup in place, it can instead be a minor inconvenience, as simple as moving to an alternate device and restoring all that data in a matter of minutes.

The Three Components of the Perfect Backup Plan

I think I mentioned I take data backup seriously. I may go a little too far when it comes to precautions, but I would rather err on the side of caution than have a huge mess to clean up. So when I back up data, I use three approaches:

  1. Local physical backup
  2. Cloud backup
  3. Physical backup stored offsite

Local Physical Backup

This is your first line of defence against catastrophic data loss, whether that’s because of equipment failure, loss or accident.

Either use the backup software that came with your PC (Time Machine in the case of Macs), or invest in third party backup software such as Acronis True Image. Many external hard drives —and you’re going to want an external hard drive for storing that backed up data— include their own backup software.

If you’re in to Apple gear, the company makes a combo wireless router/backup hard drive that works seamlessly with Time Machine called the Airport Time Capsule.

Configure your software to run a full backup of your PC, followed by incremental backups at a regularly scheduled time. That way your data always gets backed up. If you do something as silly as accidentally deleting an assignment, you can easily grab the most recent copy from your backup drive. And if your hard drive suffers a catastrophic failure, or your PC is stolen, that full backup should let you restore a replacement hard drive (or replacement PC) to being identical to the original.

I have computer set to back up every 15 minutes and it does not slow the operation down in any noticeable way (although I would temporarily suspend the backups if I was playing a game).

Cloud Backup

Cloud backup offers the advantage of being offsite (if your laptop is lost in a fire there’s a good chance the external hard drive with your backup data is toast too) and it’s also remotely accessible. 

Remote access is extremely handy if you happen to use multiple devices —if your data is always backed up to the cloud, you can work on a file at home on a PC, continue working on it on your tablet while in transit and then make changes by logging in from a friend’s computer. So long as you have Internet access, you can access your files.

Outside of the files you’re actively working on, the major PC platforms offer cloud storage solutions that can be used for backup (OneDrive for Windows 8, iCloud for OSX) and there’s usually a complementary chunk of free storage, followed by paid blocks if you have a lot of data.

For most people, backing up data —digital photos, music, and files— makes the most sense for cloud storage, rather than trying to do a complete backup with full restore capability. It can be done, but it will likely be expensive and it’s also a lot slower than a local backup (and restore) because all the data and communication takes place over the Internet instead of a fast USB 3.0 cable.

Physical Backup Stored Offsite

This isn’t the same as cloud backup. This is a full backup of all the digital media I care strongly about, on an external hard drive or a high capacity USB thumb drive. Whatever the data is stored on is in turn kept offsite —at a friend or family member’s home, for example. 

You may want to password protect the drive or encrypt the data if you’re concerned about snooping…

The data isn’t in the cloud and it never touched the Internet. But, if a cloud provider goes down (that has happened) or your house burns, the data you care the most about isn’t lost. 

Many enterprise backup solutions include doing just this, on a daily basis. I’m good with running the backup every three or four months (you have to take some risks and I don’t really feel like shuttling an external hard drive around every day).

Of the three components to a perfect backup, this is the one I would consider optional –at least for students.

Backed Up? Then Relax…

I’ve had several occasions where data backup has proven invaluable.

Several years ago, the hard drive on my primary computer failed without warning. I had key data (like the family digital photo library) stored offsite, so there was no worry of losing valuable files. 

But because I’d implemented a regular local data backup (in this case Time Machine), I was able to swap out the dead drive, replace it with a spare I had handy and then ran a system restore. After maybe two hours (most of which was me drinking coffee), the computer was not only back up and running, but also looking identical to its pre-crash appearance. All the data was there, the preference files were the same, the applications did not have to be re-installed, my web browsing history was intact and the assignment I had been working on at the time of the crash was still there.

I lost 15 minutes or so of work on the assignment (the difference between my last backup and the crash), but what could have been a huge pain of manually installing an operating system and applications, followed by dragging data back was turned into an extended coffee break. Without a backup plan? It would have been a disaster.

That why every student (and home, and business) needs their own perfect backup plan.

Editor Computing solutions
I’m a long-time electronics and gadget geek who’s been fortunate enough to enjoy a career that lets me indulge this interest. After 13 years as a product manager with a leading Canadian tech company, I transitioned into a full-time career of writing about technology. I’ve contributed to a range of publications and websites including Forbes, Wired, Gizmodo, Lifehacker, About.com, MSN Money, the Winnipeg Free Press, InvestorPlace Media, Shaw Media and—combining technology and my three kids—I’ve been a Core Contributor to the award winning GeekDad blog since its launch in 2007.