Your hard drive will crash

While I was at the FWA Bradenton Mini-Conference last week, Dropbox had a major service outage. This wasn’t a huge problem for me, just an inconvenience. For others, not so much.

Dropbox is an online storage service, and a lot of writers use it as their main backup. A glitch in a maintenance program led to some of the company’s servers having their operating systems upgraded while they were in use. This led to a crash Friday evening that eventually took the whole service down for the better part of the weekend. Service wasn’t fully restored until Sunday afternoon.

hard drive crash backup
Photo by Marcin Barłowski

I was using Dropbox to move my lecture notes from my MacBook, where I wrote them, to my iPad, where I read them in class. So if I hadn’t found a work-around, I could have just taken the MacBook to class instead of the less bulky iPad. No big deal.

When it works, which is most of the time, Dropbox syncs the contents of your Dropbox folder to your various devices. I have it on an iMac, MacBook, and iPad. You could put it on a Windows box and an Android phone, if that’s what you’re into. You can also access it via any web browser.

I was able to take the synced file from the MacBook and save it to Google Drive, which does most of the same stuff Dropbox does, and then some, only with a more complicated interface. Then I could put it on the iPad; good to go.

My friend—not so lucky. He used Dropbox to move his data from an old computer to a new one. Wiped the old hard drive…and then the new one crashed and had to be wiped and reset. The files were in Dropbox, but he couldn’t get to them until the outage was fixed.

I want to make clear that no one lost data in the Dropbox outage. We only lost access to our data, which is almost as bad. But the Dropbox computers that crashed were the ones running the application, not the ones storing the data.

Nevertheless, the whole experience reinforces the necessity of having redundant backups. We all have horror stories about writing a great scene or story that later disappeared in a hard drive crash. In my case, an entire short story vanished into the ether because when we restored from the backup, it wasn’t there. The backup hadn’t been run between the time I wrote the story and the time of the hard drive crash.

Hard drives are mechanical and like other mechanical goods they WILL fail — it is just a matter of when. A good hard drive will last up to 10 years — I’ve even seen a few little engines that kept chugging longer than that with some TLC — but most fail after about 5-10 years.

The best approach to keeping redundant backups is to have one local and one in the cloud. If one fails, you can use the other. And yes, I have a horror story about the failure of the backup drive. Drive Savers can help if your data is truly mission critical, but their service is so pricey you may find (as we did) that it’s less expensive to re-do the lost work than to pay Drive Savers to recover it.

Ideally, you want something automated that backs up continually. Microsoft’s Backup and Restore and Apple’s Time Machine will do this. You just need a honkin’ big external drive to connect them to, and it needs to be on all the time. Otherwise, you have to remember to turn it on.

A variety of online backup solutions are available. I use CrashPlan because it was recommended by someone I trust, and got good reviews in the magazines I follow. It runs in the background and backs up everything continually as long as my iMac is on.

But external drives and service plans come with a price tag, and most writers are on tight budgets. Outages notwithstanding, Dropbox normally rocks for cloud backups, and it’s free for 2 GB, which is hard to exceed if you’re only storing Word files. A flash drive is really not robust enough for a backup, and it’s too easy to lose. It’s better than nothing, but I don’t recommend it.

Automated backups are best. If you don’t have them, put a system or procedure in place to help remind you to back up your current work at the end of each session. Or even hourly. This is an area where you really can’t afford to do things by halves.

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