Welcome to the Essentials Series
As this is the first post in the Essentials series, let me explain this series' purpose. The Essentials series is meant to give information technology beginners an understanding of the basic building blocks of a secure IT environment. This means essential steps for securing data, workstations, and networks. Overall, the technical detail of these articles will be limited so that beginners can understand the content and the concepts laid out within. Other articles and series on this blog will be geared toward more advanced individuals and will expound greatly on the concepts from the Essentials series.
Importance of Backups
Imagine having a child and over the course of their first years of life taking thousands of photographs and hundreds of videos. Those may seem like outrageous numbers, but it's easy to be overzealous when you carry a camera in your pocket all day. Now imagine starting your own business and creating lists of business contacts and clients, invoices, and all of the accounting information that goes along with a business. Most likely, all of this information will be stored on your computer and, unfortunately, every computer stops working at some point.
If you have been diligent in backing up all of these precious files, then losing a computer is not a big deal since you only need to replace that computer. However if you have not been diligent, you have now lost priceless memories of your child and your entire financial livelihood. There are countless stories of people losing critical information due to a computer crash. Fortunately, all of this trouble can be avoided with a little bit of work.
Golden Rule of Backups
Before choosing a backup method, there is one rule about backups of which you should be aware. You should have at least three copies of all important data. This means the original plus two backups of truly important files. If you only backup your information in one place, such as on an external hard drive which you keep stored with your laptop, you could easily lose both if you leave your bag somewhere or there is a fire in your home. This is why one copy of all of your important data should always be kept off-site. Many people will not have the diligence to maintain three copies of information, so below I will provide some options for automating the entire backup process.
Easy Backup Options: On-Site
If you own a Mac, buy a large external hard drive and use Time Machine. When you first plug-in the external hard drive, your Mac will ask if you would like to use that drive for Time Machine backups. It's literally that simple.
I feel comfortable ending the Mac conversation that quickly because Time Machine is a well advertised feature. Windows has a similar feature that few know about called "File History." If you own a Windows 7 or newer PC, you can easily take advantage of this feature by connecting an external hard drive then going to control panel and opening the File History dialog box. Then it's as easy as pressing the "Turn On" button. This will automatically save all files from your libraries, desktop, contacts, and favorites to the selected external drive. For advanced users, you can also add a network location for File History to store backups.
Easy Backup Options: Off-Site
In order for a backup option to be considered easy, it needs to be completely automated and require little to no maintenance. That means you're going to be backing up to the cloud to store your important data off-site. Many people already use online storage services like Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive to store some of their data and sync it between computers. This is useful and keeps your data safe and available, but it is not necessarily secure. If this is your chosen method of off-site storage, it is better than nothing, but you can do better.
A recent survey by the University of Kent found that 1 in 30 people have had their data affected by CryptoLocker (although there was likely some significant sampling bias), which is a virus that encrypts your data and requires you to pay a ransom to get it back. If those affected had a backup of their data, it would not have mattered because they could have restored their information without paying the ransom. However, CryptoLocker is capable of encrypting your Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive files if you have them syncing to your computer.
Solution: Use Carbonite
Carbonite is an automated cloud backup service which backups up your entire computer to its servers continuously, allowing you to restore any lost data at any time. Since Carbonite provides file versioning support, CryptoLocker would not have been able to cause a loss of data. Additionally, Carbonite is more secure than the other cloud storage services mentioned above because all of the data is encrypted with an encryption key which you control. This means Carbonite cannot look at your data, all they can do is store and restore it for you. This service is relatively cheap considering the aggravation it will save you.
UPDATED 6/2/2014: The following three automated online backup services are considered some of the best currently available, based on various consumer reviews I have read. All of the services below offer the ability to create your own password to encrypt your backup, meaning that the company will not be able to access your data.
1. Carbonite: currently priced at $59.99 for one year of unlimited backups for a single computer.
2. CrashPlan: also priced at $59.99 per year for unlimited backups of a single computer.
3. Backblaze: this relatively new competitor offers a number of advantages over the other services. First, the price for a year of unlimited backups is $50. Additionally, Backblaze allows you to also backup your external hard drives, which other services do not allow.
Backups used to be difficult. However, there are many features built-in to modern operating systems which will save you the hassle of remembering to backup. Cloud backup and storage services also save you the hassle having to remember to backup. At this point, there is honestly no excuse for not ensuring your data is safe and secure.