They say you learn something new every day.

So, like everyone else in the world, I don’t backup any of my data. I just assume that losing data is something that happens to other people. And then when I do lose data I find someone to blame.

The standard backup strategy

However, I’ve decided I’m going to change all that. Of course there are a few requirements for my backup plan:

  1. It must be automatic. Ideally fire and forget. I love stuff that’s fire and forget. It’s as close to perfect as … stuff can get. And not just computers. Take inoculations, for instance. The perfect example of fire and forget medicine. The problem is if it’s not fire and forget, then I’ll have to remember to do it. And I’ll forget.

    This is a general point about everything, not just backups and not just computers. If it’s not something you’re interested in, you will forget. Everyone seems to have their own laws and rules these days, so I’ll propose the Pitt Principle:

    Anything that someone can forget to do, someone will forget to do

  2. It must be free. I’m not going to pay to store all my stuff. Again. That would really be a kick in the teeth. No, sometimes I have mixed feelings about this philosophy, but overall, as a starting point I try to do things in a way that’s free.
  3. The process must not affect my life or computer use. I don’t want some background task that uses up 100% of my CPU so I can’t do anything productive, or some upload task that uses up all my bandwidth. Or even, some application that slows my boot time down or takes up 50GB of hard disc space. The simpler the better as far as I’m concerned.

Now, that’s enough of what’s it’s not. While it’s helpful to have a nemesis, I was watching a documentary about Blackadder (I think it was this programme, although I can’t find the quote, despite hunting through the subtitles) the other day where they said they spent so much time talking about what they didn’t want to make that they almost painted themselves into a corner.

So, what should my backup plan contain?

  1. I’m happy to put in more effort in advance if it means less effort in the future. I regard this as quite a central tenant of being lazy. There’s no use being lazy now, if you have to do twice as much work tomorrow. That’s bad laziness.
  2. I’m happy to script some stuff if it means it does just what I want it to do. There’s a tension here, I always think, between getting software that’s already written, and writing your own that does just what you want. I fight this a lot at work. But there is a sweet spot, and partly that sweet spot depends on how good you are at coding.
  3. I’m happy for it to be several processes as long as they’re all automatic.

I came across the first part in my plan yesterday: the excellent site If This Then That. It’s such a great idea for a website, and it’s really nice to use as well.


It takes as an input a number of social media sites, RSS feeds or emails (so you can insert arbitrary inputs), and allows you to automate another task based on those. It’s a bit difficult to explain, so it’s easier to show with an example.


Yesterday, I created a task that automatically posts a copy of an article to my backup wordpress blog every time I post an article to Tumblr.

I’ve never really thought blogs needed backing up; I assumed the hosts did that for you, but that isn’t always correct. Now, though, I’ve got blog redundancy. If Tumblr goes down (I’m sure that it won’t), this will still be available on wordpress. And if it dies, all my text content will be save.

Perhaps a bit overkill, for this site, which is really just for me, but that’s not the point. It’s the right thing to do,

Now, of course, that’s just the first part of my plan. I’ll need to do something similar for my website. I store all the images for this blog centrally in my website, so what I need to do is automate a back up of them to something like dropbox or Flickr.

Now along with this the other day I read Jamie Zawinski’s tongue-in-cheek blog post about backing up:

Learn not to care about your data. Don’t save any old email, use a film camera, and only listen to physical CDs and not MP3s. If you have no posessions, you have nothing to lose.

He means this facetiously. but there’s something a bit appealing about this. It’s like getting rid of possessions. It’s quite liberating. But, having said that, there is some data I’d be really sad if I lost.

The real option, Jamie tells us, is to buy a load more hard drives and back up to them. And a server. And leave a hard drive at work. And post one to your Aunt in New Zealand, and put one on the Voyager shuttle etc.

Hard drives galore

Obviously there’s such a thing as backup overkill. And I suspect if 95% of the world doesn’t backup at all, 4% obsessively over backup to a ridiculous level. The idea is to be the 1%, that backup to a degree appropriate to their content.

I have 4x1TB hard drives in my computer. However, most of this is media (video, games, music) which I could rip or download again if necessary. The key part is my self created content (like this site) that I would be sad to lose. I may copy some of the more rare media to my unused external hard drive, but that’s as far down that path as I want to go.

I also need to create a boot disc (tick, I’ve got a Win PE disc lying around somewhere) and create an image of my current C Drive for bootable purposes. Somewhere I have an Acronis True Image bootable disc lying around. It’s not too important to me that this up to date, as I’ll only be using it to restore my machine to get it bootable.

However, it’s scattered around my computer, so I think when I get home, one of my first tasks will be to organise my computer a bit more, and then write some script to automate an incremental backup to my web server. That second stage will be for another day, I think. Right now, I’m pleased to have found and set up If This Then That.

Of course, the final part of my backup strategy, what I’ve learnt and discovered, is this site.


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