Behind The Exciting

Writing stories down as the characters give them to you is exciting to be sure, but there is more behind the scenes of a story than what you see when you pick up a book or turn on your electronic reader. So let’s take a moment and talk about backups. Ugh, boring I know. But thinking like that can cost you. I know it has cost me. Not only do I find the subject of backing up my computer files boring, I find it a terrible time hog and I am very jealous of how I spend my time at my computer.

But taking the time to make sure your backup system is everything it needs to be will save you time and heartache in the long run. Almost two weeks ago now, I learned that lesson the hard way. I had one of those computer catastrophes that we all think will happen tomorrow, not today and “I’ll secure everything before it gets to that point.” I was already most of the way with my security anyway, right? I had an offsite backup service. (Mozy if you wish to know.) They alerted me every day, twice a day, telling me my system was backed up. I gave them my confidence.

What else was there to do then? Well I had bought and external drive, but when I tried to hook it up I got confused about how the system worked. It didn’t seem to be backing up. I had Mozy after all, and I was busy so I set it aside to learn how to use on another day. That day didn’t materialized before my computer catastrophe. The external drive got disconnected in an office move and never put back. Big mistake!

So right now, you may be asking, did Mozy do what it was supposed to? Only partly, and here is where the heartache comes in, Mozy failed to recover the files of my most used program, One Notes. One Notes is a Word Office Program that I came to rely on as a quick way to dash down notes, journal entries, research and the like. Besides my journal, I had years of research entered into it, and links to verify and authenticate all those little things in my books that might surprise my readers for their inclusion. I had massive notes on how I wanted to handle future novels, all dashed into this easy to use filing system. It built up to quite a lot of information. Mozy failed to back it up past 2011. The journal entries that it returned to me only went back to 2008. Besides that, whole folders were missing including one with nearly 100 low carb recipes I had developed for a cookbook. Mozy also did not play nice with my Scrivener files.

But I did not start this post to cry about my losses. I wanted to share what I learned from this episode and tips you may need to know to help you avoid this sort of catastrophe for yourself. You owe it to yourself to take the time understand backups and how to make sure your system won’t fail you. Consider, truly, how you would feel if years of your work suddenly vanished to never be retrieved again.

So here is what you should know about protecting your files:

1. Surge protection (what you have might not be enough): Your electrical feed probably represents the largest probability of damage to your computer. My computer catastrophe was due to a powerful surge of electricity. On a clear and sunny day it popped through the wires, (I was there when it happened). It jumped past my surge protector and fatally damaged the hard drive. Low level retrieval is impossible and high level retrieval is going to be massively expensive. Since this happened I have learned a new word. Joules.

Joules are the measure that tells you how much of a surge your surge protector will take and still protect your equipment. Since the incident, I’ve seen recommendations that your surge protector should have a rating of at least 3800 joules. So imagine my surprise and frustration to find out that a great many of the surge protectors that are first in marketing presentation to us, have very low joules ratings. Shopping on Amazon, I found too many protectors that had less than a thousand joules. Many are not even up front about their joules rating and I still can’t tell you how many my original surge protector had.

After the catastrophic loss of my computer hard drive, I spent an extensive amount of time shopping on amazon trying to find the highest joule rating I could find in a surge protector. I ended up with something a little less than the highest, due to other factors. The one I bought has a rating of 4320 joules. It also promises a circuit break in the event of a surge. This means it will shut the electricity feed down during a surge. It also claims it has a connected equipment warranty of $400,000. I paid less than a hundred dollars for it. I hope I never have to find out if this protector lives up to all of its claims, but at least it has the joules ratings and that is supposed to count for something.

2. Cloud Backup: I won’t tell you that I have this completely figured out. Years ago I had set up with Mozy as an offsite back up and then pretty much went about my business. But by the way my recovered files have behaved, I will say that at least this one backup service does not do well with program files that use file systems, like Scrivener and One Notes. If you don’t back anything else up on your own external drives at least back these programs up. Even a thumb drive will do. I found a later version of my One Notes on an old thumb drive. It didn’t salvage everything I lost because I didn’t make it a practice to back up this way, but at least it gave me a little more than my backup service did.

On the other hand, Mozy did everything they promised for my document files, my music, and my pictures. Though it took 7 days to do a recovery download of my files into my new computer, I was glad to have them back. Still, my files have grown extensive and this way of backing up every file I own is no longer a viable option for me as a matter of cost and now a matter of trust. If I decide to continue using an offsite backup service I intend to shop around for something more affordable than Mozy, or else I will have to choose which files I want backed up and let it leave the rest alone.

If you choose an offsite back up service, realize that there are likely limitations to what it will do, and if you have extensive files, backing them up will be expensive, and recovery will not be fast and in some cases not even assured.

I understand that Microsoft now offers cloud back up for documents and One Notes, but I am not sure I am comfortable with the question of privacy to use this yet.

I do not recommend relying on an offsite backup service as your sole backup system.

3. You should have External Drives: Everything I say here is influenced by the fact that I shop Amazon. I do it because Amazon is one of the best things out there for reviews, especially if you know how to take all the factors into account when reading reviews. Not one external drive system gets by without having negative reviews. But when a product sells in large numbers, a percentage of negative things are going to happen. You have to find what looks best for you. Take note of how many reviews are given and what the percentages of the negative reports are. Read the one star reviews to see if the complaints are due to the occasional lemon or even to user side problems, or if there is a consistent problem that you cannot abide.

The external drive I already had in my possession, when my system was fried, was “My Book”. It holds three terabytes. After the incident,  I decided to make sure I understood how it works and now have it continuously backing up my new computer as we speak. What I like about “My Book” is that I can open a file directly from it. It’s a matter of understanding how its paths to the files are set up. I have a smaller, one terabyte, passport ordered as a second external backup. My plan for that one after the initial backup is to backup my new files every day and then disconnect it from the power source until the next backup session to prevent it from taking any surges in the down time.  I am going to do this because I still don’t know how the external drives will take a surge. I am considering a third external drive as well, keeping one off the power source at all times. I’ll let you know how that works for me.

And of course there is my thumb drive. I have been faithfully trading backups of my manuscripts (all of them) between my computer and this precious little drive for some time now. It was actually connected to my computer when the electrical surge happened. My first move was to take it out and, holding my breath, check it on my laptop. Somehow the electrical surge did not touch it and for that I am thankful. I feel blessed to still have my manuscripts and am only a little behind schedule now because I didn’t have to wait for recovery to access it.

So my thoughts on external drives are these. You should have at least one, and it would be better to have at least two. You should know how they work and you should back up on them faithfully. Chances are if you ever have some sort of catastrophe, it is more likely it will be something of electrical nature or computer failure than something truly catastrophic like a fire or a tornado that could destroy every piece of equipment in one blow. Being in a low lying, hurricane prone area, I know from my own experience that other kinds of storms and flooding usually give you enough warning and you can grab your external drive and make away with it. The low probability of sudden and complete disasters might be enough for you to trust just external backups without resorting to offsite backups (Or Cloud backups). In the long run, an external drive will cost you less that an offsite service. If you rely on external drives alone, you can justify the expense for more than one.

Marry yourself to a thumb drive, but back it up regularly. I have one that is hardly bigger in size than the metal USB plug that slips into the computer. I bought it like that to keep from bumping and breaking when I have it in my lap top. Even before the crash I had developed the practice that everything I write goes there first and then into the desktop so that my off site backup service can pick it up. It’s portable that way. It goes where I go and works in whichever computer I work in. But as I said, I back it up regularly. I’ve read that a pulse of electricity can wipe one clean. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I don’t take chances. But as I said before, it was plugged in when my main computer fried and it survived intact, just as lovely as it has ever been. I will probably learn to work my One Notes and Scrivener from it as well from now on. It would have been so easy to just copy it into my new desktop from the thumb drive and not wait the ten days it took to replace my computer then download recovery from Mozy, only to find out it wasn’t there!

So are you still with me in this boring little place behind the scenes? I hope I have been of some help to you. Take the time, get those precious files you have spent time on, that you love and call your own, securely backed up. And please, throw out that lying piece of junk that calls itself a surge protector (it should be illegal!) and buy one with a reliable joules rating. At least do that.

Happy filing!