Backing Up My Digital Life

These days our lives are very heavily documented and there are two aspects of our digital lives: the parts that are documented for us and the parts we document ourselves. In my case, being an amateur photographer I tend to document a lot of things around me using my DSLR, shooting both photos and video. The media I create all resides in the digital realm these days but without a proper system of backups it is as vulnerable as a traditional analogue record. I have always felt that as long as I was doing more than average to preserve my digital lifetime I would not be likely to lose the media I hold precious. In general, I have had backups in two physical locations, usually at work and at home. Although this is a pretty good system, in light of the recent disasters in Japan which had far-reaching effects it really doesn’t feel like enough so I started shopping around.

When looking at a way to back things up there are a lot of things to be considered. A few of the things I looked at are listed below:

  • What do you really need backed up?
  • How much data will that be?
  • How often does that data need to be backed up?
  • What will your future needs be?
  • What are your options for recovery?
  • Can you afford it?
  • Can you afford not to?

In my case, I am using a Mac and have my normal documents in an encrypted sparse disk image bundle with my general photos and video being managed as referenced files using Aperture 3. Any additional media that should be kept private for one reason or another is also encrypted and only opened when necessary. This means I have a bit of a mixed backup environment. The encrypted disk images and loose files with metadata attached do not necessarily work with the same methods of backup. For example, SugarSync is a great idea for backing up loose files and folders and has the added advantage of being able to sync between computers as well as working as an off-site backup, but at this time it can not properly handle encrypted images. Dropbox can handle loose files and encrypted images but it does not have a storage option large enough for the amount of media I have to store (my Canon 5D MKII cranks out photos at over 25mb each). CrashPlan has unlimited storage for a reasonable price, but its backup client take a bit of unnecessary processor power when not needed and is rather slow for large data sets on a laptop that is moved regularly. I could go on, but I will summarize by saying that although there are a lot of systems out there none of them actually meet my requirements in one package.

What to do? Diversify.

After extensive research I have developed a system using several different solutions to give me coverage while not unreasonably impacting my wallet. First of all, I have decided to sync my raw photos and video to Amazon s3, a storage solution that has reasonable prices and only charges for the exact amount of data used. Another advantage is that using Transmit 4 from Panic Software I was able to upload my whole 120gb photo collection to their servers outside of Japan in under 6 hours. This was made possible by uploading 50 files concurrently on the large pipe I have (finally an excuse to push my upload bandwidth to its limits). My server could pull this off with about 35% processor use thanks to its RAID drives and I could watch movies in a different room on my Apple TV while uploading. With my 20gb of unprocessed home video uploaded it should cost me under $15/month to have all of my personal media stored with some redundancy in another part of the world. Add the copies and backup I have here in Tokyo and I should be fairly well covered in anything less than an extreme global catastrophe, in which case I will most likely be more worried about food and survival than about Hawaii beach photos. The second part of my backup scheme involves my encrypted disk images and my Aperture 3 library. Luckily, these are small enough that I can use Dropbox to hold and sync them through symbolic links. That way I can run them locally but also be fairly confident that they will be backed up offsite regularly. I am also considering storing static copies of each on Amazon s3 occasionally to avoid losing everything in the case of encrypted disk corruption but have not decided yet.

So now I have constantly backed up encrypted document images and all of my photos and video off-site with a minimum of effort going forward on my part. Sure, I will have to sync up my photos and video to Amazon s3 when I add or remove a significant amount of media, but now that the bulk of it has been uploaded I should be able to do so easily from now on. It will end up costing me up to $15/month over what I am currently paying for online services, but I would rather skip a few cups of tea at Starbucks a month than lose everything I have ever created in a natural disaster. If I ever need to recover the photos and video from Amazon s3, I have the option of downloading (if I am in a site with decent bandwidth) or sending them a disk and having them load it up and send it back to me. Not a bad way to go. With Dropbox I can download through a computer client or from any computer with an Internet connection and a browser so that should be reasonably easy as well.

It is nice to have one less thing to worry about.

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