The 3-2-1 Backup Rule

As we all know, backups are important. But, all too often, when disaster strikes, a backup copy isn’t there. While I certainly didn’t invent the 3-2-1 backup rule, it’s a rule that I strongly believe in. Simply, the rule goes like this: For any critical data, you should have 3 copies on 2 media types with 1 offsite or online.

The rule is pretty simple to follow, yet it ensures that important data will always be available when something goes wrong. With the popularity of USB flash and hard drives, along with cloud storage, such as Dropbox or SkyDrive, it’s even easier to ensure data is recoverable.

The first step in this process is to first decide what’s critical data. While backing up everything is certainly a good idea, the reality is that it’s a long, boring process. As such, many people simply neglect to perform this critical task. So, a simpler method for critical files is more practical since these must be available.

To determine what data is critical, there are a variety of places to look on a computer system. Some important locations where documents and settings are stored in Windows are the My Documents folder, Favorites (bookmarks in IE), and the hidden Application Data folders. While there may be other places user data is stored, these are the first places to start.

The My Documents folder is one of the ideal items for backup since this is the default location for user documents. This should be copied to a removable USB drive or stored online via Dropbox or SkyDrive. The Favorites is used by Internet Explorer for bookmarks, so it’s really only important if that’s the browser used. Other browsers store bookmarks in different locations. Rather than try to back these up, I prefer the use of bookmark synchronization, such as XMarks.

The Application Data folder is a bit trickier since, by default, it’s hidden. To show this, select Tools, Folder Options in Windows Explorer or My Computer. Click the View tab and, in the list of Advanced Settings, select Show Hidden Files and Folders and uncheck Hide Protected Operating System Files. Then, the Application Data folder can be viewed. Again, if room is available, this entire folder can be copied to a USB drive or cloud storage.

The next step is to determine where those copies are going to be stored. The first copy is typically the working copy and will no doubt be stored on a local internal hard drive. The second copy should be on a removable device or network share. Since USB hard drives and flash drives are so cheap, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a cost-effective device to store these documents and files. If possible, try to get a USB 3.0 device since the transfer speeds are much faster.

The third copy should be offsite or online copy. With Dropbox offering 2 Gb of free storage, SkyDrive offering 25 Gb of free storage, and many other services offering free storage, it’s easier than ever to store data online. Online storage also offers the advantage of being able to access these documents anywhere on any device or system. The downside is that an Internet connection is required and a very strong password is required to protect the data. Even with a strong password, many may not be comfortable with storing data, such as financial records, online. For these items, it’s a good idea to burn them to CD-R or DVD-R and store them in a safe deposit box.

Personally, I’ve come to rely on this method for my important data. The process can often be automated as well, using free tools, such as SyncToy. While this method won’t completely restore a computer with all its applications, it does ensure that critical documents are recoverable. (For complete systems and applications it’s worthwhile to use an imaging tool, such as Acronis TrueImage or Clonezilla.) This method also provides a simpler way of transferring documents to a new system.

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One Response to The 3-2-1 Backup Rule

  1. yourdiyguy says:

    I personally use dropbox and it works great but for all my videos and music I use pogoplug. I only wish they would have a better webOS app. It is def worth checking out.

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