Set Up an Automated, Bulletproof File Back Up Solution

More and more, the fragments of your life exist as particles on a disk mounted inside your computer—disks susceptible to temperature changes, power surges, fire, theft, static, and just plain wear and tear. Hard drives fail. It’s a fact of computing life. It’s not a matter of whether your computer’s disk will stop working; it’s a matter of when. The question is how much it will disrupt your life—and it won’t, if you have a backup copy.
Backing up your data is the dullest but most indispensable thing you do on your computer. Here’s how to automate regular backups for your computer, both on-site (to an external hard drive or another computer), and off-site (to the internet). This system can even email you if something goes wrong, so it’s the ultimate set-it-and-forget-it situation. After you get this up and running, you’ll never have to worry about losing data again.

Local Backup vs. Online Backup, and Why You Should Have Both

Local external drive backups are great for quick recovery when you’ve accidentally deleted a file, or if your computer’s internal hard drive crashes. But what if your house burns down or gets burglarized-including your backup drive? Hurricane Katrina victims can tell you that no matter how diligently you back up your computer to a local hard drive, you will still lose your photos, documents, and other important files if you don’t keep a copy off-site, preferably out of state. Some users keep an extra hard drive with a copy of their important files at the office or at their mother’s house in case of theft or fire. But that requires manually transporting your hard drive back and forth on a regular basis, and you want to set it and forget it.

What You Need

A Windows, Mac, or Linux PC
CrashPlan: Available as a free download for all three platforms.
An external hard drive or second computer for local backup. You can either purchase an external hard drive to back up to or use CrashPlan to back up your files to another computer on your local network. When deciding capacity, go for 10 times the amount of data you want to back up. For example, if the size of your My Documents folder is 10GB, then look to purchase a 100GB hard drive. (If a drive the size you need isn’t available, calculate the size of your home directory without space-hogging subdirectories, such as My Music, My Videos, and My Pictures. You have the option to reduce the number of copies you keep of those large files to save space.)
A CrashPlan+ account for off-site backups. In addition to local backups, CrashPlan can also back up your files off-site to their servers (which they call CrashPlan Central). As of this writing, unlimited backup at CrashPlan costs $5 per month per computer, or $10 per month for a household of two to ten computers (if you pay for a year in advance). You can compare your CrashPlan options here. You don’t strictly have to pay for CrashPlan+ (you can still back up off-site to a friend’s computer), but I’d strongly recommend doing so for your off-site backups.
Note: As we’ve pointed out before, there are no shortage of tools available offering unlimited off-site backups. Having examined the options myself, Crashplan’s my favorite tool for the job. $10/month will give you unlimited backup for a whopping 10 computers, which is a better prices than a lot of services offer for one computer. I actually went ahead and bought four years, which brings the price down to an extremely reasonable $6/month.
Configure Your Backup System

The first time you install the CrashPlan software, you also need to register for an account. (You have to register whether you’re going to pay for off-site back up with CrashPlan+.)

Choose the Files and Folders You Want to Back Up

After you registered, the software scans your system, suggests which directories it should back up, and lets you know how much space those files will use in the Files section of CrashPlan’s Backup window. If you don’t want to go with CrashPlan’s suggestions, you can manually choose which files and folders it backs up. To do so, click the Change button.

Choose Your Backup Destinations

You have four Destination options to which you can back up your files, all of which are accessible through the Destinations tab in the CrashPlan desktop application. You can back up your files to any combination of those destinations. You can choose simply to use CrashPlan to back up files to an external hard drive (choose the Folders option), to another computer on your home network (choose Computers), to a friend’s computer over the Internet (choose Friends), or to CrashPlan’s servers (choose Online). CrashPlan is completely free to use with every destination but Online, which requires a paid CrashPlan+ account. To achieve both on-site and off-site backups, you should strongly consider backing up to a local drive and to CrashPlan’s servers with a paid CrashPlan+ account.

Tip: If you don’t want to pay for your off-site backups, CrashPlan has a clever trick up its sleeve: It enables you to back up to a friend’s computer across the internet. Your friend needs CrashPlan installed and hard drive space to accommodate you, but it’s a handy option if you’re not backing up a lot of files.
Choosing your backup destinations is simple: Click the Destinations tab, click the type of destination you want to set up, and point CrashPlan to the appropriate hard drive, folder, computer, or CrashPlan+ account you’re setting up.

Set Your Preferences

CrashPlan’s Settings also contain preferences for your automatic backup schedule. By default, CrashPlan backs up files every 15 minutes, so you’re always backed up (you can change it to as often as every 1 minute), but if you’d prefer to schedule your backups less often-for example, when you’re away from your computer or not using the Internet. You can adjust the settings by following these steps:

Click the Backup tab.
Select Between Specified Times from the Backup Will Run drop-down menu.
Set your preferred backup times. From the Settings panel, you can also adjust how it should notify you and how much bandwidth and computer power it should use to get its job done.
After you configure CrashPlan’s Settings the way you want, click the Save button.
Start Your Backup

After you configure CrashPlan to your liking, click the Backup tab, and click the Start Backup button; then click the Start button to the left of the progress bar. (It looks like a Play button.) Your first backup can take a long time depending on how much data you back up and, if you back up off-site, how fast your Internet connection is. On a laptop, CrashPlan estimates it will take days to complete a backup to CrashPlan’s servers. For a local backup, it’ll take just a few hours.

CrashPlan does differential—or incremental—backups; that is, it backs up only portions of your files that have changed since the last time they were backed up, so while your initial backup may take a long time, subsequent backups will take significantly less time, so don’t let the first backup discourage you.

What a CrashPlan+ Account Adds to Your Backup Plan

The main benefit of a paid CrashPlan account is that it’s a reliable, off-site storage option. If someone stole both your laptop and your external drive, for example, you could still recover all your backed up files from CrashPlan’s servers. As mentioned above, CrashPlan does allow you to back up to a friend’s computer (provided that friend is also running CrashPlan on her computer); while that’s better than no off-site backup, it’s not as solid as using CrashPlan’s servers.

CrashPlan’s backup process encrypts the files on your computer using either an encryption key it chooses or your own private key. CrashPlan uses stronger encryption algorithms with its paid accounts than it’s free account (though both are encrypted), so you don’t have to worry about anyone intercepting your files when they’re transferred over the Internet.

If you delete a file on your computer, CrashPlan marks it as deleted on their servers but holds onto a copy on its side forever—unless you tell it not to. That way, you can recover a deleted file no matter how much time has passed.

Restore Files Backed Up with CrashPlan

After you complete at least one backup with CrashPlan, you can restore files copied to its servers or to your other backup destinations in one of three ways:

Open the CrashPlan software on your computer, click the Restore tab, select the backup destination you want to restore from, and pick and choose the files you want to copy back to your system from your backups. Click the Restore button.
On the CrashPlan website, from the My Account page, click on Computers, and then click the Restore button next to the computer you want to restore files on. You can browse your backup, tick the check box next to files you want to restore, and then click Restore.
If you’re not using the computer with the CrashPlan software installed, you can download the restored files as a ZIP archive. This feature is only available for paid CrashPlan accounts.
For a detailed guide to all the ins and outs of CrashPlan, see the official CrashPlan documentation.

My CrashPlan Setup

As mentioned at the start of this guide, CrashPlan is far from your only option for backing up your files. Aside from some of the other unlimited backup tools, many people are perfectly happy backing up only their most important files using the popular sync-and-then-some tool Dropbox. It’s really a matter of preference.

With my laptop, for example, I use Dropbox for important documents in addition to CrashPlan (maybe I’m a bit of a redundancy nut). Using CrashPlan, I back up to a Windows desktop on my network as well as to CrashPlan’s servers with a CrashPlan+ unlimited account. The local backup (to my Windows computer) happens very regularly while I’m on my home network—something like every couple of minutes, which is reassuring. I’ve set my off-site backups to CrashPlan’s servers to run whenever my laptop is idle for 15 minutes. If you wanted, however, you could set CrashPlan to send backups as often as once per minute. I don’t do this because I’ve got Dropbox there for more instantaneous backups.

The upshot: I have very few worries about losing an important (or, frankly, not that important) file. It takes a little time, effort, and yes, occasionally some money to set up, but for me, the peace of mind is very worth it.


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