Many Are Unprepared for Another Kind of Disaster

Many Are Unprepared for Another Kind of Disaster

Just as literally billions of people were caught unprepared for the coronavirus outbreak, many are also unprepared for a data disaster. Sure, many professionals are prepared, but many others just think they are.

The old idiom "never say never" comes to mind. It surprises me how many professionals that use computer systems daily have no idea about some of the basics of computer use. Sure, sometimes, you can go years without any maintenance. So can your car, but we all know that eventually, it's going to break down, especially if you don't put oil in it.

Cloud storage company BackBlaze uses consumer-level drives for its storage and wrote an article about its hard-drive lifespan. It found that 5.1% of drives failed in the first 1.5 years. More worrisome is that only 78% of drives lasted four years. That means that 22% died. They also predicted that after six years, only 50% of the drives would survive. Simply put, a consumer hard drive is not built to last forever. They will die. BackBlaze also publishes quarterly stats on their hard-drive failure rates.

You Need a Backup Strategy

Yes, you've heard it a million times. Now that so many people are working from home during the coronavirus outbreak, maybe now is the time you should be evaluating your backup strategy. There are a ton of articles on Fstoppers about backing up your computer, so there's no need here to go over that again.

Look at the lead image for this article again. Those are just some of my old drives from just the last eight years that I replaced because they were dead or dying. Some of them were the backup drives that I found were failing when I tried to restore from a backup. That's not a good time to find out that your backup drive is dying. Luckily, I had a second backup location. The failing backup drives had over 50,800 hours of use on them - that's 5.8 years of continuous spinning.

A Backup Is Not a Backup if You Can't Restore From It

There's no point in putting something in a safe place if you can't get it back. If you have a backup, you need to make sure that you can restore files from it. You need to test it. You need to make sure that you can restore your files.

All too often, I've encountered people that had a computer failure and didn't have a backup. Of those that thought they had a backup, most had never tested it. It's not uncommon to have a backup method only to find out that it won't restore, or that you don't even know how to access the backups to do a restore.

I once accidentally deleted all of my niece's wedding photos. Yep, nuked them with shift-delete. I had selected a folder and accidentally hit the up arrow right before delete. In under two minutes, I had restored them from one of four backup locations.


Use this time to prevent a disaster. Figure out a backup plan. If you already have a backup plan, maybe now is a good time to verify your backups. If your backup drives are getting old, consider replacing them.

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Darren Loveland's picture

Every quarter I backup my entire editing drive to an external WD passport. Then I upload select projects/files that I deem worthy of keeping or for ease of access to the cloud. It's just a quarterly task that automates in the background or while I'm out shooting. I've had some stuff on drives fail or just go missing, so the cloud gives extra padding of assurance.

Every quarter of what?

Every quarter of an hour is slight overkill, but every quarter of a year could mean an awful lot of lost work!

Darren Loveland's picture

Four times a year. Client projects are already backed up on one cloud service from delivery, the secondary cloud service (done quarterly) is redundant, along with the backup drives.

Heratch Ekmekjian's picture

Thank you for the reminder. I have almost as many dead external drives in my office as in your photo. This down time is a good time to tackle this potential problem.

i keep it simple and use chronosync to backup to 3 drives. i cycle one offsite using chronosync to update the drive that was swapped from offsite with the latest files. for family members i gift them backblaze. years ago carbonite saved my years of my dad's work after a disastrous drive crash. i like backblaze but i was hoping they would give a discount for secondary devices.

Replacing older backup drives is good advice. After reading your article I realised that many of my drives around around the 5-6 year mark, time to upgrade!

I have a backup at home, but I also keep an archive in a safe deposit box. And the bank branch where that safe deposit box is located is now closed for the duration of our "shelter in place." Lesson learned. I don't know where else to keep an archive, though.

Ivan Lantsov's picture

cloud is machine you not own so is not safe

Vincent Alongi's picture

I'm banking on the cloud as my ultimate backstop. I'll look to consumer-grade technology for the short term.

I'm not seeing many critical takes on the cloud overall, unless I'm missing something. While we don't own the cloud, I'm thinking Microsoft is pretty solid with OneDrive. But I am always listening to everyone's views on this as a solution.

Ivan made the point above.

Every time you read or write the word "cloud" you should try replacing it with the more accurate term "someone else's computer". Oh, and that "someone else" is someone you do not know, and have no way of identifying, let alone trying to find their computer on which you have saved files.

The "cloud" is not something to be relied upon for long-term anything at all. The term is actually really good, because anything stored in "the cloud" is nebulous, and is likely to drift away or evapourate at any time, unpredictably and without warning.

Put a second drive in your PC (or NAS, whatever you use as your main storage) and duplicate everything immediately. That solves the immediate problem of main storage failing suddenly.

You can buy a little 4TB USB3 hard drive for well under £/€/$100. Unless you use Phase One, your can put nearly 200k raw files on one of them. Buy a few of them (preferably 3 or more), and use them in rotation to back up your main storage (say) weekly, and put at least one of them somewhere else (e.g., in your car or in a friend's shed or stashed under a bush somewhere). That solves your studio/house burning down or ransomware corruption.

You will then have access to all of your files and have bacups in your own personal possession at all times. Your backup will be perfectly air-gapped, which no cloud service is be definiton. You can also encrypt the drives if you want - that means no-one can get access to them, but actually reduces your own safety in your ability to recover from the backup, which is a balance that has to be struck.

An adage from from my days as a system administrator in the early 1980s still holds true today: if a file is not stored in three places, it does not really exist.

Keep in mind, most people's entire net worth is stored on other people's computers, too. It's kept by financial institutions at a much higher, more "robust" standard than generic "cloud" storage of files for a regular person, but you still have to rely on other people's computers to hold your stocks, bonds, savings, bitcoin, mortgage info...Or at least most of it. Some might fit in your freezer.

Yes, I know, and it keeps me awake at night sometimes.

The big difference is that the financial people are regulated by government, they have a centuaries-long heritage of accuracy and reliability and their ethos is based around stability and dependability. All of which may be falacious!

Also, absolutely everything that my financial institutions do for me is documented by PDF files or (sometimes) paper letters that are sent to me (which is a day-to-day annoyance), so everything should be tracable in the event that a disaster happens. The amount of data that financial institutions have to manage is tiny in comparison with image files. I have quite a complex series of financial holdings, but I expect that the entire lot could be detailed in a file of size less than a single DSLR JPEG image.

The cloud storage people are quite the opposite. They are unregulated, new-to-the-game and (in the case of some services) are explicitly guaranteed to be unreliable (your VM may have to shut down at a moment's notice if its capacity is required for something more profitable). Look at their terms of service, and you will find that they guarantee you nothing at all.

I was just thinking... when I was in computing half-a-lifetime ago, I was trendy doing Unix/C.

The COBOL people were quite boring and staid: they never went on the piss with us after work. They just turned up (sometimes in a suit, bejesus!) when needed with their wierd PIC clauses, DIVISIONS, excessive use of CAPITAL LETTERS, and punch-card heriteage AREAs, and went away again when their work was done. They seemed quite boring, but also very well-off, driving very expensive but not flashy cars (Bentley and Alvis, as I recal).

Sort of comforting, in retrospect.

John Gaylord's picture

I recommend avoiding .PSD file format because it may be difficult or impossible to recover from a damaged disk, whereas .TIF format files are much more reliable. This is based on my direct personal experience.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Interesting... Could you elaborate...

I have been meaning to try out S3 from Amazon. I started doing a backup last night to their Glacier system. Really seems to be the way forward to me

Well said, Mike!

I am regularly baffled and frustrated by people who are prepared to spend thousands of £/€/$ on cameras and lenses and then complain about having to spend a few hundred on software and storage.

There is no benefit at all to be gained from spending a fortune on cameras and lenses if you do not have good software to process the image files. A couple of hundred a year buys you Adobe's finest, whereas many spend 20 times that on their cameras and lenses.

There is even less benefit if all of your expensively obtained image files vanish because you have not thought about how to store them safely. You can buy a NAS storage box that will hold many tens of thousands of images for the price of a mediocre zoom lens.

Whenever (and it is not infrequently because I open my studio often*) I am asked by passing photographers what I think their next upgrade should be, I always ask them to think about their computing - storage and processing - before looking at their next body/lens that will make images that are underwhelmingly processed or lost altogether.

* Well, I have done for the last ten years, but who the hell knows this year?