My Local File Backup Strategy

I am pleased (and frightened) that I have successfully backed-up and organized nearly every file I have created or modified that has touched any computer I have owned since my first desktop tower PC in 1999. (Fifteen years!)

These local files include any photo I’ve snapped on my first digital camera (an early Kodak Easyshare), financial spreadsheets, recipes, music, old college papers, and ancient webpage fragments. There are also setlists, soundbites, and posters for my growing list of musical projects. I remember setting up my Dell desktop in 1999, installing Napster, and downloading my first MP3, which — fast forward to today on my primary personal computer, a Lenovo ideapad laptop — I still have today. (Roundabout, by Yes)

Over the years, this has meant bumping around copies of files that are important to me, and keeping them stored in a reasonably strict file system so I can easily find the files the matter to me. (Though to be fair, “bumping around” is an exaggeration, as the files have only made one transition — from Dell PC to Lenovo laptop in 2011.)

My strategy for storing and backing up photos versus non-photo files is similar, except the non-photo files have different folder structures, and some files are not sent to the cloud to give them some kind of digital privacy. Other files I don’t send to the cloud because I simply have no need for them to be there.

Since a photo is file type we all use, but also a quintessential file — they are created, edited, shared, regularly and semi-regularly accessed, and also backed up — they are the primary focus of this article.

Before we proceed, I’ll point out I am Windows user with the exception of my iPhone. I would imagine that my file storage and backup system would work on an Apple laptop, though I have no experience on that front so I will not make promises.

With that said, I’ve already told you that I use Dropbox to backup photos taken with my iOS devices, and you probably already know that iOS photos are easily shared using Shared Streams. While these mechanisms do not solve backing up photos taken on non iOS cameras (or photo scans and non-photo files), my local file backup strategy may also be applied to iOS photos.

So, here we go…

Local File Storage and The Parent Folder

All of my photos live in one parent folder, with named subfolders prefixed with a sortable date followed by a label of the folder’s contents:  “2013-12-xx – Mammoth Cave Trip“.

The year is first so the folders sort increasingly by date. Scanned photos whose dates are unknown use “xx” as a placeholder for year, month, or day.

The parent folder sits on my primary personal computer, currently a Lenovo ideapad laptop running Windows 7. The folder contains photos that were on my last computer (the desktop PC, which I haven’t powered on in about two years). If and when my laptop breaks or gets phased out, this folder will move to my new laptop with its contents. (My 1999 Dell PC never broke, but eventually reached a point where it was no longer reasonable to upgrade. When I purchased an MP3 player and had to install a USB 2.0 PCI slot board to use it, I knew my Dell’s days were numbered.)

The idea behind the parent folder containing any and all new and old photos is that I want instant access to every photo I’ve taken from the computer I’m using today. Every photo, ever — on *this* laptop.

The bottom line is that I don’t want to have to scrounge through albums of labeled CDs to find a photo of Grandma, or route around in old shoeboxes looking for the hard drive with old vacation photos. Nor do I want to have to reburn CDs, squeezing photos into the photo timeline as I find more old photos to scan.

The parent folder is *the* photo album. If the parent folder isn’t on my primary computer and if it doesn’t contain all of my photos, I will probably not be looking at them.

The Cloud: Dropbox

The parent folder is stored in Dropbox. This serves as both a backup on the cloud as well as a way to access all photos from my iPhone, or anywhere on the road. This allows me to easily share any subfolder of photos or scans with family or friends. Additionally, if and when I upgrade my laptop, I can easily checkout the contents of the Dropbox folder as an alternative to a copy/paste transfer to/from external storage.

Dropbox (and the cloud) is another reason why the parent folder is not stored on an external drive. If I get a nice camera one day with super-silly resolution resulting in absurdly massive file sizes, it might be unreasonable to store all of my photos on my “active” computer. At that point, I will need to reevaluate my local file backup strategy.

Accessible External Disk Drive Backups

In case the cloud backup fails (or Dropbox closes up shop), the photos get backed up to a 1 TeraByte 2.5″ external USB 3.0 disk drive every month or so using the Backup and Restore utility built into Windows 7. This is a manual process (only because scheduling it would require that the drive is always connected to my laptop).

The purpose of this drive is to serve as a physical and accessible backup only for my primary personal computer. If or when my laptop drive kicks the bucket, the external drive is another line of defense for restoring my files. If or when the laptop drive kicks the bucket and I have no internet connection, the external drive is my only line of defense.

Additional External Disk Drive Backups

Whenever any personal computer of mine goes the way of the wind because I have upgraded to something newer, the important files on it get backed up to a second external disk drive using a traditional copy/paste method. Each back-up gets named similarly to my photo subfolders:  “2008-07-xx – Dell PC backup”.  These backups also happen every few years for the purpose of keeping a snapshot of my active computer’s files over time.

Nothing gets deleted from the secondary backup drives, ever. The idea is that, if one day you are looking for a file on your active computer and cannot find it, there is still a possibility that you copied that file during a backup long ago, and that it exists on your other external drive.

On top of it all, external drives are something that can easily be placed in a safety deposit box — a great way to safely store files during long term travel.

This post is part of the thread: My Digital Backup Strategy – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.