Countdown to Backing Up Your Data

My favorite maxim regarding computer backups is Peter Krogh’s oft-quoted “3–2–1 Rule”. A proper backup of important information consists of three copies of you data, on two different types of media, one of which is off-site. Let’s take a look at how you can implement this system at home or at your law firm.

Three Copies of Your Data

The first of Krogh’s three maxims is to have three copies of your important data. With inexpensive external hard drives, very large internal hard drives, and limitless “cloud” storage, meeting this requirement has never been easier. The first copy of your data is the one that lives on your computer. The second copy of your data should be outside your computer — an external hard drive, cloud storage, or even a large USB flash drive, although a flash drive is the most prone to loss or failure. The third copy of your data should be physically distant from your other copies. If your computer and two backups are all destroyed in the same fire, your backup strategy has failed.

Given the large amounts of data people store on their computers — work and personal documents (small file sizes), music and pictures (moderate file sizes), and videos (large file sizes) — and the ever-increasing centrality of that data to work and personal lives, backups are essential. They are also easier to conduct than ever before. Under Krogh’s 3–2–1 Rule, we need only think about the two copies of data beyond that one on your hard drive — one external to the machine and one off-site.

Picking Your Storage Media

The data that lives in your computer is stored on either a spinning, mechanical disk, like a traditional hard drive, or a solid state drive, that operates solely with electricity, like the memory in your smartphone. The computer drive serves as the first of your three copies, and one of the two types of media you will use. If you have a traditional hard drive, which most people do, then the options for the second type of storage media are solid state and cloud.

The least expensive way to complete a 3–2–1 storage strategy would be to have an external hard drive and a cloud backup service. This would give you two local copies of your data on traditional hard drives (one in the computer, one external) and one — both offsite and a different media — in the cloud. You could follow the same model with a solid state drive, meaning the computer’s solid state drive, an external hard drive, and then a cloud backup service. If you wish to avoid cloud data storage, you use a second external hard drive kept offsite in a rotation with the first external drive.

My personal backup solution in this vein is a sold state drive in my computer, an external wireless hard drive, Apple’s Time Capsule, and a cloud backup service, Amazon’s S3 backend combined with Haystack Software’s Arq front-end interface. In this scenario, I have created a 3–3–1 system with three copies of my data on three types of media (SSD, hard drive, and cloud), and the cloud copy is offsite. This is my system, but you can mix and match in any way to achieve the minimum 3–2–1 combination of data safety.

How to Set Up Your System

As I mentioned above, your computer’s hard drive is the first copy of your data. The second copy could be on an external hard drive. A quick search of Amazon for 2 terabyte external hard drives found prices starting at $105.00, an eminently affordable way to preserve your data. If you have an Apple Mac or are more technically astute, instead of physically connecting the drive to your computer with a USB cable, you can buy a wireless external hard drive or a drive that connects directly to your home or office networks. These drives are more expensive, but more convenient, especially if you have a laptop and you don’t want to regularly plug and unplug your backup hard drive.

For the offsite component of your 3–2–1 strategy, I suggest a cloud storage or backup system. There are a myriad of providers in this space. I personally use Dropbox for active files I want to be able to access everywhere, including my iPhone and iPad, and the previously mentioned Amazon S3 combined with Arq for continual, incremental, automatic backups to the cloud. If you like this setup, Arq only works on Macs, but CloudBerry Lab’s Amazon S3 Backup Desktop Edition works similarly, and is compatible with Windows XP through Windows 8.

In addition to Amazon’s S3, “roll your own” solution, there are many companies that offer integrated data backup in the cloud where they provide the backup software and cloud storage space in one monthly fee. Prominent names in this field include Backblaze, Carbonite, CrashPlan, and Mozy. Each of these providers offer monthly plans and backups at different price points. All share the same essential characteristic of running silently in the background so that you don’t have to remember to backup.

The Final Step — Automation

Once you have decided on your backup media and locations, it’s time to automate the backup. If you have to remember to run a backup, then it’s less likely to happen at all. In the preceding paragraph, I mentioned S3 and other cloud providers, and that they can be configured to automatically, continuously, and silently backup your data. It’s possible to achieve this automation with a local external hard drive as well.

Apple’s Macs come with Time Machine built-in. Just connect an external hard drive and backups start immediately and continue silently in the background whenever that drive is connected. Another great option on the Mac, one with more customization than Time Machine, is Econ Technologies’ ChronoSync. For a complete system image, Shirt Pocket’s SuperDuper! is the program to beat. On the Windows’ side, there is built-in Backup and Restore software, as well as numerous third-party options, including my personal favorite, FileBack PC.


Hopefully this blog has given you a good starting point for implementing safe data practices. Just remember: 3 copies of your data, on 2 different types on media, 1 of which is offsite.

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