June 15, 2010, 11:00 AM ET
Back Up Your Essential Files Using Dropbox
Over the past few weeks, I've been in the process of moving halfway across the country. Given how much my personal and professional identities are bound up on a few spinning discs, I've been thinking a lot about backup. This post is really a followup to Jason's reminder this past March that we should all be self-conscious about backing up our digital lives. As he points out, one backup is never enough and you should have at least one "off-site" backup (especially of critical files). Backing up your computer to an external hard drive is a good first step, but a real disaster such as a fire could easily destroy both the computer and the external hard drive sitting next to it.
If you want to backup an entire computer to an off-site server, several programs can do the job. Jason has recommended Backblaze; just yesterday Lifehacker named Mozy as their favorite backup solution for Macs (though Mozy also works with Windows); and Carbonite is a favorite for many. For a small monthly fee, any of these programs will automatically back up the contents of a computer's hard drive to the companies' servers. Users then have secure backups of their hard drives at off-site locations, which they can access to restore lost files.
For the most essential files in my life, however, I trust Dropbox. Readers of ProfHacker hear about Dropbox frequently. I can't link to all of these posts, but Jason's "Stop E-mailing Files to Yourself" provides a good introduction to the service. Here I want to reemphasize Dropbox's value as a backup solution. By installing Dropbox on only two computers, I can fulfill all three of Jason's recommendations for backup: all files placed in my Dropbox are:
- copied to three hard drives
- at least one—and possibly all three—of these hard drives are in separate physical locations
- backup happens automatically
Unlike many web storage solutions, Dropbox creates a folder on the hard drive of each computer on which it is installed. Users don't have to be connected to the internet to save files to this folder or open files from it. When the computer next connects to the internet, however, Dropbox will automatically sync any changes that have been made within the Dropbox folder to their servers. Dropbox will then push those updates out to any other computers on which the same user has installed Dropbox.
If a user has Dropbox installed on at least two computers, then, any file placed in the Dropbox folder is backed up on two hard drives owned by that user, as well as to Dropbox's servers—three locations, at least one of which is off-site. If the user's two computers are in separate locations—home and work, for instance—then all three backups are in separate physical locations.
Let's say I'm working on my dissertation in Scrivener on my laptop. When I save that file, it's first saved in the Dropbox folder on my laptop's hard drive. Then, Dropbox automatically uploads the file (or the latest version of the file) to my space on Dropbox's servers. I also have Dropbox installed on my iMac at home and my PC at work, so Dropbox next pushes the updated version of my dissertation out to the Dropbox folders on my iMac's hard drive and my work PC's hard drive. Were something to happen to my laptop, I could recover my dissertation from Dropbox's website or from either of those computers. Dropbox's web interface even allows users to recover previous iterations of particular files, so even if my dissertation file was itself corrupted somehow, I could easily revert to a previous, uncorrupted version.
Because the files in my Dropbox actually exist on each of my computers, they're automatically backed up four times. I use Time Machine to back up my home computer to an external drive (a Drobo, for anyone interested). Time Machine backs up my Dropbox along with the rest of my computer's hard drive, so I actually have five backups of every file in my Dropbox. That may be more than many folks need. I lost the first draft of my first dissertation chapter due to a hard drive failure early in my writing process, so I'm a bit paranoid. But such accidents do happen, more frequently than we like to imagine.
Everyone should be backing up, and Dropbox offers easy, free backups for your most essential files. As such, Dropbox also offers some peace of mind for academics whose work increasingly depends on spinning discs.