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June 15, 2010, 11:00 AM ET

Back Up Your Essential Files Using Dropbox

stacked_file_cabinetsOver 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:

  1. copied to three hard drives
  2. at least one—and possibly all three—of these hard drives are in separate physical locations
  3. 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.

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user jon_a_ross.]


1. acavender - June 15, 2010 at 11:21 am

I'm a huge fan of Dropbox. It makes backup incredibly easier, and is much better than backing things up manually. (Stupid user error is far too easy with manual backups. I once lost hours worth of work on a conference paper, precisely because I *was* backing up. Trouble is, I forgot which version of the file was the most recent. Ugh.)

It's also very convenient to have all of my day-to-day work files readily accessible, in their latest versions, at whatever computer I happen to be sitting at.

2. kfitz - June 15, 2010 at 12:33 pm

I too am (a) paranoid, and (b) a huge fan of Dropbox. The one thing I'd add is that Dropbox protects against stupid user error of many varieties, by maintaining older versions of files as they get updated, and by allowing the restoration of accidentally deleted files via the web interface. It's saved my bacon more than once, I'm not ashamed to admit.

3. peril - June 15, 2010 at 01:53 pm

I've been pushing DropBox to other profs on campus for about a year now- even converted one entire dept. away from their proprietary Winblows server for project management/file storage.

Dropbox is indistinguishable from magic.

Dropbox's biggest advantage is of course it's astoundingly reliable syncing, but it works well as a backup for sure! I have about 4 gigs of space that I use as my primary project folder. Then when I'm done working I archive the files in my Documents folder.

Dropbox encrypts your data on their servers (and over the wire for the most part) so it's safe for sensitive date, which I really appreciate. Best of all, as mentioned above, those encrypted files on their server so if my house burns down and my other off-sites blow up, I will at least have my most important files available for download from

Mozy using 512 bit encryption, which makes it by far the safest you can use. I stopped using Mozy because it's restore tool is sloppy and slow.

Backblaze is fantastic if all you want is backup. It doesn't sync or do anything fancy like that, but what it does do is save you from losing your data, and it does it well. $5 / month / computer is a small price to pay for unlimited versioned backup of all your data (excluding individual files greater than 4gig- basically they wont back up any single file they can't send to you on a single DVD).

Finally, as a bit shameless self promotion, if you haven't signed up you should do so right now!.. and umm.. if you use this link, I get 250 free megs ;)

I know, I know, but hey, if you're signing up why not help a fellow ProfHacker out eh :D Thanks!

4. ryancordell - June 15, 2010 at 03:15 pm

Hey now, peril! If you notice, using the links IN the story to sign up will net THIS ProfHacker an extra 250 megs. So....

5. eetempleton - June 15, 2010 at 03:16 pm

I love Dropbox as well! In fact, just this morning, it saved me from having to make a trip to campus. I got an email from a colleague requesting copies of paperwork, and I could just pull it up from home and email it back to her. No muss, no fuss.

I just wish that it had been around when I was writing my dissertation--would have saved me the trouble of emailing it to three different versions of myself every night!

6. hmwhitney - June 15, 2010 at 03:46 pm

I'm still a little partial to Syncplicity ("Syncplicity: Syncing More than a Folder"), but its Mac version is still not out yet.

7. csgirl - June 15, 2010 at 06:22 pm

Does Dropbox sync automatically the way LiveMesh does? I really like LiveMesh, and wish it weren't Microsoft...

For a real backup solution, I use Mozy, and also TimeMachine with an external drive. I've lost enough hard drives to be really paranoid. Mozy works, too - I have had occassion to really need it after hard drive failures, and it was there for me.

8. daveapostles - June 16, 2010 at 01:40 am

Use Linux (right now Mandriva/PCLinuxOS on HD and JoliCloud beta from liveCD) and Unix (PC-BSD on HD). Don't give a crap about the HD on the PC - everything is on the DVDs or CDs and can be run live if necessary. Just a few tweaks to restore everything. Use Tonido plug for the file storage (also Linux) with an external HD hanging off it. All I did was buy a laptop/notebook without OS and installed the OSs myself - no contribution to M$ or the extortionate Apple (and note that BSD is the basis for OSX). Free as a bird, free from commercial extortion.

9. beichner - June 16, 2010 at 06:22 am

It is also worth noting that DropBox provides an easy way to get files onto your shiny new iPad.

10. bepps - June 16, 2010 at 09:32 am

I'll second beichner's comment: Dropbox (which I just recently discovered) is great for moving/syncing files to/from an iPad and one or more other computers. iPad apps such as Documents To Go and Quickoffice Connect allow you to add online accounts such as Dropbox, so all of your important files are also accessible on your iPad--not just as read-only files in Dropbox on your iPad, but also as editable files in the other programs. Syncing is quick, easy, and automatic--a great solution for iPad users!

11. ryancordell - June 16, 2010 at 10:29 am

csgirl: Dropbox does sync automatically. Anything saved into it uploads automatically to the cloud and then is pushed out to all the other computers you've installed dropbox on. That's precisely why I love it. No need to mount an external drive, copy things over, etc.--it's like magic.

12. techrunner - June 16, 2010 at 11:47 am

Just to add to the discussion, I've been using Live Mesh in similar fashion for some time and I'm pretty pleased with it. Granted, Microsoft is still trying to figure out this whole cloud storage thing and does not seem to have a unified strategy. I've got files in Windows Live, Live Mesh and SkyDrive! One thing that I really like about Live Mesh is that it also enables remote access. From home, I can login to my work computer when I need to take advantage of resources, such as specialized software, that I don't have on my home computer. With dual monitors on my home computer, it's actually kind of fun to be working on the office computer on one monitor and the home computer with the other. One can even copy and paste files between the two. Now if I could actually get twice as much work done this way I'd really be on to something.

13. csgirl - June 16, 2010 at 12:45 pm

OK, but does it sync off one special folder? With LiveMesh, you can designate as many of your pre-existing folders as you wish to be synced, so it doesn't disturb workflow at all. I would never remember to explicitly move files into a designated Dropbox folder, if that is how it works.

Right now, my LiveMesh setup is to sync all of my course-related folders, plus my "research" folder and my "administrative" folder.

14. peril - June 16, 2010 at 03:38 pm

Dropbox doesn't require any configuration or settings to be manipulated. It just makes a given folder on your computers/devices exactly the same.

You can choose a folder if you really want to.
I like to use the default Dropbox folder it makes on install just as it feels a bit more like a 'special' folder full of magic and happiness ;) But then I'm more than a bit anal about my file structure, so having a unique folder appeals to me.

Microsoft's Skydrive is a tragedy- but hopefully they'll toss a few billion at development and sort it out. Equally silly is Apple's iDisk. Many of Mobile Me's features are great, but the iDisk just sucks.

It blows my mind that these two massive companies can fail so completely at syncing folders and Dropbox (which is effectively some folks that got goin in a garage) produce such an amazing product!

15. hawkeyecc - June 16, 2010 at 07:54 pm

OK, you're all out of my league. I'm still backing up on external zip drives and my personal drive at work, but that does require multiple downloads. Ryan mentioned in his final paragraph that Dropbox is free. Is that possible? How are they making a living if it is free. I need more info.
I, too, lost the first 3 chapters of my thesis when my first computer, an old 486 (we're talking years ago), was struck by lightening and the hard drive was fried. I would love a reliable, economic off site storage solution. P

16. profwhodrives - June 17, 2010 at 10:46 am

Dropbox does an excellent job of effortlessly backing up your files. One thing that I didn't see mentioned above is that Dropbox also keeps old versions of files. This has saved me more than once over the last year.

17. george_h_williams - June 17, 2010 at 02:00 pm

@hawkeyecc: What you'll get for free is the basic version of Dropbox, which gives you 2 gigabytes of disk space. If you want more disk space, there are two paid plans: 50 gigs for $10 a month, and 100 gigs for $20 a month.

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