The Anti-Buzz: Data Loss

by Andrew Emmott on May 1, 2012

in Anti-Buzz,Security

The Buzz: Your data is not safe! You might lose it at any moment.
The Anti-Buzz: Data loss is real, but uncommon, preventable, and recoverable.

It’s a common nightmare scenario: all of your data is gone! It doesn’t actually happen very often; more common is for you to simply lose something in the same way you might lose something around the house. Maybe you delete something when you didn’t mean to, forget where you saved something in your mess of folders, or drop your digital camera in the toilet. Still, it’s a scary idea as we all become increasingly dependent on computing technology. What can be done to prevent this disaster? What can be done when it happens? This is a broad topic, and as you all manage a small business, you have more at stake in this conversation than most people. However, I am going to focus on the personal case this week: what can you do to protect your data?

How might you lose all of your data?

Hard drive crash – The most likely thing that can happen is a hard drive crash. The word “crash” gets bandied about a lot, but when it comes to hard drives, we mean it. A hard drive crash is when something comes undone and that whole spinning mess comes unraveled and crashes not like a computer but like a car. If you take your disk to an IT person, you’re asking them to fix a shattered wine glass and leave no seams. There are a number of ways to prevent this disaster. 1) Use a solid state drive, (This is expensive, but comes with other advantages). 2) Don’t cheap out on your hard drive. Research brands, choose reliable ones. 3) Don’t physically abuse your machine. This is unlikely in the case of desktop machines, and nearly all smaller devices, (iPods, smart phones, tablets, e-Readers), use solid state drives, (a notable exception is the iPod Classic, which is so cheap precisely because it’s so breakable). So laptops are the big one here. If your primary computer is a laptop, then be careful with it! In general, they are much less durable than they look. Every “hard drive crash” story I’ve heard involves a laptop.

Software glitch – I think we’ve all been here in some form. For whatever reason, your OS no longer boots, or only boots in some half-working safety mode, or otherwise fails to provide full functionality. Sometimes a common “recovery” solution sets things right, and sometimes not. This scenario is more common than a hard drive crash, but also much less catastrophic. However, a lot of average users might not think so. From the outside, if your computer won’t run, this seems equivalent to losing all your data, especially when the prevailing advice will be to reinstall your operating system and thus wipe your hard-drive clean in the process. However, a malfunctioning OS has little to do with the data on your hard drive. Your data is fine! Save it before you wipe your hard drive and start clean. If your computer is still booting in some sort of safety mode, then you should be able to at least shove in a flash drive and transfer all of your files off the drive before you etch-a-sketch your computer clean. If not, then your situation is more complicated, and I defer you to your neighborhood tech geek because the steps are too many to list here. However, with the right tools or know-how, it is relatively easy to hook up your hard drive to a different computer and get at your files that way. The big takeaway is that an OS failure is almost never an actual case of data loss, but a lot of people mistakenly wipe their hard drives without realizing this.

Salvation in the cloud

As we put an increasingly large amount of our personal information onto cloud services like Facebook, flickr, photobucket, and webmail, we become increasingly resilient to data loss. Did you just lose all of your photos? If you are the sort to meticulously upload and tag all of your photos, then no you didn’t – you’ll never lose them. Did you just lose that big report? Maybe not if you ever e-mailed it to yourself or anyone else – it’s still there, somewhere. If the worst does happen, remember that you probably have a lot of stuff saved in off-computer places. You can take this concept further by using one of many online storage sites and deliberately back-up your files to the cloud instead of your might-drop-it-in-the-toilet flash drive. A popular, easy, and free choice for this is Dropbox.

What and how should you back-up?

Of course, the universal data loss prevention scheme is to have your data backed up somewhere. Business solutions to this problem are necessarily robust, complicated and automated. Staying focused on the personal case, however, I offer this simple advice: If you don’t understand how your back-up system works, use something simpler. Too often I have seen users throw away their time, money and data into the maw of some sort of “does all the work for you” system that is slow and hard to recover from. For a single person, “backing up” should be as simple as keeping a copy of your files in more than one place. However, what to bother backing up causes more confusion. The point-blank advice is: If you can reinstall it, don’t bother saving it. If you can reinstall it, you already have a back-up. What you need to be saving are the things that you made or use. Documents and photos are the big one here. Music and movies are another. Files, not programs. Your files take up much less space than your programs and copying them somewhere does not take much time. As usual, I end an article preaching personal responsibility; figuring out what to save, how to save it, and remembering to do it regularly, is something that is left up to you.em

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