Jul 08 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Sometimes saying "I told you so" is satisfying - like when your kid gets scratched by the cat after you told her for the fifth time to stop poking the damn animal - but most of the time it comes with a sigh. I feel this way every time I hear a story about how Jenny lost her whole thesis a week before the deadline when her computer crashed or Johny lost a year's worth of data analysis when someone stole his laptop. We may not have flying cars yet, but damnit people, if you don't have an automated back-up of your computer that contains anything important to your work, you deserve what you get.

When I started my lab I was determined to make data back-up a central theme and something that did not require someone to manually make it happen. Afterall, who remembers to back up their data every couple of days? Instead, I set up every computer in the lab with some sort of hourly automated back-up system. The Mac time capsule is a great way to do this for everyday computers. It updates any changed folders and files every hour and builds an archive of snapshots that get progressively spaced out in time as they go further back. For instance, you'll have hourly back-ups for the past week, daily for a few months further back and then weekly and monthly.

In cases where we have workhorse computers, we've set up dedicated external drives that back up hourly in the same way that the time capsules do. Since we don't want to depend completely on local data storage (you can back-up ten different ways, but if it is all in one location a fire will still leave you SOL), raw data and key analyses are regularly backed-up at an off site data storage cloud.

Whereas this might sound like a lot of work, the key is that nearly all of it is automated. My desktop is backing-up right now while my laptop is in the queue and I don't need to do anything. Additionally, the cost of the external and wireless drives is minimal compared to the cost of our data and the person time that goes into analyzing it.

Backing-up data and work is not something to be messed with. Do. It. Now.

*I've always thought about writing a small program that would beep like a truck backing-up every time the computer backed-up, but then I realize it would only be funny the first three times and then I would want to rip out my speakers.

8 responses so far

  • Mokele says:

    The annecdote that convinced me of the necessity of backups was about 10 years ago, before online options existed. A small field station working on crocodilians had a lovely tape backup system....until the building burned to the ground, taking both the tapes and original data with it.

    Actually, does anyone have recommendations for large-scale data backup for relatively cheap? Our lab can generate 500GB in a single day if things go well, and while those experiments aren't that common, we've still accumulated almost 6 TB of data just in the 3 years I've been here, and that rate may soon increase. Online backup solutions - easy. Online backup solutions that can deal with 4GB files and 6TB+ of data without charging an arm and a leg, not so easy.

  • Pat Brassard says:

    "Backing-up data and work is not something to be messed with. Do. It. Now."

    So true !!!! I've lost data just once...lesson learned !

  • WhizBANG says:

    When negotiating my first job, I forgot to photocopy my "what I want" letter before I mailed it. I went back to print out another copy, and the file was unreadable. Eventually I had to ask my first employer to send me a copy of it, because they basically said I could have the terms I requested. How embarrassing!

    Since then I have religiously backed up (although that probably would not have helped my original problem above). My immediate past employer backed up everything on their servers every night, so all lab work/results/etc were on the server, not your local hard drive.

    Now my files reside in my dropbox in the cloud. They may not be quite as secure, but that means the files are on my hard drive and in the cloud and automatically backed up between the two.

  • I <3 the Apple Time Capsule. I got one at home when one of the PIs I work with had his laptop stolen from his car, and lost less than 20 minutes worth of work because he just connected his new MacBook to the Time Capsule and all his files transferred onto it over his WiFi network. However, a friend of mine who runs a data recovery business keeps telling me I need off-site back-up as well, because any flood, fire or earthquake that destroys my laptop will most likely take out the Time Capsule too.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Before computers, while doing my dissertation, I made two copies of each day's data or writing. The original stayed at the lab, one copy went to my apartment, and the third copy stayed in the car. I have published at least one paper based on xeroxed copies of data.

  • "...the cost of the external and wireless drives is minimal compared to the cost of our data and the person time that goes into analyzing it."


  • FSGrad says:

    Is there a PC-compatible version of Time Capsule (which I assume doesn't work on PCs, though I certainly could be wrong)?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    The time capsule is compatible with PCs, you just can't back up a PC and a Mac on the same TC.

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