Your Backups and the Zombie Apocalypse

Are you worried about losing your data? You should be, because if your data is anything like mine, it has a nasty habit of disappearing or getting corrupted. Here are five solutions you might want to consider, beginning with a simple one that will protect you against the bookworms coming for your dead trees, and ending with a relatively complex one that will help protect your data against the impending zombie apocalypse.


1. Bookworm Apocalypse Plan (Cost=$0〜)

Analog folks have to backup their stuff too. You wouldn’t want a bookworm to come along in a hundred years and ruin your notes! The backup solution for dead trees is easy:

  1. Write everything down on paper.
  2. Use your phone (assuming you have one) to photograph the pages.
  3. Upload the photos to Evernote.

Now you have two backups — one hard copy in your hands and one digital copy in the cloud. All you need to purchase is a paper and a pen, because Evernote is free. Here are some suggestions for getting the most out of Evernote in this process. At this time, the encryption options are quite limited on Evernote, but improvements have been promised.


2. Misfortune Plan (Cost=$0〜)

Digital or analog, you never know when you might encounter theft, fire, flood, or some other misfortunes. Analog folks who follow my advice above already have their data safe and sound in the cloud. In addition to Evernote, an easy way for people with digital data to protect themselves is to use a cloud service like Dropbox or (for the security-conscious) SpiderOak. Both of them offer free storage space.

Setting up your cloud account is painless:

  1. Sign up for a free account.
  2. Install the software.
  3. Move your data into the designated folder.

The screenshot below shows my data inside the SpiderOak “Hive” folder (this folder is analogous to the Google Drive or Dropbox folders). I explain more about the organization below in the fifth section of this post.


In my opinion, you ought to be careful what you put into the cloud, and encrypt as much of it as you can. There are ways to manage this with Dropbox, but I strongly recommend SpiderOak, because it will keep your data private and secure without the fuss. This is where I put all of my files. Educators and students (with an .edu email address) can receive 50% off subscriptions to SpiderOak, and there are frequent discount codes: “FREEDOM4” this month gets you 6 GB of space.


Relying on the cloud is fine if you only have a few gigabytes of data, or if you are comfortable depending on a third party to manage your data, but to protect yourself against unforeseen disasters, you’ll want something a little more robust.

3. Disaster Plan (Cost=$75〜)

In addition to the cloud backup, if you have an external hard drive then you can ensure that even when data is hacked, lost, or corrupted you have an extra copy of the original files on hand just in case.

time machine

Mac users can get this system going in just a few seconds:

  1. Purchase an external hard drive about twice the size of your computer’s hard drive. Assuming you have 500 GB of storage in your computer, then get a 1 TB external hard drive and use that for backups. The Seagate drive will only set you back about $75. In the screenshot above for my drive that I started using back on June 15, you can see that I still have 400 GB of space left for backups.
  2. For Mac users, Time Machine is the simplest solution. All you do is plug in the drive every day at least once and you have your backups. Time Machine will do the rest for you.

Of course, you’ll want to encrypt your external hard drives, and Apple makes this a snap as well. While you are at it, don’t forget to encrypt your computer’s hard drive. Again, Mac folks have it easy with the free FileVault included in their operating system.

By this time, you probably have a bunch of passwords on post-it notes stuck all over your computer. You might want to take this opportunity to look into a password manager like LastPass.

4. Murphy’s Law Plan (Cost=$150〜)

Imagine that you have everything backed up onto the cloud and backed up onto an external hard drive. That means you have three copies of your data (computer, external hard drive, cloud servers), and you ought to be safe, right? That’s what Matt Honan thought, but he was wrong. Of course, if he had saved complete copies of his data onto his external drive he might have survived the hacker’s attack, but we all make mistakes, and I feel more comfortable with some redundancy to protect me from myself and others.


The setup in my office is pretty simple, and probably not unlike what other educators have: a desktop computer for work, a laptop I carry to work from home, and an iPad. In a case like this, you will want to have one Time Machine hard drive at the office and another at home. Even if hackers manage to erase everything on your iPad, computer, the cloud (this happened to Matt), and your house burns down on the day they do it, you’ll still be OK, because you have a copy of the data in your office. This is probably overkill for most people, but redundancy never hurts, and it will only set you back about $150.

5. Zombie Apocalypse Plan (Cost=$375〜)

I have about 2 TB of data that I have accumulated over the years and my Macbook Pro can’t hold it all. All of my data won’t fit onto any reasonably priced cloud service (and wouldn’t be easily accessible even if it did), and it won’t fit into my Mac to get saved through Time Machine, so I have to invest a little more effort into my backups. I justify it to myself by figuring that I am paying for the peace of mind.

The process below might look complicated, but it really is not. Thanks to Thunderbolt technology, when I show up at work in the morning, I just plug one cable into my computer (my archived data in one drive and Time Machine data in another are daisy chained together through Thunderbolt), and Time Machine does its thing. The only extra effort I have to make here is to bring in an external drive once a month to move files.

If this seems like too much hassle, you might want to consider a RAID (redundant array of independent disks) system, which will automate your backups. I’ve heard good things about LaCie, but I haven’t used it myself. Personally, I am pretty comfortable with the system I have right now, because it has been working pretty well for a couple of years now. I’ll post my thoughts on RAID if I ever give it a try.

  1. Purchase four external hard drives
  2. Put all of your data into one of the big drives.
    • I call this drive “A.” You can organize this however you would like, but I recommend thinking of it as an archive or repository. Keep your “working” files on your laptop or work computer inside the folder you have synced to your online backup service. If you made no changes at all to your old archived files, you could conceivably simplify the process explained below by just transferring one folder of data every month from your computer to your other drives at home.
    • Ideally, at the beginning of every month I create a new folder (for example, this month’s is called 131101) and copy forward all of my working files such as sub-folders for the classes I am teaching. The rest of them get cut and pasted all together into drive A (in this example, they are in the 131001 folder, which I removed from my computer and put into drive A at the beginning of November when I create the 131101 folder). In my case, the redundant data created in the process (working files that keep getting copied forward month to month) is less than a gigabyte per month, so it is insignificant. Incidentally, the manually created version of my data provides yet another layer of backup.
    • The screenshot below shows how this system looks on my computer. This month, because I generated a lot of data in the first couple weeks of the month, I backed up everything on 131117 and that day I created a second folder for the month called “131117.” This folder is located inside of my SpiderOak “Hive” folder. The second and third sub-folders shown are for the two courses I am teaching this semester. These have been copied forward since August (growing larger and larger each month), and they will be copied forward again one more time at the beginning of December (fall courses end in December).
  3. Copy the data from the first big drive (A) to the other two (B and C).
    • Keep the first drive in your office and take the other two home. These are your “the (office/house) just (burned down/got flooded/was attacked by zombies)” drives. Other people have long recommended doing the same thing; namely, having your data backed up in more than one physical location.
    • You’ll save your working files to drive A at the end of every month, bring drive B into the office, and copy the contents of drive A onto drive B. Even if disaster strikes your office at that exact moment, you’ll lose three drives and a computer at once (!), but your “working” files are safe on the cloud, and you have a copy of your archive at home in drive C. Next month, you’ll repeat the process, but instead of drive B, you’ll bring drive C into the office. Alternatively, you could rotate through all three by switching out drive A for B, B for C, and C for A each month.
  4. Plug in your smaller drive and use it as a Time Machine backup.
    • Although you may be using drive A as your archive, that probably only receives files once in a while (think of Matt Honan’s story) and if you are working on files saved to your cloud service provider, then a problem on that end will wipe out the data on your computer as well. The Time Machine backup will take a snapshot of changes on your computer every hour, so there is only a small window during which data could be lost. In the event of a problem on your end, you have your working files in the cloud folder (and two archived copies of data at home), so the copy of your working files on the cloud provider’s servers will make sure you don’t lose anything.

Why Isn’t My System 100% Effective?

You might think my carefully crafted zombie protection plan would prevent data loss, but sometimes data still finds a way to escape! The culprit is my iPad. For some reason beyond my comprehension, Apple decided to design iOS without a regular file directory, no persistent saving of data, and very few ways of getting data in and out of the device. I think the designers imagined a fairytale land in which apps always performed properly, iPad users would be connected to the Internet at all times, and their devices would be constantly backed up to the cloud through Apple’s iCloud service. Unfortunately, I don’t live in that world.


The solution on the iPad turns out to be pretty simple. If you are using Pages (for example), duplicate your documents every so often. The iPad will save the new document to iCloud right away if you are connected to the Internet, and if you are not connected, you will have created a kind of manual backup in case your original document runs into some kind of problem (if you accidentally delete a paragraph or something like that). You don’t have to do this for everything, of course, but I would do it for the important stuff. I’ve had iCloud lose my data, and I’ve had the formatting on my dissertation ruined by Pages — there is no way to go back and fix it, and no Time Machine backup. The duplicate copies saved me a lot of headaches, and they only took a few seconds to generate each time.

If you are using a program like Evernote, the process is similar to the one used for Pages, except you cannot duplicate notes. In this case, you select all, copy, create a new note, paste in the data, go back to the original note, and continue writing. Again, you shouldn’t do this for every note, but when attending an important lecture or meeting, doing this will give you peace of mind, especially if you are working offline and so cannot sync right away with the cloud. When the notes do sync, they will have different note histories, so even if an old version of the note syncs over the one you are editing (this has been known to happen in the past), you have an entirely separate note that is free from this issue.

Looking for More Information on Backups?

Check out these excellent discussions of backups: why you should have them and how to go about setting up a backup routine.