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Artwork by Patrick DolanMore Information

How's your Safety Net?

"Where's the Any key?"

It’s both a huge advantage and a massive drawback of the creative industries that the majority of your work will never be embodied in the physical realm. It exists only in that ethereal digital space; in the flow of binary ones and zeroes transient as vapour, and, in the worst case scenario, journeying down into the digital world to retrieve that work can be every bit as torturous and unfulfilling as Orpheus’ trip into Hades. Unfortunately, that’s the recent experience of a colleague of mine who shall remain nameless, and who is the motivation behind this post.

When it works, we all know how fantastic it can be. Drilling down into designs and documents, pulling open old work and new, without having to fetch anything from the archives and without even having to leave your desk. It’s empowering, it’s so much better than the real-world equivalent, and it’s exactly why computers have become so ubiquitous.

When it doesn’t work, it’s nightmarish. There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get when you’ve worked at something for hours – days even – only for that beautiful creative spark to be neatly snuffed out by something as simple as a power cut or cup of tea spilled in the wrong place. Whilst we can all have this experience, curse our luck and get back to work, the real danger lies in complacency once we think that work is all neatly stored in a safe place.

Disclaimer – I used to work as a data storage consultant, so I’m pretty paranoid about storage and backup. That doesn’t make this any less true, of course…

When you’re finished with a project, do you archive it off, stick it on an external drive and put it on the shelf, perhaps? Or burn it onto CD and file it away? Even worse, do you leave it on the hard drive of your laptop, assured by the sheer size of that drive? If any of these scenarios look familiar, please start sweating nervously now. Your data is at real risk.

How might I lose thee? Let me count thy ways:

  • Firstly, external storage is not a backup. By its very nature, a backup is a duplicate, a redundant copy to be brought out when the primary location fails. Have you got your stuff in two places? I hope so.
  • Think about the size of hard drives now. 1TB? 2TB? It’s fantastic that this amount of storage is this cheap. But how long does it take you to fill one of these disks? A year? Six months? What happens if it’s stolen, or destroyed?
  • Even worse, what if it just fails? A hard drive is like a record deck inside. It has a series of spinning platters stacked up together, onto which a mechanical arm reads and writes magnetic stripes in the same way the needle on a deck would read the pitted groove of a record. Sometimes, they just break, with no warning, no rhyme nor reason. Could your business recover if that data pinged out of existence?
  • CDs and DVDs are safe though, aren’t they? After all, you can hold it in your hand; an inert, timeless reproduction of all that work. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. Unless you’re using archival rated CD-Rs or DVD+Rs, you can expect a lifespan of anywhere between five to fifteen years, after which the discs degrade, and so does your data.

By now I hope you’re shifting uncomfortably in your chair, because it’s better to get worried beforehand and fix the problem, than to promise to retrieve some old work for a client only to discover an unpleasant burning smell emanating from your hard drive.

So what do you do now?

As with all technology, there are now a million ways to tackle the same problem. You could invest in archival quality CD-Rs and DVD+Rs and store them in a dark place sealed against any contamination. If you need access to your work regularly, you could buy two external hard drives, and mirror the contents from one to another. You could buy a NAS (Network Attached Storage – an external drive that plugs in to your router and copies data over ethernet) with several hard drives in it to do your data mirroring for you.

Of course, you’re still at risk of fire, flood, theft, electrical surges etc, if all your data is stored in the same location. The most recent development to mitigate this risk is cloud backup. Cloud, in this instance, refers to servers on the internet that you copy your data to. ┬áIt’s a great idea, since it’ll save you from anything that could happen to your local storage, but it might not be as fast as you need it to be – certainly, if you work with a lot of large files, you can expect to spend an age uploading all your work.

It’s a tricky area, secure data backup, and one which this article doesn’t have the scope to cover effectively. If you’re interested, worried, panicking, etc – as ever, Google is your friend, but here are some places you might like to start. Choosing archival media, Amazon’s cloud storage offering, How to choose a NAS.

What do you do with your data? If you have a sure-fire-thing to share, let us know in the comments below.