Amherst Bytes: The Great Big Server Farm in the Sky
By Dylan Herts
Over a hundred thousand hard disk drives crash each week in the United States, according to Mozy (an online storage provider). They take thousands of movies, millions of documents and billions of songs with them. Unless users risk illegal download services, it can cost hundreds of dollars to replace media collections, and even simple data recovery services start in the thousands of dollars.

Despite the costs risked, most students find it all too easy to dismiss drive failures and data corruption as a distant improbability. It happens to someone else, we convince ourselves, some gamer or careless web surfer who torrents movies, drops their laptop, and spills Vitaminwater on it. But Mozy has found that almost 31 percent of PC users have lost all their data to hard drive failure, and that number still excludes data lost from virus corruption and accidental deletions. Data loss happens more than we’d like to believe, and when it does, it’s ugly.

As an IT employee, I’ve had to tell people their data is gone. “Well,” I sigh with the same grave sorrow that I imagine emergency physicians learn, “it’s dead. We’ve done all we could do. Your hard drive lived a good life but it’s time to re-install the operating system and start again.” There are never tears at the death of a beloved drive, and some students are rather carefree about the loss, but it’s still a hassle and an unnecessary one at that.

External hard drives cost about 60 or 70 dollars these days. That’s a lot less than the cost of replacement for music, about a fifth of the cost of a budget laptop, and miniscule compared to the time spent on a thesis or research paper. And the backup software itself is free.

Thus, without any more sad tales of hard drive deaths, I present a quick three-step guide for data back up. Because it’s never easy when our hard drives die and go, as I like to think they all do, to the great big server farm in the sky.

1. Buy an external hard drive:

You’ll want to use Amazon or Newegg, both reputable online retailers with good pricing, strong customer service records and a large selection of external hard drives. The hard drive size you select will depend on how much of your stuff you want to keep backed up, but I recommend purchasing a drive at least the same size as your computer’s internal hard drive (ask a techie friend to find that value). Look for models from Western Digital or Samsung with a good warranty.

2. Set up your software:

If you have a Macintosh, this will be simple plug n’ play — the machine should ask whether you want to use the drive as a Time Machine Device. Otherwise, search “Time Machine” in Spotlight (hit Command+Space) and go to the preferences page. Select “On”, indicate your external hard drive as your backup, and you’re done.

If you have a Windows machine, you’ll want to download EASEUS Todo backup (consult Google) and follow the instructions to install. Select backup, schedule a cycle to run at 4:37 a.m. or some other ludicrous time when you’ll be asleep most nights, and you’re done.

3. Plug it in, plug it in:

Leave your drive plugged in when your computer is home. This part is key so that the machine makes regular copies for when stuff goes bad. Time Machine will make as many backups as it can until the drive is full, whereupon weekly snapshots will be deleted to make space for monthly ones. EASEUS will make mirror copies of your drive such that, in the event of failure, a technician or user can just duplicate the backup onto a new drive.

If and when your internal hard drive does die, contact the Amherst IT department for assistance. If and when you get a virus, contact the Amherst IT department for assistance. If your external hard drive bites the silicon, contact the manufacturer for a replacement. If both break at the same time, curse the universe, take a moment of silence for your drives and — as always — contact Amherst IT.

Issue 22, Submitted 2011-04-13 21:44:30