In Search of the Perfect Backup System
I often encourage photographers to backup their work. And this is one case where I actually followed my own advice. I thought I had the near perfect backup system, until I found out it wasn’t. But then, I didn’t lose anything, so maybe it was.
Normally when I return from a photo shoot, I download the images into my Lightroom catalog while simultaneously backing up the RAW captures onto an external hard drive. Thus at that point, I have three copies of each image – one on my normal hard drive, one on the external backup drive, and the original image on the memory card.
I subscribe to an online backup service called Backblaze. I have it configured to continually back up my hard drives, so within a few hours, the new images get backed up on-line – providing me with an off-site backup of my images. Thus, when I finally use the memory cards again ( btw, I re-format rather than erase when I put the card back in the camera), I again have three copies of the images – the original RAW files on the external drive, the working copy on the normal hard drive (potentially with Lightroom edits), and one off site at Backblaze (identical to the working copy, including the Lightroom edits – which of course are not really on the image, but stored separately with the Lightroom catalog file which is also backed up on Backblaze). My “normal” hard drives were kept in a small RAID system. So in addition to my off-site backup at Backblaze, if any particular hard drive fails, I have a full local back up (the RAID has 4 TB hard drives, configured to appear as three drives; the setup provides a full backup if one hard drive fails – how it works, backing up 3 TB of data in the space of 4 TB, I have no idea) . Thus I thought the perfect system – if a particular hard drive crashes, I’m covered; if my computer crashes, I’m covered; if my studio burns down, I’m covered.
So how is this not perfect? Well, instead of a hard drive failing, the partition file for the RAID system went bye-bye, kaupt, see-y0u-later, into the ether – that is, my computer didn’t recognize any of the three drives. So instead of losing one local hard drive, I was without the whole RAID. And, though my studio was still standing and the computer still working, I didn’t have access to any image files. Yes, they were still available on BackBlaze, but when was the last time you tried to download a terabyte-plus of data over the internet.
I had a friend check out the RAID system, and he was able to reconstruct the partition tables. However, he warned me that some files had been corrupted, he just couldn’t say which ones. Further, we don’t know why the partition tables failed in the first place, so the whole thing could happen again. So while I was back in business, I was working with a system that could fail again and held some unknown number of corrupted files.
To solve this situation, I ordered a full backup from Backblaze. For this size backup, rather than downloading the data, they send it on a hard drive. In my case, they sent a 3-TB USB3 hard drive. I didn’t have a USB3 card in the computer, but another friend had one he wasn’t using. I installed it, and plugged the new drive in, and I was totally back in business without any corrupt files and without the possibility of another RAID failure. For now, I’ve turned off the RAID and am planning to use the individual hard drives within it for local backups.
Overall, I guess my backup system did actually work, even when having a type of failure I had not anticipated. The only downside was the time it took to recover from the failure. Without a full local backup, I had to rely on my Backblaze copy. When looking to restore a few files from Backblaze, you can get them downloaded to your computer is a matter of minutes. When ordering a whole hard drive, it ended up taking about 10 days from the point of ordering it to receiving it at my doorstep via UPS. When I get around to dismantling the RAID and work its hard drives into my system, I should, in the future, have a full local backup as well leaving the Backblaze backup for truly bad emergencies (like a fire).
I am happy with BackBlaze; it worked well and is very cost competitive. The service costs $5 a month or less (if you buy one or two years of service) for an unlimited amount of data storage. Downloads of backed up files are free; for them to send a hard drive (as in my case), the cost is $189 – but that included shipping and the cost of the hard drive (the one they sent me lists for $129 on Amazon). My initial upload to Backblaze took about three weeks; but now, it updates daily without taking much time.
So no backup system may be perfect, but mine seems to have worked. If you don’t have a backup system, believe me, you are living on borrowed time.
Note on the featured photo: I wasn’t sure what to illustrate this post with. But when browsing through my Lightroom catalog, I found this shot of two baby mountain goats and thought it was perfect! Actually, had I lost everything, I wouldn’t have lost the original of this shot since it is from my film days. I still have the original slide available if I need to re-scan it. The shot was taken nine years ago at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park located just south of Tacoma near the town of Eatonville. Sure cute little guys, aren’t they?