Computers are great when they work and a royal pain when they do not. Except for a few die-hard paper genealogists, most of the larger genealogical community has become dependent on electronic devices and that dependency seems to keep growing. It is not a question about "if" our computers and hard drives are going to crash, but when they will. We all have a tendency to think about the need to backup our data and keep our computers operating after they fail. As we draw to the end of yet another year of computing, let's act on our resolutions to backup our data.
My primary computer, an iMac, was built in late 2009. I have already had the internal hard drive fail and I can now tell that the main computer is starting to fail because of random errors and startup problems. Computers do not heal themselves. When they begin to fail the process is irreversible unless you make repairs or switch out components like I did with my main internal hard drive. When something begins to act strange and suddenly fails, the money involved is only one consideration. In many cases, I will spend days recovering from a problem. Most recently, one of my external hard drives had a problem and I ordered in a new backup drive. I will probably spend a great deal of time transferring my files to the new drive.
I backup my iMac to an external hard drive with an automatic program from Apple called Time Machine. The program backs up my entire internal hard drive which is presently 2 TB in size about every half hour. From time to time, I have to make sure that the Time Machine program and the hard drive are operating, but when my main internal hard drive crashed, I was able to completely restore the data. Of course, as I mentioned, this took a couple of days to sort out. I also lose most of my automatic connections to the Internet, so I have to have a good storage place for all my passwords because I have to re-enter them all.
Windows based computers also have an automatic backup function. You can learn about it from a Microsoft article called, "Back up your files." There are also a huge number of commercial online services and programs that will backup your files. The key here is the difference between a "backup" and a mirror image of your computer. Copying files to a flash drive, for example, does not back up your programs or your operating system. These computer backup programs such as Time Machine and Windows Backup, will restore your entire computer system, even if you buy a new computer.
This brings up a another issue: upgrades. Greeting your computer can seem like a bothersome task. Additionally, one of the side effects of operating your computers operating system can be that some of the programs may not operate correctly or all. If you are still using a very old operating system, and suddenly decide to upgrade to the most recent versions of either Apple or Microsoft's operating system you may be in for a rude surprise. You may find that the versions of the programs you're running on your computer are incompatible with the newest operating systems and by upgrading to a new operating system you may be forced to upgrade several programs. This can be quite expensive. Whenever you upgrade to a new computer, unless you have been running the latest operating system on your older computer, one of the largest expenses can be upgrading the programs in addition to the cost of the computer. In fact, upgrading programs can cost more than the computer.
When you install and upgrade you may find that your computer does not run as well as it did before the upgrade. The upgrade may highlight some of the problems that you were previously unaware of. However, you cannot stick your head in the sand and ignore upgrades with out ultimately paying the price. I fear that some of us believe that our computers will outlive us and we decide to pass on the upgrades to our posterity. By doing this we run the risk of losing all the data we've accumulated.
Another aspect of this problem is the intentional or unintentional computer hoarder. These people keep every file, every email, and every installation file on their computer. I saw a classic example of this the other day when I was helping someone with a problem with their computer and saw that their desktop was completely covered with icons. I really don't like to get involved in this type of situation because they cannot make a judgment about what to keep and what not to keep. But this inevitably ends up with the hard drive becoming full and causing a crisis which usually involves a loss of data. If you do not know whether or not a file is worth preserving, I suggest asking someone for help.
In my case, email can be a big problem. I can receive more than 200 emails in one day. My email program is set up so that all my email goes directly to the trash and only those emails that I want to preserve are ultimately filed away for archive purposes. Everything else gets erased permanently. I do not recommend this procedure to anyone, but it is one way to come to grips with a flood of spam emails. By the way, if you are getting a lot of unsolicited and unwanted email ask for help in setting up an adequate filter and be sure and empty your trash from time to time.
If you happen to have little children in your household I would strongly recommend having your computer require a password for any access at all. I would also not tell the children the password. You only have to have a small child playfully drag all of your files to the trash one time for you to see the need to do this. If you really want to have your children or grandchildren have access to a computer let them use one other than your main working computer. If you are sharing a computer with older children, I would suggest setting up individual partitions that are password-protected. However I would always have access to the children's partitions.
There are a lot of other backup considerations including the possibility of some physical disaster such as a flood, fire or whatever. In these cases, the only solution is to have a method of off-site data preservation. This can be done online or through physically moving a hard disk to an alternative location. It may seem obvious but backing up to online storage requires an Internet connection. If there is a natural disaster with larger impact your connection to the Internet may be down for an extended period of time. You should always take all of these eventualities into consideration.
I feel like there is never enough that it can be said about backups. I learned my lesson years ago and continue to learn my lesson each time I have a software or hardware crash. I hope you can learn your lesson before you lose your data.