Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, February 23, 2015

Back it all up -- The present cost of storage

In the last few days, I have had a number of conversations with genealogical researchers that caused me some alarm. They have been discussing various computer problems and when I ask about backups they seem confused at the question. There are some genealogical database programs that make automatic backup of data and some that even back up all of the "media" or attached documents and photos, but if you allow the program to "backup" the data and put the "backup file" on the same computer you are working on, there is no true backup. If the hard drive or operating system of your computer goes south, you will still lose all your data. This seems to be a particularly severe problem among genealogists who only work on their family history every so often. It is also a problem for researchers who are not very computer savvy, but can be a problem even for more experienced researchers.

There are different levels of possible data loss. Here is a list of ways you can lose your genealogical data.

  • You can fail to save you work as you go along. Many program save genealogical work as it is entered, but other types of work, such as word processing programs, spreadsheets and database programs may not have automatic save functions. As you work, you should periodically, say every hour or so, check to see that your work is saved. Here, I speak from a lot of experience. From time to time, I lose work when I click on the wrong button and delete a file rather than save it. 
  • The file you are working on can become corrupted. There is no way to identify the many different ways a file can get corrupted. This happens less frequently than my failure to properly save a file, but it does happen. It can happen if you are working online and there is a power failure, even for a brief period of time. 
  • You can suffer an operating system failure. There are a myriad of ways that the operating system of your computer can crash. Many crashes are seemingly random and do not re-occur. If your computer is crashing frequently, there is something fundamentally wrong and it is in danger of a permanent crash where all the data is lost.
  • Something physical happens to the computer. It is dropped or a power surge or lightning strike fries its circuits or dogs or children or whatever. This includes fires, floods, earthquakes, storms, tornados, etc. 
The list could go on and on, but you probably get the idea. Things can happen without notice and without you being able to prevent the crash. 

If you think about this list, you will see that there are two issues; one is damage to the way the computer works and the other is damage to the place where the computer is located. Depending on the type of damage, backing up the data may or may not work so well. 

If the damage comes because of a computer centered event, then you need to have the data stored on devices that are independent of the computer itself. Presently, there are several physical options: hard drives, flash drives and CDs or DVDs. The only sure way to prevent loss of data from physical destruction of the computer system is to store the information off-site. The best practice is to do both. 

Let's look at each of these backup methods and the cost.

The most common and cheapest way to back up your computer is to copy the data either automatically or manually to an external storage device. Here is a list of each of the available devices and their cost. First local storage attached to or created by your computer.

CD and/or DVDs
These devices are on their way out. Many computers sold today do not have a CD or DVD drive. The issue with these devices is two-fold. Many of the files we create today for images, including photos, document scans, downloaded files etc. are much larger than the capacity of these disks. The capacity of an average individual CD is about 700 MBs. This is not enough to store more than a few photos. My photos usually run about 50 MBs in size. DVDs vary from 4.7 GBs to 17 GBs. My current backup files comprise approximately 3.3 TBs or almost a thousand times more than one of these disks. The time involved in using CDs or DVDs for back up for me has long ago become impractical. If your files are much smaller, you can still consider this method of storage. But remember, the backups need to be regular and reflect the amount of work you would be upset to have to do over. 
CDs cost about $25 for 100.
DVDs cost about the same price for 4.7 GBs and 8.5 GBs storage capacity, higher capacity disks are harder to find.

Flash Drives
Solid state memory storage devices are now becoming more and more popular and therefore cheaper. There are also solid state hard drives with greater capacity. They are fast and reliable. The greatest danger in using smaller flash drives (also called thumb drives) is that they get lost easily. They are commonly sold now in sizes from 8 GBs up to 256 GBs. 
Lower capacity flash drives are given away as premiums. But to purchase a 2 GB drive costs about $2 to $5.
High capacity drives are about $30 for a 256 GB Drive. 
External Solid State Drives (SSD) are about $450 for a 1 TB drive.

Hard Drives
The prices for hand drives has been steadily falling. For very large files, they are the media of choice. A 1 TB drive will be more than adequate for most genealogists. If you have a lot of photos or videos, you can purchase drives with up to 6 TBs of storage. That is more than most people can comprehend unless you are storing a lot of movies or hundreds of thousands of photos. 
A 1 TB Hard Drive costs about $60.
A 4 TB Hard Drive runs about $120. You can see that the cost per TB drops considerably with a larger drive. 
A 6 TB Hard Drive is running about $250. The price per TB increases because the drives are not yet very popular. 

Offsite Storage
The simplest way to do offsite storage is to make a back up to a hard disk drive or other type and store the copies in an offsite safe location. I make copies of my files and give them to my children to store. This works well and then they have access to the data. If you can't depend on your children or they are too young, then another relative or friend might work. You have to remember to do this regularly.

Online Storage
If there is a natural disaster in your area, you may not have an Internet connection. But this is still another way of storing a large amount of data. You need to be very much aware of the Terms and Conditions of the online storage companies. Some of them will erase your data or lock it up, if you do not make the periodic payments. I have seen unlimited storage for a little as $5 a month. 

When making backups of your data, it is a good idea to take into account the time it takes to make a backup. I have an automatic backup system on my computer, Apple's Time Machine, and it works very well and keeps the computer backed up constantly. There are similar programs for Windows PCs. If I did a complete backup of all of my files, it would take two or three days to complete. A word to the wise. 

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