3-2-1 Backup Rule: Get Offsite

HBK11Render (1)In my previous blog post, I provided an excerpt from my new book Understanding Personal Data Security. It was about an element of data security that pertains to everyone, not just power users: Backup. Future blog posts will cover other areas of the book, including viruses and malware, centralized data storage, and strong passwords.

Also check out Personal Data Security: BackupsPersonal Data Security: NAS, and Personal Data Security: Password Basics.


As middle class consumers, we create, collect, consume, and archive a relatively massive amount of data. From our digital photos and high-resolution videos to our music collections and work or school documents, it all resides someplace. Smartphones, tablets, and laptops are the home of most of this data. More often than not, our personal bits and bytes are scattered across multiple devices. It’s typically a mess.

Which means that a solid backup scheme is even more important. Getting all that data archived on a reliable storage device and safely stored is a goal most consumers don’t achieve (or even attempt). Whether through ignorance or just plain laziness, the majority of us (yes, I’m talking about you) don’t have a current and complete backup of our personal data.

As in other areas of life, like dieting, exercise, or even homework, we need a routine. A system. A habit. For personal backup, this digital discipline is embodied in the 3-2-1 Backup Rule.

The 3-2-1 Backup Rule involves three simple steps that will help ensure the integrity and resiliency of your personal files:

  1. Maintain three copies of any important files (a primary and two backups).
  2. Store the backup files on two different media types (such as hard disk + optical media or Dropbox + hard disk) to protect against different types of hazards.
  3. Store one copy offsite.

First, let me make things even easier: You can forget about Step 2. It’s much more important that you focus on adhering to your backup schedule like a religious rite. Backing up digital data is like dieting: Everyone cheats. So instead of attempting to emulate an enterprise organization and worrying about different media types for your multiple backups, let’s step back and simply worry about creating your backups with regularity in the first place.

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Three copies? Why three copies, Curt? Isn’t backup about the main data and a backup copy—used to restore the main data if it becomes corrupted, accidentally deleted, or the device on which it’s stored craps the bed? Yes, at a high level, that’s the goal. However, the reality is that you must store a copy offsite. Get it the heck out of your house or office.

Why? Because the event that destroys your primary data could very likely also damage or destroy your backup copy. Have you or anyone you’ve known suffered flooding? How about a fire? What about theft? While less common, what about tornadoes, hurricanes, and typhoons?

During the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City, hundreds of businesses were severely compromised because their backup copies resided in the same location as their primary data. When buildings were severely damaged or even collapsed, both the primary and backup copies were destroyed. As a result, many of these businesses went bankrupt. One simple deficiency affected the jobs of thousands of Americans and service to millions of customers.

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Most consumers, when considering the backup of their personal data, erroneously think that offsite backup is only for enterprise organizations. It’s not. Offsite backup is essential for anyone. Fire, flooding, and theft is simply too common. And your personal data too precious.

Everyone creates or collects data at a different rate. Some people (like me) take photos or videos on nearly a daily basis. Most of us do so several times per week. Thus, the frequency of your backup schedule is subjective. But regardless of that schedule, you need to stay true to it. If our doctor said, “If you don’t stick to this diet, you’re going to die in a month,” most of us would stick to the diet. Likewise, if I told you that, if you don’t stick to your backup schedule, you’re virtually guaranteed to lose some or all of your valuable data, how would you respond?

When considering an offsite storage location, ensure that it’s far enough from your house that it won’t be affected by whatever takes out your primary data. Thus, a shed in your backyard isn’t an option. Neither is the glove box in your car that’s sitting in your garage or driveway. Consider a safety deposit box, your office or school, or the house of a friend or family member. But just get it the heck out of your house and out of your neighborhood.

However, don’t go so far offsite that it becomes difficult to maintain your offsite swap schedule. Assume you make a backup once a week. Thus, you would also need to take a copy to the offsite location once per week. If that site is three hours away at your parents’ house, it becomes impractical and simply won’t happen. Think practical. Think doable.

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Consider your lifestyle and personal habits. Don’t allow theory to overtake reality and craft a backup strategy to which you’ll never adhere. Remember: You have to maintain your backup scheme forever. Being diligent for only a few months and then gradually forgetting or getting lazy means you’ll still eventually lose data. It’s just the sad reality of how it works.

Surveys and studies reveal that 35-40% of Americans never—as in never—backup their data in any way. According to Pivotal IT, 140,000 computer hard drives fail every week in the United States, destroying data. Losing precious memories of loved ones or special events sucks (let alone tax records and work documents).

You may or may not suffer from OCD, but in the case of the backup of your personal data, you might want to start getting obsessed. If not, you’ll be crying in your beer because those kindergarten photos of your kids or that novel-in-progress just got sent to digital hell.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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