Ask LH: What’s The Best Way To Back Up My Data For The Long Haul?

Ask LH: What’s The Best Way To Back Up My Data For The Long Haul?

Dear Lifehacker, I have some files that are very important to me, and I want to make sure they stay safe and secure forever. I don’t mean months or years, I mean decades — I want to make sure they’re in one piece to show my kids, my grandkids, their children and future generations. Do you have any suggestions for how I can back up my data so its safe for the long term?

Sincerely, Saving for Posterity

Dear Saving for Posterity,

This is a great question, and a bit of a tricky problem to solve. After all, forever is a really long time, and nothing will literally last forever, but there are some ways you can make sure your cherished memories are available to future generations. There are a few important things to consider when you’re talking about future-proofing data and keeping it safely backed up for years and years. Let’s get started.


Use Multiple (Reputable) Backup Services, Formats and Platforms

Virtually every type of backup method commonly in use today — even tape backups often used by large companies — are subject to media decay and the inevitable progress of technology. Your best defence is to make sure you back up your data in different methods and different formats.

Your Most Practical Option: Use a Cloud Backup Service
We’re big fans of backup service CrashPlan for our backup needs, and CrashPlan can back up your data to external media, to a cloud-hosted service, and even over the internet to another computer using CrashPlan, like a friend or family member.

Backing up to a service like CrashPlan is a great starting point, since CrashPlan holds onto all your files, even if you delete them — which is about as close to forever as you might expect.

If you’re seriously concerned with the long-term viability of your data, we’d suggest spreading your data across a combination of these things:

  • An external USB hard-drive will keep your data safe on a portable hard drive that you can toss into a fireproof safe or into your emergency kit, and it can be connected to your computer for regular incremental backups easily.
  • A cloud-based, hosted backup service, like CrashPlan, Dropbox or even Amazon S3, are necessary if you’re concerned about the long-term viability of your data. Select a company — or multiple companies — you’re comfortable with and that you think are reputable enough that they’ll be around for a long time. They may cost you more than a no-name backup service, but at least they won’t close their doors in a hurry one day and take all of your data with them.
  • A direct-to-friend backup or shared hard drives will make sure there are multiple copies of your data in the hands of trusted friends or family. After all, keeping backup copies in your home, and in the cloud are great, but if something happens to you, at least the people you trust will also have copies of your memories to pass along to the people you wanted to have them. Consider CrashPlan’s ability to back up to other computers over the internet, or just mail hard drives to your friends and family to make sure they get copies and keep them safe.
  • A small, USB flash drive ups the portability factor, although it diminishes the longevity, due to the limited write/re-write cycles you’ll get with most portable NAND flash media. Still, if you want a portable copy that goes anywhere on a drive you won’t be using for anything, it’s another redundant option.

Again, keeping your data in as many places and as many formats is going to be the key here. It’ll definitely cost you some money, but you don’t want to trust your data to just USB devices, or just internet-accessible services, or just traditional hard drives or just SSDs — you need a healthy mix of all of your available options.


Keep the Originals Safe and Distribute Duplicates

Finally, make sure you keep the originals, and any copies you’ve made and don’t need access to, somewhere safe. You could put them in a safe deposit box with your bank, or you can keep them in your own personal safe (although if something happens to your home, they may be lost). Again, this isn’t a replacement for distributed duplicates, just another tool in your toolkit. Photo by JvL.

Speaking of distributed duplicates, it’s important that you make sure you get duplicates of your data out to people you can trust, even if you don’t use some service to send your data to friends or family. Granted, even your closest family and friends may not want to be conscripted into updating your backups every couple of years, moving from USB to whatever technology will come next, and then the one after that. The important thing is that you and they will have copies of your data for the long term. Eventually, someone you’ve passed the data down to will either keep it up to date the way you did or decide they want to access it, which will force them to update it to the current technology of the day.

Cross Your Fingers

Of course, this approach will be best if you can get someone to take on the maintenance and upkeep responsibilities for you when you won’t be able to anymore. And since you mentioned handing the data down to your children and their children for posterity, that would make sense. After all, you won’t just be giving them memories, you’ll be giving them the responsibility for those memories — and if they cherish them as much as you clearly do, we don’t think they’ll have any objections making sure they’re safe for future generations.


Consider Future Technologies

Remember that nothing is future-proof. Asking for your backed up data to be good and usable forever is a tall order, and the best gear we have today will be obsolete in a few years, meaning you’ll have to update, change platforms, move your data around and more several times before your children or their children even see it, much less take on the job themselves. On top of that, you have to worry about the actual deterioration of whatever media you use to back up your data in the first place. Whether it’s a CD, or a USB flash drive, or a traditional spinning hard drive — they all have shelf lives that you’ll have to consider replacing and upgrading after even a few years. Photo by Tim Wilson.

Both of these factors can contribute to the obsolescence of your backup method in a short period, so your best bet is to diversify as much as possible and up the chance that one of the current mediums you use will make it easy for you to transfer the data to a new one later. In essence, you’re not just “backing up” your data once and locking it away. You should expect this to be an iterative process over time.


PS Do you have any other tips for Posterity? Any more long-term data storage and backup solutions or tips we may have missed? Let’s hear them in the comments below.

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    • I’m an archivist and would vote for the DVD – the best quality one you can get (i.e. not the 100 for $10 at th reject shop box). Even under the best conditions though these are not a forever option and you want to be careful about the document formats you use (so annoying to have a disc in good condition but be unable to access its contents because there are no programs left to read the documentsphotos.

      Anything with moving parts goes at the bottom of the list of ways to save your stuff – moving parts can go wrong in so many ways.

  • I’m doing my PhD and I recommend consulting your department to use your university’s own cloud or file storage programs. For me they keep the physical copy in a locked place, store all the data in an inaccessible folder (only accessible to my account) and they will follow procedures in the destruction of data after around 5 years.

  • “A small, USB flash drive ups the portability factor, although it diminishes the longevity, due to the limited write/re-write cycles you’ll get”

    With backups you’re not really worried about write cycles – Even if you rewrite the things once a day with fresh backups you’re looking at 30+ years. That means they’re less good for once-a-minute live backups but not too bad for sticking in a fireproof safe.

    I rely on the classic setup – raided drives, key data backed up to non-live media, and migrate to new drives every 3 or so years to reduce the chance of hardware failure.

  • There are other things to consider too…

    With DVDs there are “archival” versions that are purported to last 100 years. I highly doubt that figure, but at least you’ll get more than the usual from them. And does anyone really expect the DVD format to last 100 years? Macbook Air anyone?

    As well as the obvious question for Posterity: What kind of files do you have? Size does matter here for transfer practicalities and for format of storage (cost especially a factor here).

    And the other thing that has to be considered before you go with the suggested things in the article is to make sure you are using long-term file formats. Jpeg2000 is used by the Library of Congress in the US and by others for photos, not sure about video. PDFs have an archive open source format too I think?

  • since virtual computers are not likely to be a concept forgotten about in the future, storing the programs needed to read the files and the operating system it works on with it will go a long way to keeping the files accessible.

    if technology changes so much that the virtual machine will not run on the hardware there will always be emulators to do the job.

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