Digital Disasters: How You Can Avoid Losing Your Files

Digital disasters can be avoided with a little bit of caution and preemptive planning for data backups. Whether it's at home or at school, this article discusses plenty of options to keep your files and documents safe and secure.

File Security

How to Avoid a Digital Disaster

These days, 'the computer ate my homework' is about as credible an excuse as 'the dog ate my homework,' but it's a lot more likely to happen. Read on to learn how you can keep your files safe and avoid a serious digital disaster.

Why Back Up?

It's easy to get lulled into a false sense of computing security. Many people go for years without ever losing a file, and they start to think of their hard drives as perfectly secure places to store important documents. But there are a lot of things that can cause you to suddenly lose your files.

  • Viruses: Some of the more malicious computer viruses will actually erase the contents of your hard drive.
  • Hardware failure: Whether you spilled a drink on your computer or your logic board finally just gave up the ghost, a hardware failure can permanently separate you from your files.
  • Software failure: Ever find yourself in the middle of writing a paper when Word just crashed and burned? Auto-recover doesn't always work, and a really spectacular failure can even corrupt the saved version of the file.
  • Shared or public computers: Many students work on shared computers in their colleges' computer labs. While some institutions allow you to save on the local hard drive, most expect you to upload your files or save them to an external disc. You may find that when you log out, everything you were working on just disappears.
  • Human error: We may be only human, but no professor will give you an extension because you accidentally deleted your paper.

Avoid these and other digital disasters with the following simple tips.

Recursive File Back Up

Version 1.234

File security isn't just about backing up the master copy. It's also about protecting your edits and ideas by saving multiple versions.

Keep a separate documents folder on your computer for each long term assignment, like a paper or research project. Then every time you sit down to make any significant changes, save a new version of the file before you begin.

When you're saving, make sure you use a consistent file naming scheme. There are two easy ways to do this: You can use successive version numbers (like myfile1, myfile1.1, myfile1.2) or the date (like myfile11-5, myfile11-6, myfile11-7).

Safe Computing

Back That File Up

Now that you've saved a copy of every version of your important files, how do you keep them all safe? You'll want to back up a copy of everything in at least one place other than your hard drive. Most computer security professionals recommend that you make at least two separate back ups just in case. Here are some safe places to store your files.

External Media

Back in the old days, everyone backed up their files to floppy disks. Floppies have since been replaced by compact discs (CDs) and DVDs, which come in two types: Recordable (CD-R) and rewritable (CD-RW). Recordable discs are less expensive, but once you've burned one, you can no longer add or remove anything to or from the disc. Rewritable discs allow you to make multiple changes to the disc, but they cost more and aren't compatible with every computer. CD-RWs and DVD-RWs use a different optical drive then regular CDs and DVDs, so make sure that you check your computer's hardware specifications before purchasing a rewritable disc.

Discs in general do come with other disadvantages as well. Although they're relatively cheap individually, they don't have very much space and the cost of collecting them can add up. It can also be inconvenient to store a growing collection of discs, and they're very sensitive to dust, scratches and other forms of damage.

External hard drives are an increasingly popular alternative to discs. They cost more in the short run, but last much longer and can be reused ad infinitum.

There are two main types of external drives: Small USB drives, also known as thumb drives or USB keys, and portable external hard drives. USB drives have less space, but they're easy to carry around because they're typically about the size of your thumb (hence the name 'thumb drives'). Regular external hard drives typically have much more space, and they are becoming more and more portable. Newer solid state drives don't even need an external power supply - they draw power entirely through the USB connection.

School Storage

Many colleges and universities offer students limited storage space on their own Web servers. Typically, this means that you must be on campus to log in to the servers and upload your files, but some schools also offer remote log in. This is the ideal option for students working in school computer labs because most institutional computers will be set up to easily connect to the school's servers.

Online Storage

If you don't have access to your school's servers, or you want a solution that won't require you to move everything after you graduate, check out one of these popular online storage services. They all offer some storage space, and most allow you to pay to upgrade for more space and services.

Secure Computing

Auto or Manual

There's one last thing to think about when you're setting up your file back up system: Should you do it manually or automatically?

There are a couple of advantages to backing up your files manually. First, you can control exactly which files go where each time (this is a disadvantage for people who would rather just press 'go'). Second, you can do it whenever it's convenient for you. An automatic backup to an external hard drive can't run if you're not already plugged into your hard drive. Finally, it's free - most online storage services require users to pay for automatic back up services.

However, automatic back ups have one major advantage: They require minimal effort from the user. You don't have to remember to do it and you don't have to go in and select the files and folders to back up each time. If your habits are consistent, you can pick a time that your computer will always be on and connected to a drive or the Internet (many people choose the middle of the night) and just tell the back up service to go.

So what should you use to run the back up? People using online storage can pay for the automatic back up that comes with the storage service. If you're using an external hard drive, you can try the software that comes with the device, use your computer's native back up application (Time Machine on Macs and Back Up Utility on Windows) or just search the Web for one of the many third-party back up utilities.

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