The world’s simplest computer crash recovery plan

January 21, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Business Smarts 

copywriter computer crashHow much of your life is on your computer? What would happen if it all just … vanished? Email, documents, photos, financial records, address book, samples, soft rock from the 70s, everything.


Scary isn’t it? I know because it happened to me.

A few years ago, my computer crashed in the middle of a busy week and it almost destroyed my business. I had a backup of my data, but it wasn’t up-to-date because I was always too busy or too lazy to do regular backups.

So I lost weeks of work, including paying projects worth thousands. And since all my contact data was on my computer, I couldn’t even call clients to tell them what happened.

Talk about a nightmare! This is the very definition of scared straight.

I saw the error of my ways and decided this was never, EVER going to happen again. Oh, I might have another crash. But I would never again sit in my office helplessly staring at a dead computer.

My experience inspired me to devise a computer disaster recovery plan. So that no matter what might happen to my computer – virus, hard disk failure, power surge, theft, software corruption, fire, flood, meteor strike, zombies, anything – I’ll be able to recover in hours rather than days or weeks.

And the real beauty is that my plan is totally automatic. You set it and forget it. You don’t ever have to think about backups or spend a second worrying about the safety of years of personal and business data.

What’s involved? One simple text file on your computer desktop and a tiny little program that works quietly around the clock backing up your data online to a remote location. Perfect for busy, or lazy, people.

Why most computer backup methods are not reliable.

There are lots of ways to back up your computer files, including floppy disks (does anyone still use those?), tape drives, zip drives, CDs, data sticks, and external hard drives. I’ve used them all.

But they all have four serious flaws.

First, they depend on YOU. You have to schedule time to do the backups and keep doing them day after day, month after month. If you get busy or forget, and you will, all your data is at risk.

Second, they’re all “on-site.” If something happens in your office, your data is gone along with everything else.

Third, they are all “things” that can break. I’ve had floppy disks jam and tape drives break in mid-backup. CDs can get scratched or melt. External drives can fail just like any hard drive.

Fourth, they only allow you to backup a set amount of data. Once you reach the limit, that’s it.

The answer? Automatic online backups.

If you really want to keep your files secure, forget about all the usual backup strategies. You have to back up all the time and keep the data off-site. Big businesses have always done this, but it has been prohibitively difficult and expensive for the rest of us until recently. Now there are a variety of services that are easy and cheap.

Most online backup services work in similar ways. You buy a subscription, install a small program on your computer, and the software backs up your data over the Internet to a remote location. If you ever need to restore any lost data, you select the files you want and they’re reinstalled on your computer.

Unfortunately, most online backup services are more complicated than they should be. Two of the simplest and most popular are Carbonite and Mozy.

Both have their fans. I tried Mozy first after reading several positive reviews, but I couldn’t get it to work on my computer. Technical support was no help. They spent a week working on whatever the problem was, but I gave up and gave Carbonite a shot.

And I’m glad. Carbonite is mercifully simple. You don’t have to start it up or set anything. There’s nothing to learn. Once you’ve installed it, which takes all of 2 minutes, it works in the background looking for new and changed files to back up.

If there’s one negative, it’s that your initial backup will take a while. Carbonite will back up about 3 or 4 gigabytes per day on a home broadband connection. I had about 16 gigs to back up and it took 4 days. But then this is true for most other services of this kind. (I now have over 40 gigs backed up.)

Carbonite compensates for this by giving you unlimited backup space. I mean that literally. There is no limit to how much you can back up. Theoretically, if you have a thousand gigs of data, you can back it up with no extra cost.

The first backup creates what amounts to a duplicate of your hard disk, folder by folder and file by file. After that, Carbonite runs quietly in the background. Every time you load, create, or change a document, the utility automatically backs it up. You don’t have to do anything. It’s all automatic.

By default, Carbonite backs up everything in the “Documents and Settings” folder if you’re using Windows XP or the “Users” folder if you’re on Vista. This includes most of the stuff you’d want to save, such as your documents, desktop contents, most of your program settings, email data, browser settings and bookmarks, pictures, music, videos, downloaded files, etc. However, you can select anything for backup. You just click on a file or folder to tell Carbonite to back it up and keep it backed up.

One unique feature: In Windows Explorer (your file folders), Carbonite inserts a little green dot on each file or folder that is backed up. An orange dot means the file or folder is waiting for backup. This lets you tell at a glance what is backed up and what isn’t. Those little green dots give me a lot of comfort since I can see my files are protected.

If anything happens, all you do is log into your Carbonite account online with any browser, select the files you want to restore, and they’re all put back where they belong. Simple as that. Even if the worst happens and you lose your whole computer, you can retrieve everything with a new computer once you start it up and get online.

The secret of my disaster recovery plan: one little document.

My own computer crash taught me something important. Even if you have a reliable backup, there’s a lot you’ll lose if your computer fails, such as the “keys” to reinstall programs, phone numbers for technical support, information to reconnect to your Internet service provider, passwords for websites and services, and lots of other little things you take for granted when everything is working right.

So I created an “open text” document with all this information and saved it to my desktop. You could use Word or some other program, but I wanted a format that I could open with any software. I included:

  • Computer model and operating system
  • Internet service provider information
  • The “key code” for my wireless network
  • Phone number for ISP technical support
  • Email customer number, password, and support number
  • Incoming and outgoing mail server for setting up an email program
  • Web address to access Web mail
  • A complete list of my programs
  • Program registration keys, serial numbers, and passwords
  • A list of online tools and service subscriptions
  • Website and blog user names and passwords
  • WordPress plugins for my blog
  • Affiliate user names and passwords

It takes a while to compile this information, but you only have to do it once. Then add information to it whenever you install a new program, create a new password, sign up for a new service, etc. Depending on how thorough you are, you’ll need from 2 to 8 pages.

Here’s the cool part. When you save this little file on your computer desktop, it becomes part of your automatic backup. So no matter what happens to your computer, everything you need to get your system, programs, email, and services up and running again is ready and waiting.

The only thing you’ll need to commit to memory is the password for your online backup service. With that and a browser, you’re golden.

Do these three things ASAP.

1. Do a search for online backup services and try one. Most offer a free trial, including Carbonite. Last time I checked, Carbonite was $54.95 a year. Mozy was $54.45 a year. I think Carbonite is simpler (and I like those little dots on the files), but look at both.

2. Start compiling that recovery document. Yes, it’s going to be a pain. Yes, you have better things to do. But do it anyway. Without it, you face a world of hurt if something bad happens.

3. Share this article with everyone you know. Tweet it. Post it to Facebook. Stumble it. Digg it. Get it out there. Because I don’t want any copywriter to go through what I went through. Well, maybe a couple.

I had to buy a new computer, install every program from scratch, import an old backup, and make lots of calls to customer support for half a dozen programs. And some things I just lost forever. My clients understood, but they weren’t happy.

I’m asking you to eat your spinach here. But someday, you’ll thank me.

Related posts:

  1. Computer meltdown: 5 lessons for copywriters

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Smart Comments

12 Comments on The world’s simplest computer crash recovery plan

  1. Lorraine on Jan 21st, 2010 9:51 am
  2. Thanks for a crucial reminder about data back-up–and great disaster management plan.

    Nothing is more calamitous for the digitally dependent than a computer crash.

    After my own catastrophe I started using Mozy plus an external hard drive that I try to remember–w limited success–to backup regularly.

    Your detailed list is fantastic. I started a similar list–far less comprehensive than yours–and save it on Evergreen and Backpack so I can get to it from any computer. Will use your list to complete my own. : >
    .-= Lorraine’s last blog … Hire an Expensive Copywriter—and Start Saving Money =-.

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lorraine Thompson, Dean Rieck. Dean Rieck said: The world’s simplest computer crash recovery plan: How much of your life is on your computer… [...]

  3. Dean Rieck on Jan 21st, 2010 10:00 am
  4. Lorraine:
    What is Evergreen?

  5. Lorraine on Jan 21st, 2010 10:10 am
  6. Sorry, brain freeze clearly set in. I meant Evernote–I use this free software app for just about all organizational tasks: daily to-do, important lists, swipe file, bookmarks, saved tweets, etc.
    .-= Lorraine’s last blog … Hire an Expensive Copywriter—and Start Saving Money =-.

  7. James Chartrand - Men with Pens on Jan 21st, 2010 10:53 am
  8. I so hear you on this one. I’m pretty good with backups. I have disks, an external drive, flash drives… So one day I got cocky and thought, “Time to wipe my computer nice and clean. Let’s reformat.”

    Now, I know how to do this. Back up everything, get a doc of passwords, etc, and go. One shiny new computer. And when I went to unzip my backup to get the goods that I needed?

    Corrupt. 9 months of digital life, gone.

    So I got smart. I got Dropbox and didn’t skimp on the small package. I set it up so that EVERYTHING syncs up automatically without me having to remember. (Put your My Documents folder into Dropbox, period.)

    Then I got Lastpass. Free. And all my passwords are now online, secure and forever mine.

    Then I got Diigo. Free. No more lost bookmarks, ever. And I can import them back into Firefox if I want.

    And I use Gmail, all the time, so all my email is fully online.

    I am one digital rockstar now, man. Crash away.
    .-= James Chartrand – Men with Pens’s last blog … The Princess Bride Guide to Copywriting =-.

  9. Dean Rieck on Jan 21st, 2010 12:22 pm
  10. James:
    Oh, sweet. I’ll have to check out some of those tools. Dropbox looks especially cool. I solved the password problem by using a pass phrase. It’s a sentence that only I know (mwahahahaha) and then a bit at the end for each online service I use. So I can remember all of them instantly. As for bookmarks, I use Xmarks which syncs my laptop and desktop.

  11. BrianJUY on Jan 23rd, 2010 6:46 am
  12. Dean… I’ve felt your pain. My wife got me a MacBook for Christmas 08… On Jan 18th 09 I got “the white screen of death”… I took it in to the Mac Store and they said it was because of corrosion so it wasn’t covered… that computer was brand new and I treated it like gold (jackholes)…

    Because I already transferred everything from my PC to MacBook, wiped my PC clean and sold it… I had to buy another computer… I went ahead and got another Mac… and I bought a Mac Time Capsule (1TB)… It backs up everything on the hour every hour… and it’s an outstanding wireless router too… Then I went ahead and hooked up a 1TB HD just to make sure I had enough memory… The cool part is, it also works with PC…

    It’s just another option for people who have trust issues with using online services.
    .-= BrianJUY’s last blog … Top Secret Way of Getting High Quality Authoritative Backlinks =-.

  13. John Tucker on Feb 15th, 2010 4:21 pm
  14. Backing up is so important. I get called by people all the time that have no backups and have just had their hard drive fail. People lose so much yet it is so easy now to have a backup plan. Both of the service you mentioned are good, although I tend to favour Mozy for the simple reason that they offer DVD/HD restores. The more ways you have to get your data back the better and the option to be able to order a DVD/HD restore is a much better option if you have a large restore that you need to do.
    .-= John Tucker’s last blog … Mozy Valentines Special =-.

    [...] – James at Men With Pens turned me onto DropBox when I wrote about creating a computer recovery plan. This is a cool little application where you can drop any file and have it instantly backup online. [...]

    [...] glass-is-half-full fashion, Sally wrote a fantastic post about it. This is a nice sister post to my computer crash recovery plan I wrote about in [...]

  15. Bradlee TheDawg on Oct 6th, 2010 1:09 am
  16. I actually wrote and published this same piece… a dozen years ago. No online backups back then, but the text file part is identical. Glad you came to the same realization.

    BTW- Mozy also puts dots on your files. I use both of them, and here’s the difference. Carbonite is much simpler to use day-to-day… but it is a nightmare to restore files from, unless you’re doing an exact replica of what you lose. If you want to selectively restore just one or two folders – you can, but it’s a huge hassle. Mozy is less transparent (more like a regular “scheduled” back-up service… but the restore routines are much more user-friendly. Pick your poison, they’ll both get the job done. A third option is a little more money but much more flexible than either Mozy or Carbonite. Instead of just backing up – it syncs files between multiple computers and you can actually work with the online versions day-to-day. It’s my new favorite by a mile.

  17. Dean Rieck on Oct 6th, 2010 10:11 am
  18. Bradlee,
    I’ve restored from Carbonite with no hassle at all. Not sure what sort of backup or restore would *not* be an exact replica of what you lose. That’s the definition of a backup, an exact copy of your files.