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The 3-2-1 backup concept: A conversation with myself

For the past several years, I’ve been writing, teaching and consulting on the 3-2-1 Backup Concept. The concept is simple — 3 copies of your data: 2 stored locally, 1 stored offsite preferable a cloud service like Backblaze or CrashPlan. It’s a simple concept that works until it’s modified. That got me thinking. If it works, why do some photographers insist on modifying it? That sparked a conversation I had with myself. I’m going to inject a little humor to help explain the 3-2-1 concept so you will never have to worry about losing your data or spend hours, not to mention a whole lot of dollars, rebuilding a hard drive again. Here’s how the conversation went with myself…

Think problem, outcome, and solution

Self-talk: “Let’s start with a disaster scenario: In the middle of a major deadline, a hard drive fails with no hope of recovering the data. Next, think of the desired outcome. I want to be up and running with little to no downtime.”

Me: Sounds good, what’s the solution to this problem.”

Self-talk: “Start with two identical copies of your data bit for bit. That will allow you to swap the bad drive with the second drive.”

Me: “Okay, so my second drive is my backup drive, right?”

Self-talk: “I intentionally stayed away from calling the second drive a backup drive. You are not backing up the drive, you are mirroring the drive. Data on drive A is identical to data on drive B. This is why you can get right back to work without having to stop and think which files are outdated or in different directories. SyncBack Pro for Windows and Carbon Copy Cloner for Mac are inexpensive solutions with lots of great options. Reference “Building a Bulletproof Backup System” on how to set this up.”

Me: “Gotcha

Don’t modify 3-2-1 backup

Me: “Instead of having a third copy of my data stored offsite using a cloud service, can I modify the 3-2-1 Backup concept by storing a third copy at my home or someplace local?”

Self-talk: “Your intention is to back up the third copy weekly, settling for your data to be a week out of date. Each time you transport the drive, your data is at risk of being lost, stolen or damaged plus all three copies will be in one location when backing up. If a major disaster strikes — fire, theft, hurricanes — you lose everything. Stick to storing the third copy offsite in the cloud.”

*An exception to this rule: very poor or no internet connection at all. In this rare case, use a portable drive to back up your data then take that drive offsite and back it up to a cloud service. The portable drive is acting like a transport drive. If something happens to it during transporting, you still have the copy on your cloud service and on the two drives at your studio.

If three copies are good four or more is even better, right?

Me: “If three copies of my data is good, then having four or five copies scattered across multiple drives is even better right?”

Self-talk: “No! This is NOT the true 3-2-1 Concept. Thankfully, the data is backed up; but it’s not helping you get back to work quickly. The problem: the local drives are not an identical bit for bit copy of the working drive. The backups are spanned all over different external hard drives. This gets too complicated and confusing — not to mention you have to rebuild a new drive, causing you to miss your deadline. A simple solution is to mirror two local drives.

Can’t I use Amazon Prime, SmugMug or Zenfolio as my third offsite copy?

Me: “What about using Amazon Prime, SmugMug or Zenfolio as my third offsite copy, isn’t that good?”

Self-talk: “These are great services BUT they are not designed to be a true backup solution. These services make a copy just like your local copy and replace it with the latest version. A true backup service can store every change you’ve made to that file. So if a file is corrupt, you can go back in time and find a version of that file that’s not corrupt.”

Me: “Thanks for the talk!”

Self-talk: “You’re welcome and for the record Vanelli, it’s okay to talk to yourself and it’s polite to answer. It’s only a problem if you start to argue with yourself!

What makes me so passionate about the 3-2-1 backup concept

Good, you made it this far. In all seriousness, I have similar talks with close photographer friends on this subject all the time, in fact, that’s what sparked this article. Unfortunately, they listen only after they have a major drive failure and they lose their valuable photos or spend weeks rebuilding their hard drives. What makes me so passionate about the 3-2-1 backup concept is I suffered from a major data loss. Just after my son Alec was born in 1996, we had a break-in at my studio. The thieves stole everything including the backup drives. On the drives were scanned photos of his birth and the first four months of his life. Thankfully it wasn’t the digital age. I was fortunate to have printed copies of his photos, but all the poems I wrote for him and edited version of the prints were lost forever. After learning about the 3-2-1 concept and following it, I haven’t lost a single image. Most importantly, it has kept me stress-free knowing my data is safe.

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