All computers and other electronic devices, no matter how technologically advanced, will at some point in time crash and cease functioning. The point at which that happens is determined by immutable physical laws but may be accelerated by environmental issues as well as by the simple passage of time. Since hardware crashes are inevitable, from the moment you start investing time in entering and storing data, you have to plan for that inevitability. Occasionally, a computer or storage device will give you warnings of its imminent demise. But it is not unusual for electronic devices to cease working without any warning whatsoever.
Although your computer system may be functioning normally today, you are always one more day closer to a system failure. Genealogists are particularly susceptible to this problem because they are always entering new data into their computer systems. Although failure is inevitable for a single device, absent a natural disaster, fire, theft of the system or other externally caused calamity, it is unlikely the more than one device will crash at the same time. Even if the hardware is robust and survives a considerable period of time, there is always an increasing possibility that the software or the operating system itself will crash. The effect is the same, loss of any data that is not adequately backed up.
The degree of seriousness of the loss of data is directly proportional to the amount of time spent entering the data into the computer. For example, if I were to lose this post right now, I might be annoyed, but I could essentially reproduce the post within a short time period. But if I lost my entire genealogy file, I would be more than annoyed. It has taken me years to enter the data and to attach all the media files and provide sources. I would prefer not to be faced with that end-of-the-world scenario.
Depending on your computer system, you can check the amount of data you have on your computer in several ways. On an Apple computer, you select your internal hard drive icon and right click (Command-i) to get info on the drive. The total capacity will pop up in a window with the amount used also shown. On Windows-based systems, you go to the Start menu and select “My Computer.” If you are running Windows 8 or later operating system, you will find the information displayed if you view “This PC” from an open window. All of the hard drives connected to your computer will show up in the window. Right click on any hard drive and select its properties to see the capacity of the drive and the amount used.
Rule One: Back it up and then back up the back up.
Knowing how to back up the data is one thing, actually spending the time and sometimes the money to do so is quite another. There are a number of ways to back up your data and these have changed over the past year or so. Presently, there are several methods to back-up data. Here is a list on the order of their utility, with the most cost-effective, secure and useful method listed first:
Hard Disk Drives
Hard disk drives are generically called spinning media. The price and size of hard drives have been going down, while at the same time the reliability has been increasing. At any given time, there is a balance between the size of an external or internal hard drive and its cost. As of August, 2014 the most cost-effective hard drive sizes exceed anything a genealogist could expect to fill up for a very long time. If you are trying to prevent data loss from a computer crash, you will want to purchase an external hard drive. Currently, the most popular brands of hard drives include the following:
If you are entering a lot of data into a computer, then it is wise to use multiple backup devices, i.e. more than one external hard drive or other device and copy the same backup data to each of the drives.
Flash Memory Storage Devices
Flash memory is more expensive for larger capacity drives than hard disk storage at the present time. But the price of flash memory is dropping rapidly and it is always a good idea to check out the cost. Flash memory has no moving parts and is inherently more reliable than spinning media. If your data is not more than 64 Gigabytes, then you can use a very inexpensive USB Flash Drive. If you have much larger data needs then you will have to weigh the advantage of reliability against the increased cost. Right now, hard drives are more economical. Some of the most popular manufacturers are the following:
One option is to store your data online in the “Cloud” or in other words, on someone’s server somewhere on the Internet. There are a number of options available. For smaller data storage requirements, you may find free storage. Here are some of the providers offering free online storage of up to 5 Gigabytes or so of data, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of sites with varying degrees of reliability:
Some of the more popular fee-based online storage sites include the following:
You might have noticed that the free sites are also some of the popular pay sites. Usually, the web sites with free storage offer additional storage space or services for a fee.
You might consider using DVDs for storage, but unless you have very small files, you may find that the inconvenience of burning DVDs for backups far outweighs the small individual cost of the disks.
Even if you purchase a brand new system, you need to plan for the crash and back up your data.