Disaster recovery – a matter of when, not if

It amazes me when I see collections of photographs that have survived a hundred years.  Many times these images were stored in shoe boxes, albums or dresser drawers.  It’s a testament to the materials used that these images have survived so long.  Unfortunately, the digital world has yet to devise storage devices with the same sort of longevity as a simple shoebox.

Working in the information technology industry for 20 years, I learned that it is only a matter of time before computers and their components fail.  The average hard drive has a life expectancy of between 5 and 10 years.  Therefore, it is inevitable that this mechanical device will eventually fail.  Additionally, the life and integrity of our images can be threatened by physical theft of equipment, computer viruses, fire, flooding or natural disaster.  In order to address these possibilities, a plan needs to be devised to protect our images for the long term.

Caribou Montains peaking through the early morning mist in British Columbia

Caribou Montains peaking through the early morning mist in British Columbia

The first and most important step is to backup your image files onto additional media.  While some photographers advocate backing their images up to writeable DVD discs, my recommendation is to archive your images to separate hard drives and for true peace of mind, you’ll want to backup to at least two separate hard drives.  Portable hard drives with USB or Firewire connections are very affordable and readily available from your local consumer electronics outlet.  Now that your data is protected from a simple hard drive failure with your data stored on two or more hard drives, what happens in the case of theft, fire, flood or natural disaster?

My time in the information technology industry taught me to be paranoid about losing data.  If you’re serious about insuring the longevity of your images, make sure you have at least one copy of your data stored off-site at a completely separate location.  I utilize the safety deposit box services of my bank to store off-site copies of my backup hard drives.

When I talk to groups of photographers at my workshops or in the photography classes I teach, I’m surprised by how many people confuse a data redundancy scheme like RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) with a true backup plan.  RAID was designed to make sure that computer systems could continue running after a failure of a hard drive.  But, RAID does nothing to help you recover inadvertently deleted or overwritten files or provide true disaster recovery.

With your image files backed up to a couple of hard drives and at least one copy stored off-site, we need to take a few more steps to truly secure your images.  You need to develop a schedule you can stick to for regularly backing up your data.  Third party software for backing up a hard drive often allows automatic backups at prearranged times.

Black Bear cub at the top of a snag

Black Bear cub at the top of a snag

If you use special backup software, I recommend AGAINST storing the information in any sort of proprietary format or using compression.  Both proprietary storage formats and compression add complexity to the process and complexity often leads to problems.  Hard drives are now cheap enough that you can easily purchase a hard drive to match the primary drive or drives your images are stored on.

The next step is probably the most crucial but is often overlooked.  You need to test whether or not you can actually restore files from your backups.  When I first started working in the computer industry our network had a hard drive crash.  The network administrator was unconcerned because he had been backing up to tape each night.  You can imagine the horror when it was discovered that the information refused to be restored from tape.  You need to stick to a schedule for backing up your files and you need a schedule for testing whether or not you can restore a file when it is required.

Backup your files to multiple drives with at least one copy stored off-site.  Develop a plan you’ll stick to for backing up your files.  Regularly test that the backed up files can be restored.  Follow these simple steps and your digital images will survive just as their older cousins that were stored in those dusty shoe boxes and photo albums.

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