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In this day and age our computers aren’t only used for typing, surfing the web, and writing term papers. They are used for e-mail, and storing hundreds if not hundreds of thousands of photos. These are photos that document the lives of our family. With digital cameras so prevalent, photos aren’t printed as regularly. Often they are stored solely on the computer to e-mail to friends and family and share on social networking sites.

Where do you store your digital photos? On a CD/DVD? On your laptop? Did you know that the average lifetime of CD media is 5-10 years? According to a Wikipedia article, “Studies done by NIST under harsh conditions of light, temperature and humidity demonstrated sharp increases in bit errors after only 100 hours“. I have personally had CD media fail to read a year after a successful burn. Recently, one of my clients stored her CD of digital photos in her DVD-ROM drive for a few months and found it unreadable.

Are hard drives more reliable? Their expected lifetime is 3-5 years, but they are more susceptible to damage from movement and especially heat. I’ve had two laptop hard drives fail in the last 6 years. They are like a ticking time bomb since they can so easily overheat. If yours hasn’t, it most likely will. Just as important as protecting yourself from hardware failure, is protecting yourself from fire, theft, and other catastrophes. If you backup to another computer in your house, what if there is a fire? You aren’t protected at all.

San Diego Child Photographer
I should come clean and say that I used to be a programmer for a backup software company. So I might be slightly more paranoid than the average person simply because I’ve seen and heard so much while I was working there. So the big question….what do you do to protect your priceless family photos? Here is simplified explanation of some common back up strategies:

1. External hard drive: Cost effective storage. If you rotate two drives so one is off site you will protect against fire and theft as well as yourself.
2. DVD:Cheap and readily available, but burns can fail, disks can be easily damaged, and reading can be slow. Disk capacity is small so you will have a lot of DVDs, making it difficult to track your data.
3. Online: Initially it could take a long time to back up all of your data. However after that, backups can be fully automated and you will be protected against fire and theft. If you accidentally delete an important file you will be able to recover it.
4. RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks): Most RAID systems mirror data, which means they store data on at least two hard drives, but this doesn’t protect against accidental deletion or modification of files, fire, theft, etc. Once you delete a file, it is removed from the mirrored drive as well. Also, while RAID protects you from hard drive failure, if the RAID hardware itself fails, the drives may not be readable unless moved to compatible hardware.
5. Network Attached Storage (NAS): Similar to an external hard drive, but accessible across a network. Some products provide more advanced functionality like multiple drives and RAID capabilities. Systems like the Drobo provide redundancy while allowing more flexibility for hard drive sizes, and future expansion.

Each backup strategy has its pros and cons and works for different people depending on the amount of data, how often your data is changing, etc. Personally, I use a combination of these strategies. I store my photos on a Windows Home Server, which acts as a RAID duplicating data to another hard drive. Then I back up that system to an external hard drive which I swap out on a regular interval with another external hard drive that I store off site. Online storage isn’t a good solution for me because as a photographer I have SO MUCH data to protect and it is constantly changing. However, for backing up personal pictures and data it can be a cost effective and secure way to protect your data. You can be backed up automatically so it becomes effortless. Just remember Murphy’s Law, if anything can go wrong, it will. So please go back up right now to protect your family photos.