10 Common Backup Mistakes Most People Make

Samsung T7 Shield SSD sitting next to an Apple MacBook computer
Justin Duino / How-To Geek

Backing up your files on your computer, phone, and other devices is a crucial part of modern life, but it’s all too easy to do it wrong—even when you think you’re doing everything right. Here are ten common mistakes you want to avoid.

Not Backing Up: Good Intentions Aren’t a Backup

The single biggest backup mistake is the sin of good intentions. You thought about it, you might have even bought an external hard drive or signed up for an online backup service, but you never quite got around to fully implementing a backup strategy.

We’re not going to judge you. It’s so easy to be distracted by more pressing things like workplace demands or the time crunch of raising a family. But if you’re reading this article thinking about how you haven’t got around to backing up some important files, there’s no time like the present to get serious about dusting off your backup process and actually using it.

Not Having a Backup Plan: Why Are You Doing It?

If you approach file backup as some nebulous problem, you’ll be less successful in your file backup endeavors. But if you instead outline exactly what you want to back up, why you’re backing up, and what you want to happen in the event of a system failure, you have a much higher chance of a positive outcome when disaster strikes.

Do you only care about backing up family photos and documents? Do you want the ability to go from a crashed hard drive to a total bare metal recovery of your computer onsite with waiting for files to download?

If you don’t know why you’re backing up and what you want from your backup system, you’ll inevitably waste time and money. Worse yet, you may find when it comes down to the wire the backup system didn’t do what you needed to do and you’re out of luck.

Cheaping Out: Good Backup Systems Cost Money

Storage media costs money. Maintaining cloud infrastructure costs money. Whether you outsource the backup process or roll your own with DIY self-hosted solutions, creating and maintaining backup systems costs money.

If you only have a small amount of data to back up, and it’s primarily documents (not years worth of photos or videos), you might get away with the modest storage included with free online storage accounts and an external hard drive.

But when it comes to backing up everything important on your computer and phone, especially media files, be prepared to spend money on proper backup solutions.

Not Automating Your Backups: Skip Habits, Use Systems

Habits are hard to create and maintain. And as far as in-your-face urgency goes, developing a file backup habit is pretty far down the hierarchy of human needs.

Whether you’re backing up your phone or backing up your computer, don’t rely on developing a habit of manually backing up your files, automate the process. Use the apps and tools provided by your online backup provider on your computer, phone, and other devices.

While there is a time and place for manual backups (especially when creating a complete offline backup of your data), it’s important to use automation to keep your files continuously backed up.

File Syncing: Don’t Just Mirror, Backup Too

There’s a difference between file syncing and file backup. While they might seem similar (or even identical to someone unfamiliar with the topic), the distinction is incredibly important.

Syncing is when your data is in one location (like your computer), and a tool synchronizes the state of the data there to another location (such as a cloud server or local network attached storage backup location in your home).

If you change the files, the changes are synced to the remote location. If you later need the original version of the file, you’re out of luck unless the syncing tool or service you use supports file versioning and restoration.

Backups, on the other hand, are static copies of the file that stays just as it was the moment it was backed up to the service and can be restored even if you delete or alter the original.

Every Backup Is On-Site: The Lighting Strike Problem

You have a nice NAS in your basement with backup software that downloads files from your computers and phones. You’ve even routinely backup that data to external drives and popped them in a small fire safe. Compared to most people, that’s a pretty serious and effective backup system.

The only problem is all your backups are in one location and are a natural disaster away from not existing. Twenty cold-storage backups on a shelf in your home office are completely worthless if your office goes up in smoke.

Diversifying your backups is important to survive a catastrophe. In addition to your local on-site backups, you should also back up to remote locations and keep a second copy of your data at a friend or family member’s home, in a safe deposit box, or somewhere separate from the backup in your home. It might seem overly paranoid to stash a backup hard drive at your brother’s or in a drawer of your office downtown, but you’ll be glad to have it should a worst-case scenario come to pass.

Every Backup Is Online: Restoration Is a Hassle

No doubt about it, online backup is great. Your data is offsite, most likely in a different geographic region (so the wildfire or tornado that comes your way won’t be anywhere near your backup).

Online backups do have one big downside, however. They’re slow. It’s slow going to upload large amounts of data, and it’s slow going to download it. We, without question, recommend including online backups as part of your backup strategy.

But you shouldn’t rely completely on them. And for anything that requires rapid recovery, such as rebuilding your computer after a hard drive failure so you can get back to work, you want a local backup you can immediately tap into.

The same goes for restoring large data pools. It might not take long to download 20GB of personal documents from a cloud provider. But if you’re trying to restore a multi-terabyte library, you’ll be surprised what a hassle it is, even with a fast connection.

All Your Backups Are Hot: Don’t Neglect Cold Storage

In the backup world, there are “hot” and “cold” backups. A hot or online backup is a file backup that is powered up and available. For example, if you have an external hard drive connected to your PC that is on when the PC is on and serves as a file backup location, that’s a hot backup. If a power surge takes out the PC, it will likely take out the backup drive too. The same goes for a secondary drive on the same PC, files on a NAS, and even files on a cloud server. If the data is immediately accessible and you can alter it, it’s a hot backup.

A cold backup, also called an offline backup, is a file backup that is effectively in storage and inaccessible. When ejected from the PC and stored in your fire safe, that same hard drive we just mentioned becomes a cold backup.

Nothing that happens to the PC it was connected to matters. Your PC could be taken over by ransomware, you could accidentally delete the original files, or the PSU could fail and take the whole computer with it. The cold storage files will just hang out where you left them, waiting to be restored. As you can imagine, cold storage is crucial for long-term data storage.

Your Backups Aren’t Encrypted: Don’t Neglect Privacy

You’d be surprised how often data sits out in the open on machines purchased from garage sales, resale shops, or corporate liquidators. Over my years of tinkering around with second-hand equipment, I usually find the drives are filled with unencrypted data. You must encrypt your file backups if you don’t want your tax documents, personal photos, or other things ending up on a garage sale table or Goodwill shelf.

And just because you use a cloud-based backup service doesn’t mean you should ignore this advice. What kind of encryption does your backup provider use? Can they decrypt your files? Or do they use a zero-knowledge encryption system wherein your files are locally encrypted and can only be decrypted by you in the future?

Not Testing the Recovery Method: Avoid Useless Backups

The final backup mistake on our list is the bookend that balances out the first entry. If the biggest backup mistake is failing to get a backup routine started, the second biggest mistake is failing to confirm your backup routine works.

What good is a backup if you can’t recover the data? And don’t limit yourself to just considering whether or not you can retrieve the backup. Consider how long it will take, too. If you need the ability to restore your computer in a day or less to stay on top of critical work, an online-only system that takes multiple days (or even weeks!) to download everything will be unbearably frustrating when the time comes to restore.

So test your backup restoration method to confirm not just that it works but that it works fast enough for your needs.

There’s a good chance reading through this list has you thinking about ways you can update and streamline your backup routines. No time like the present to consider picking up a NAS for local file backups, an external hard drive for local cold storage, and an online backup provider for cloud-based offsite storage. Because if you care enough to keep a copy of it, then it’s worth keeping multiple copies to ensure you’re not a single disaster away from losing it.

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