Protecting against the inevitable

Last year, I briefly discussed Dropbox, which is a way to store your most important genealogy photos and documents on your computer, while automatically synchronizing with a folder up in "the cloud". The word "Cloud" makes it sound soft and fluffy, but the protection it gives you is strong as iron. They should call it "The Safe".

I am familiar with Dropbox but I presume that the other "cloud" systems are similar. This article is not to endorse one over the other, but merely to give you plenty to think about when it comes to backing up your most important genealogy data and being able to retrieve it.

There are few indisputable truths in life, but one of them is that your computer or hard drive is going to crash and you will lose your work. When I say "crash", I'm not talking about a "blue screen" or a temporary slow-down. I'm talking about a damaged hard drive that won't boot and won't rotate enough to retrieve your data using another computer. What do you do when your computer crashes and your data is lost? Besides crying, I mean.

Every computer has important files, both genealogical and not. Tax returns, resumes, spreadsheets and power points are stored on your computer along with the irreplaceable photos and documents you have acquired in your genealogical pursuits. There was a time, many years ago, where I would have suggested buying blank DVD or CD discs and make regular backup copies of your most important data. Later on, with the advent of portable USB drives, it was easier to keep a regular updated backup copy of most of your computer, without having to burn a lot of discs.

These are both still good backup methods. However, it is important to plan for the unthinkable. We are talking about your odds of being struck by lightning. (I sincerely hope none of my readers have actually been struck!) Your computer, as it gets older, will eventually wear down and the hard drive will crash. If you have your files backed up onto a CD, DVD or USB drive, you can go "phew" because at least the data is safe. Sometimes, however, the most recent files have not been backed up. But the vast majority of your work is secure, and you can load it all onto your new computer when you replace the old one. You got struck by lightning, and survived. Just because the computer hard drive crashes, there is no connection to the CD, DVD or USB drive. What are the odds that BOTH the hard drive and the backup will go bad at the same moment?

Well, sadly, there is a chance for the backup to go bad as well. "How can that happen?" Unfortunately, lightning itself is the biggest cause for the simultaneous crash of both a hard drive and a USB backup drive. During major lightning storms, if the bolt hits a transformer that runs to your home, you may have the computer plugged in, and the USB drive connected to it, also plugged in. It is very easy for that bolt of lightning to destroy the computer, USB drive, your fridge, plasma TV and microwave, and maybe more. Those bad storms in June did a lot of damage this way.

Not to add to the litany of woe, but lightning is not the only way you can lose your data plus your backup at the same time. If a fire destroys all or part of your home, it is very likely that the computer and the USB drive are in the same room and can be destroyed at the same time. Given how many computer cables and electrical wires are near most computer systems, it is the most likely place for such a fire to start, and even if you quickly put the fire out, the heat alone might destroy both disk drives (and maybe melt CD or DVD backup copies as well.)

The good news is that a lightning bolt can't directly damage a CD or DVD, unless it actually strikes that disc. However, it is so time consuming to back up so much data to discs, that many people don't back up on a regular basis. And with the amount of data that needs to be backed up, it takes a lot of discs to complete the job. A CD holds about 750Meg. A DVD holds 4700 Meg. If you have 100 Gigabytes (100,000 Meg) of important files to backup, it will take 22 DVDs or 134 CDs to back up your data. It's expensive, time consuming, and those discs cannot be re-used.

A few of you may have a tape backup drive, though those are not very common on regular desktop PCs and are rarely if ever found on laptops. A tape drive can help you back up a lot of data on a single tape, much more than a Cd or DVD. However, many people keep the tapes in the same room as the computer, and they can be easily damaged from heat as well. Tapes are not always reliable when trying to restore your data back to your brand new PC, so you might still lose some data in the transfer.

So now that I've scared everyone, let's talk about a better method of backing up your data: the Cloud. Using Cloud software such as Dropbox, Microsoft SkyDrive/OneDrive, Google Drive, Apple iCloud and Amazon Cloud Drive, among others, eliminates just about every negative situation that was discussed earlier. And it adds some unexpected positives as well.

My laptop computer has Dropbox installed on it, which creates a folder "Dropbox". You move all your important data into that Dropbox folder. (You can use sub folders to organize the data any way you want.) Any files that are in the Dropbox folder will upload a backup copy to the cloud. The cloud just consists of hard drive space somewhere in the internet, owned by DropBox, or one of the other companies. So if lightning hits your house and wrecks your computer, the backed-up data is still in the cloud somewhere else. If you modify one of those important files, as soon as you save it, DropBox recognizes that the file has been changed and backs it up right away. You don't have to manually start a backup process. It's all automatic. No discs, USB drives or tapes to deal with.

One accidental added benefit is that you can go on any computer and log into Dropbox and view your files. You can also share a specific file with someone via e-mail, or share an entire folder. You can upload huge files like videos, that are too large to e-mail, and send a Dropbox link to the file and someone else can download it.

You can also load a DropBox app on your phone, and be able to view all your files. If you take photos or videos with your phone, and you have the DropBox app, it will automatically upload your photos and videos to DropBox.

DropBox give you a couple of Gigabytes free, and after that you pay an annual fee for the amount of space you think you will need.

Again, I cannot speak for the other companies that sell this service, but I am guessing it is quite similar to Dropbox. With any cloud system, you get the safety and portability that can never work as well using the old backup methods.

Write to Dan at and please put "Fra Noi" in the subject line.