Life in the modern world seems safe and reliable. The lights turn on when I flip a switch, my house stays warm, the internet works, and my garage door opens when I push the button. It works so often that we don't really think about it. What would you do if your garage door didn't open, your lights wouldn't turn on, your furnace failed, or your internet stopped working? If you're like most Americans, you probably don't have a backup plan.

This world lulls us into a false sense of security. Machines will fail; it's a question of when, not if. Let's imagine for a moment that the next time you go to turn on your computer, it's completely blank. No sounds, no lights, nothing. Dead. Chances are your computer stores data that is very valuable to you -- family pictures, records, phone numbers and contact information, your college notes (OK, maybe you can afford to lose that last one). But data isn't guaranteed. Do you have a backup plan?

If your computer died tonight, would your data be saved?

How many backups?

At a very minimum you need two backups of your data. One backup can be stored "on location" and can be used to replace your date if your hard drive fails. A second backup should be located "off-site" in case of fire, flood, or theft at your main location. Many writers suggest three copies with the third located "in the cloud." There are a number of online services that offer "cloud backup" for a reasonable price.

A suggested backup plan:

Cloud + Local + Off-Site

I use multiple computers so sharing files between those computer is a must. Fortunately, there are a number of free services that will do this for you: Dropbox, Google Drive, Microsoft's OneDrive and Apple's iCloud Drive are a few. You put a file in a special folder on your computer and it appears on all your computers. It also is stored on a data server "in the cloud" and the server keeps a version history, meaning you can go back and restore the file if you accidentally mess it up. The things that I am currently working on I keep in these special folders and so they appear on all my computers. As well as backing up my computer, I also had to look up how to update driver, to add new features and to help the performance of the computer. If any one computer fails, I can get the files off another computer. If all the computers fail, I can reconnect a new computer to the cloud service and I'm up and running again. I don't keep every file "in the cloud", just recent ones. Here's how I back up the rest:

Mac: The built in TimeMachine backup utility creates hourly backups on a drive that plugs in to my computer. This is my Local backup. Once we week I plug another hard drive into my computer and create a full copy (known as a clone or disk image) of the entire hard drive. I store that drive in a separate building away from my home computer for Off-Site backup.

Windows: CrashPlan is a program that allows you to automatically backup to all kinds of different locations, including another computer you own. The free version is limited to once-a-day backups. All the office computers back themselves up daily to one office computer (Local backup). Once week I make a full copy of that computer's hard drive and take it off-site. You can also use Windows' built in drive imaging software, for a fully free backup plan.

How about your mobile devices?

Phones and tablets also fail. Your mobile device is more likely to be dropped, stolen or lost and the data on it is probably more valuable than what's on your computer. Many of them can sync their data (contact info, photos, etc.) through cloud services. Once a week I backup my devices to my computer (Local), and then those backups become part of my weekly backup routine and are taken off-site. For Apple devices, iTunes can manage backups for you on Mac or Windows machines. Here's a guide for Android devices. For those without smart phones, some can be backed up to your computer using a simple utility, or your phone company may provide a backup option.

How often should I backup?

If your computer died tonight, how much data would you lose? The more often you backup, the less data you will lose. "Real-time" backups are the ultimate, but probably excessive for most of us. Hourly or even daily backups are sufficient for most things. Your oldest stuff is probably your most difficult to replace and therefore your most valuable. You might make an additional copy of your oldest data and store it at your Mom's house just in case.

Make a backup plan for yourself

For most of us, backing up your computer is like daily prayer or Sunday Mass -- one of those things we "mean to get to eventually." As long as things are going fine, you don't think about it. Until it's too late. The same thing happens for life in general. If things are going according to our plan, we tend to forget to plan for the unexpected. Fortunately, computer failure is an expected surprise; we're just planning for the inevitable. Here are three quick thoughts:

  • First of all, let the machines do most of the work. If you have to do the work yourself, chances are it isn't happening. But computers are good at remembering every minute, day, or hour if you ask them to. So part of your backup plan has to be automatic so it happens without you thinking about it.
  • Second, do a little research. Lots of websites give backup advice. Mac and Windows both have built in options. There are great programs like Carbon Copy Cloner, Acronis, and CrashPlan available to extend those basic options. An external hard drive is a great investment in data security.
  • Third, start a regular habit. My disk image copies take some remembering, but I do them every Friday. It's easier to remember something when it becomes part of your routine.

The more we prepare for surprises, the less shocking they are. Anything could break tomorrow, and any of us could die tonight. Don't assume that things will just keep going along predictably for ever. Do you have a backup plan?