Back-up away slowly

For the last of this loose trilogy of tech-themed blog postings, I’m going to talk about having bought a backup hard disc. Yep, this is a post about backing up your hard drive: those of you with a non-geek disposition should look away now.

Yes, my final purchase this week has been a backup hard disc, and I have a confession to make that is surely shameful to all geeks: it’s the first backup drive I’ve ever owned.

Now in mitigation, this isn’t the first time I’ve held backups of key files, of course. I’ve always kept copies of my key files on an array of backup media, starting with the old SyQuest cartridges back in the 90s, then seguing to the Iomega ZIp drives that succeeded them, and then we got into burning first to CDs and then to DVDs.

And when even 4.3Gb of backup started to feel a bit restrictive, along came the rise of USB key sticks. The first one of those I bought was 2Gb for about thirty pounds, and that was impressive in its day; a few months ago, however, I got a 16Gb stick for sixteens pounds – Houston, we have pound-gigabyte parity!

These storage amounts are utterly staggering when you stop to think about it. I remember loading programs into a BBC Mirco by cassette tape, and being amazed by these new-fangled floppy discs for my Amstrad CPC that held unimaginable amounts of 180K per side. A little later and I was trying out Pagemaker on an Apple Macintosh Plus: since it didn’t have an internal hard disc, running the program meant juggling two different floppy discs in and out of the single drive. It made it quite fun as a computer game of speed and dexterity, but a complete non-starter as an efficient business machine for achieving anything.

When I was working at a magazine publisher’s in the early 90s, in the repro department that scanned in all the pictures at high resolution, we had the problem of how to store the photos and completed layouts. A typical page would need up to 256Mb of storage, and back then there were no High Street solutions offering that kind of capacity. We ended up with a technology called ‘OptiDisc’, a forerunner of DVDs, but at a cost of something like fifty pounds per disk. When you’re storing literally hundreds of pages on these things at any given time, that’s a huge outlay on media alone.

Arund this time, the first Mac I ever owned myself had a 105Mb hard drive when most models had a 80Mb drive – how could I ever fill up such a vast space I wondered? – and the next Mac, my first laptop, had a 1Gb drive. Four years on and my next computer, a Powerbook G4, had ten times that capacity. It still sits on my desk, the hard disc crammed full, its once mighty storage capacity humbled by the tiny nano sitting on top of it – let alone the desktop iMac with a 320Gb drive.

But even so, I’m still feeling the cold dead hand of file bloat creeping up on me. I have 20Gb in downloaded podcasts alone, and now that I have a TV tuner and can store TV programs at a size of 3.8Gb per hour-long program. All of a sudden my ad hoc storage routine of saving “key files” down to portable media – even when it’s cheap at 16Gb at a time – is increasingly under strain, unable to keep up.

Hence the decision to finally get a proper back-up disc to do a proper job of it. No more “saving key files when I feel like it” and “hope I haven’t missed anything” – I want to now that everything’s back-up. And if the Mac crashes, that I haven’t lost a week or a month’s worth of files since my last amateur back-up: I want to know everything up to an hour ago is safe.

Fortunately Apple have put disc back up software directly into the current operating system, so all I had to do was get the hardware, and I duly found a 1Tb (that’s terabyte, or 1000Gb) hard drive that looked ideal, for £130. That’s 12.9p per gigabyte – remember how excited I was at the pound-gigabyte parity? Keep watching and it’ll be a penny-gigabyte balance instead, and not too far in the future. To put this sort of capacity into context, I have it on good authority that the BBC’s MP3 archive of all its surviving radio output to date is around 30Tb.

Remember that old marketing chestnut phrase ‘plug and play’? It used to be all the rage and now most things claim that they are ‘plug and play’, but rarely is it a case that you literally plug it in and it gets right to work without any further action. But the back up software (called Time Machine) recognised the hard disc drive and … Well, basically just got on with it. The first truly “plug and play’ experience I’ve ever had with any piece of hardware short of mouse and keyboard. “Set it, then forget it,” says the info page on Time Machine.

And so it is: there it sits on my desk, occasionally jumping into life for a minute and making some copies before retiring again for another hour. From that respect it’s the most boring piece of hardware that I’ve ever bought, because of course it’s the thing you never want to have to need to use. To need the backup drive means there has been a disaster, at the very least a mistakenly deleted key file but more likely a disastrous failure of the main computer in some way. I’m hoping that owning a backup drive is like taking an umbrella with me on a day of dubious weather and that the very taking of it means that it won’t rain.

(Actually, Apple make the backup software a little too dazzling for its own good. Time Machine has such a startlingly different interface on the world of backups that you almost want something to fail to give you an excuse to go play with it: it presents you with a timeline going right back to the earliest backup, and you move down the timeline seeing the state of the Mac as it was at each save point. Literally, it’s like travelling back in time – all against a nice sci-fi background of stars to complete the effect. It’s quite awesome – at least, as awesome as backup technology can ever really be!)

In the meantime I can bask in the pleasure of being among the Properly Prepared for the first time, and I look back upon the says of ZIP drives and USB sticks with the kind of patronising smugness typical of the newly converted. While it might be a boring piece of hardware (although it does have a nice LED display on it that moves back and forth like a Cylon … Ahem.) it’s already contributed positively to my peace of mind. And I can marvel at the fact that I own a storage device with one terabyte of capacity.

And yet … And yet …

At the back of my mind, I’m wondering: how long before that one terabyte starts to feel just that little bit too snug for my liking?


  1. Hope you also invested in a fire extinguisher or two.

  2. andrewlewin

    Should I ask why fire extinguishers quickly came to your mind at this point!?

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