Steps To Survive a Computer Disaster

November 27th, 2008

When you operate a digital photography business sooner or later you will be touched by a computer equipment failure. Whether or not the failure becomes a disaster and what it costs you depends on what precautions you’ve taken to protect yourself. Here are some facts about computer failures:

  1. Despite your past experience, your computer WILL fail. All personal computers are inherently unreliable. Failure is not a matter of IF, it’s a matter of WHEN!
  2. Laptop failures are far more likely than desktop failures, especially when you are carrying the laptop around. Most people use laptops these days.
  3. Hard disk failures are the most likely type of failure.

Here is an exercise you show go through on a regular basis: Ask yourself, “what would I do if my hard drive if my main computer I use to post process shoots failed right now”? Could I do a shoot today and deliver photos tomorrow?

I am sensitive to the subject right now because while traveling over the recent holidays I had my second laptop failure in two years. So I’ve been getting more practice at this subject than I want. Last Sunday, the mother board in my MacBook Pro failed and I had to send it off to la-la land to be repaired. A recent one day old clone of my internal drive allowed me to carry-on with a backup laptop.

Based on my experience in the area of recovering from computer failures here are the things I believe are essential to survive a disaster:

  1. Clone your system disk to an external USB drive once a day: This means purchase a portable USB drive that is at least as big as your internal laptop drive and clone your laptop’s internal drive to the external drive. I just start the clone software before I go to bed. The software you use to clone a drive is software such as SuperDuper for OS X or Norton Ghost for Windows. Cloned disks can be plugged into another computer and booted. They can also be used to restore an drive of sufficient size to be identical as the drive that was cloned. They can also be accessed like a normal external drive. When something goes wrong, having a boot-able clone of your internal drive will give you the maximum number of options to keep on operating. By the way, be sure to carry the cloned drive when you travel, that’s when you need it most!
  2. Have some backup hardware: Typically old laptop or desktop system will serve this purpose nicely. I learned about this one the hard way. I now have a backup laptop.
  3. Use “cloud computing” for communication and as many non-photo/video files: By this, I mean use an web based e-mail system like Gmail. I’ve tried them all and I’m convinced Gmail is the best choice because it has a highly redundant server technology and has more services online than than most other alternatives. It allows you to keep spreadsheets, word processing files and presentation files online instead of on your local machine. Even though probability of file loss is low you should keep backups of critical files. Note, you can use web base e-mail systems and still make your e-mail look like it came from you own domain. See my post on this subject.
  4. Keep your photo and video archives on redundant external drives: Don’t consider files you care about saved until they are saved in at least two different places (drives). Photo and video archives are too big to keep on an internal laptop drives. What I do is keep all my important archives on an external Firewire-800 drive and that drive is continually synced to a second Firewire-800 external drive. An even better solution is to use a Drobo that automatically deals with keeping redundant copies of everything.
  5. Keep off-site copies of files you can’t afford to loose: There are many ways to do this. Services like Mosy and Carbonite are handy for this but are limited by the bandwidth it takes to upload and download files. Another alternative is a external USB drive. I think of off-site backup as protection for the house burning down or someone stealing all my gear.

What I’ve found is that I don’t think about these failure issues much when everything is going smoothly. But once I’m hit by a failure or a near disaster I start working the problem real quick. For this reason, I was much better prepared for this weeks failure because of the failure I had in July of 2007. Trust me, it’s easier if you take action on these things before the failure strikes. It makes life much easier.

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3 Responses to “Steps To Survive a Computer Disaster”

  • Larry-What kind of computer incident did you encounter recently?

  • Doug- The mother-board on my year old MacBook Pro went out (the processor will randomly freeze any time from a few seconds after booting to 10 min after booting ) and the local Apple Store in Bellevue, WA where I am this week insisted that they can’t fix it locally and have to send it back to Apple heaven to be fixed. They promised on a stack of bibles that it would be back in my hands a week… I’m skeptical and can’t live without a laptop for a week so I now have new MacBook Pro and the one at Apple will become my backup machine when it’s well again:)

  • I recently survived 3 hard BSD crashes in 3 weeks. Finally got a new MB and ram from Dell. And I did not loose any business data or images during all 3!

    I agree, Buy Norton Ghost! This software will allow you to backup your entire disk to a DVD or external HD. How i use it is I ghosted my system after a fresh install of my OS with all the up to date drivers. This way I can cut out hours of reinstall. After that initial raw backup i would then install all service packs, then do another Ghost. I would do a third after I install all of my software. So i now have a archive of 3 system images i can roll back to in the event i have a system crash or i suspect a new piece of software/windows update is having issues. Saves a ton of time getting your setup back to 100% when your trouble shooting.

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