Backing up data should be automatic, requiring nothing more than having your computer turned on and connected to either a network or backup device.

Like many people, my primary computer is a laptop. Only essential applications and some personal data, such as email, remain on my MacBook Pro. I regularly move data from teaching and my creative projects from the laptop to external drives.

With a laptop, I recommend a fault-tolerant backup approach. The easiest approach is to use more than an external hard drive and the backup utilities included with an operating system.

Windows and macOS include system utilities for making incremental backups to external drives. For Windows 10, use the oddly named File History application. Apple users should try Time Machine. I use these tools and have recovered data using both.

Before using these tools you need an external drive, ideally with twice the capacity of your computer drive. Hourly, daily, and weekly updates consume a fair amount of space. Remember, every time you change data on your computer, a backup copy will be made. Another important thing to remember: drives last three to five years with regular use. I replace external drives every three years, storing old drives for another few years.

Windows users can locate File History within the system setting “Update and Security” features. Select “Backup” from the left-hand list of security features. It is usually the third or fourth option down, depending on the Windows system. Click “Add a Drive” to select the external drive that will hold your backups. Always start with a full backup of your data. Find “Back up Now” under the “More Options” choice. Set backups to store until more space is needed, which automatically deletes the oldest versions of files once a drive is filled.

Apple’s Time Machine application works well if you have a single computer and want to maintain incremental backups to a dedicated hard drive. I use Time Machine and two external hard drives, connected via a USB hub. Any time I work in my home office, I plug in a single USB cable and know my MacBook Pro’s data are copied to these two drives.

Time Machine is within the System Preferences in macOS. You can also locate Time Machine using a Spotlight search. Add a drive and Time Machine automatically makes an initial full backup of your computer’s primary drive. If an external drive fills, Time Machine deletes the oldest backups to free space.

Two external drives are relatively inexpensive insurance against disaster, and a good approach for a single laptop or desktop computer with a single drive.

If you have more than one computer, especially in a home or small office, you probably don’t want to have two hard drives for every computer. Depending on your profession or other needs, you might want data to be stored for more than two or three years, too.

There is a better solution to stacks and stacks of external drives created with File History or Time Machine: network-attached storage (NAS).

An NAS is a simple computer with multiple hard drives or solid-state drives. The NAS can be thought of as a file-server and storage unit. With low-power CPUs and limited memory, NAS solutions avoid creating unnecessary heat; these are boxes designed to last for years of continuous use.

NAS solutions provide terabytes of storage on a local area network (LAN). Though there are single- and dual-drive NAS solutions, I recommend four-drive NAS hardware at a minimum. Expandable systems are even better.

The major vendors of NAS solutions for home and small office use are Synology, QNAP, Drobo, Netgear, and Western Digital. My personal favorite, based on experience, are NAS systems from Synology. Friends in the film industry have had good experiences with Drobo, too.

All good four-drive or larger systems are similar in functionality. What I value is how easy it is to replace a drive when one does fail. The Synology systems feature easy disk drive swapping and the DiskStation Manager software is excellent.
A good NAS is more than just a bunch of disk drives (JBOD). If that were the case, the failure of any drive could result in data loss. Instead, a well-configured NAS is a redundant array of independent disks (RAID). All data are written to two or more drives in the NAS system, along with error-recovery data. If one drive fails, it can be replaced without losing any data. The best NAS systems feature RAID 6, a standard that prevents data loss even if two drives fail at the same time. For the best fault tolerance, therefore, you want an NAS that accommodates four or more drives.

I have some rather extreme data storage needs. As a professor, student, and artist, I create a lot of data. For the courses I teach, I prepare multimedia presentations and audio lectures. As a graduate student in film and technology, I create movies and animations. Working on a single short film can fill a terabyte drive. When a project is completed, sometimes I want to keep the unused video, music, and effects files. For films, there are behind-the-scenes footage and other elements worth storing.

For my needs, the Synology DS1515+ is an ideal solution. The DS1515+ can be paired with expansion units to enable up to 150 terabytes of fault-tolerant storage. The DS1515+ with five 6-terabyte drives retails for $1900 online. The 30 terabytes of disk space provides 18 to 24 terabytes of actual storage, since data are duplicated in a RAID pattern.

For a simple home office solution, the Synology DS416 models offer good protection for an affordable price. Loaded four 4-terabyte drives, the DS416 provides 12 terabytes of fault-tolerant storage space for under $1,000. Unlike the DS1515, you cannot add expansion units to the DS416, but you can upgrade the individual drives.

Once the NAS is attached to your network, install the software included with the NAS of your choice on any computer. Backups are performed as with Time Machine and File History, without interrupting your work.

You might consider a NAS expensive and unnecessary, but once you’ve had to recover from a major drive failure you appreciate the time and worry saved. Also, it’s a lot more expensive to recover data from a crashed system than to copy files back from the network.

About the Author: Visalia native Scott Wyatt is currently completing his Master of Fine Arts in Film and Digital Technology at Chatham University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Scott has several additional graduate degrees and was a visiting professor of business communication at Carnegie Mellon University.