There are two basic strategies for backing up your computer:
- Ad Hoc: Copy those files and folders which are of greatest value to CD, DVD, Flash, hard drive or similar. Apart from flash drives failing frequently, and the ensuing chaos of backup files spread across different media, and having to trust oneself to make the copies with any meaningful frequency, it is not a terribly bad backup strategy
- Automated Backup Software: This should be as mindless and invisible and robust as one can afford
Ad Hoc : Not Recommended
Should one choose this un-recommended route, may the force be with you. At the minimum:
- Do not use flash drives for backups
- Backup regularly
- If copying files to hard drive, do not overwrite the previous backup. Keep multiple generations of backups
Automated : Recommended
This is the preferred and recommended route, though some options will cost you money. There are two basic types: those that run incremental* backups to local media (such as optical drives or hard drives), and those which run incremental backups to network volumes. An example of the former is Apple's free Time Machine backup software which comes with macOS 10.5 and above. The latter is offered by a number of companies, including Code42. In either case, the automated system should be mind numbingly easy to setup, run and restore from. If not, it won't get used.
- This is the best way to backup large multimedia collections such as pictures, movies and music and is the quickest form which to restore. It also provides bare metal restores if you were to lose your entire hard drive
- Macintosh: Time Machine is hands down your best option. It is trivial to setup, it runs transparently in the background and it easy/fast to restore from. All you need is an external hard drive. (If you use Time Machine, be sure to encrypt your backups when given the option.)
- Windows: We've had some success with Microsoft's built-in Time Machine equivalent named File History, and Code42 (mentioned below) has a local hard disk option
Network (Off-site) Backups
- MIT's Code42 backup service (free up to five computers)
- Helpful Code42 usage tips
Of all these options, we recommend MIT Code42 at the minimum for the time you are at MIT. It has the benefits of off-site, works on all popular operating systems, is very reasonably priced (free), and is easy to use. Note that all Code42 backups stop and are removed in the first January after graduation (see Leaving). In addition to Code42, we strongly encourage you to employ a local backup such as Time Machine.
*Incremental backups backup only those files which have changed. A history is kept of each file over time.
Virtual Machine Considerations
Important: Should you be using Virtual Machines (VMs) on your computer, then be sure to exclude them from backups. Our recommendation is to store all VMs in ~/Virtual Machines (where '~' denotes your home directory on your computer), and then configure your backup client to exclude the entire Virtual Machines directory. Consult your backup documentation for details or contact cron.
Cloud Storage Considerations
Important: Just as we recommend excluding VMs from your backups, we recommend you exclude the following cloud storage: Dropbox, OneDrive. We have found that most backup products have difficulty completing backups of these storage systems (note that Dropbox and OneDrive have their own built-in backups). The folders to exclude from backup are named Dropbox and/or Dropbox (MIT) and/or Dropbox (Personal). In the case of OneDrive, OneDrive and/or 'OneDrive - Massachusetts Institute of Technology'. These folders can be found in your home directory.