I get asked many times from friends and family what the best storage solution is for ensuring data they find to be critical is not lost or corrupted.
Whatever storage solution you decide to use it needs to be unobtrusive and largely automated because, if not, then you’ll find out at the worst possible time (usually in a crisis) that actually recovering your data is nearly impossible and often times, incomplete.
The most unobtrusive solution I’ve found so far is to use a Network Attached Storage solution. The one I use and highly recommend is the D-Link DNS-321 which accepts standard SATA drives (which means they are fast and reliable) in a RAID-1 configuration. RAID-1 means the drives are mirrored, meaning the data is automatically duplicated to two internal drives. Just about any NAS system will work but make sure it includes RAID (most don’t) and isn’t simply a more fancy external hard drive.
Being attached a network attached device also gives you the benefit of not having to rely on too many additional moving parts. For a long time I used to use spare computer systems as storage units but what I quickly found out is that the individual parts in them posed as multiple unnecessary points of failure. Motherboards, RAM, even graphics cards can cause significant headaches when all you care about is the hard drives and the data they contain.
In fact, since Google’s high powered cloud computing infrastructure runs on common hardware like the kind you and I use, it is significant to note the hardware failure rate they discovered from constantly pushing common hardware to it’s limits over long periods of time. This simply means that when you are planning a computational strategy (in this case, storage of sensitive data) you need to plan for failure instead of hoping for the best.
In contrast, having a system that only consists of a minimal operating system and two drives should be able to give you enough time to replace one drive if/when the other one fails and the NAS unit itself is cheap enough that you could easily have a spare mothballed for the rainy day when you’ll need it.
It’s also a good idea to keep a copy of your data in an offsite location. The principle being that if one place storing your data were flattened then the you should be able to recover from the offsite location. The best way to achieve this is through a continuous online storage solution. I personally don’t use an online storage solution but some things to look for in one would be the backing company’s reliability, whether they back your data up to a cloud or a single server, and how well put together their interface software is. Try the free services first, chances are that if they are really as good as they claim to be (and they all claim to be good) you’ll quickly find out during the trial period (which often is a certain amount of allowed data storage). Here are a few free ones, I have used box.net before (for random file storage, not for regular automated backups) and can say it is pretty good.
I’ve also adopted the strategy of using as many online solutions (such as Gmail for email) which allow me to leverage reliable 3rd party clouds which provide inherent protection from data loss and provide the added benefit of allowing me to access my data from a wide variety of computers without having to sync data between every system I want to use.
Finally, focus on only backing up the files you know you will need. There is no reason to back up the entire computer in terms of applications, operating system, etc. Backing up unnecessary data will only serve to max out your storage capacity and quickly overtax your backup solution. Instead, plan on replacing your whole PC (and the operating system it uses, but keep a copy of the applications you use) in the event of catastrophic data loss. If you stick with reasonably reliable hardware your failure rate should be much higher than Google’s (3-4 years). Average costs of new and decent systems are low enough now that treating a computer as a disposable device (like a cell phone) isn’t all too uncommon or that bad of an idea.