How to back-up data correctly: What you need to know

We have never read, produced and processed as much data as we do today. And that's why it can be really frustrating when data is lost unexpectedly. Sophie has been researching how to prevent this.

I start my laptop and the screen stays black. My heart starts pounding. It's not broken, is it? It had the same problem last week. Worried, I think about the data stored on my laptop: seminar papers, lecture notes, photos... I really need to do a back-up. But how?

To find out, I'm on my way to Pfaffenwaldring 57 on Campus Vaihingen. Here I meet Yannic and Sven, both student assistants at the University of Stuttgart's Technical Information and Communication Services (TIK). They are the first point of contact for questions about "technical support" and help with forgotten passwords, VPN or eduroam access, or offer advice about using platforms like ILIAS. Today they agree to answer my questions about how best to save and back up data.

During the pandemic, many students started using tablets or laptops instead of pens and paper for online lectures. Even now, when in-person lectures are being held again, the number of people taking notes electronically is growing steadily. After all, technical devices have many advantages: They are much more compact and lighter than books, and lecture materials uploaded at short notice can also be used immediately. Graphics and texts can be marked and added to notes, and diagrams and drawings can be enlarged for better readability. But it is easy to drop electrical devices, or they might get wet or stolen, or a Trojan makes them impossible to use, or sooner or later they simply give up the ghost due to old age. But whatever the reason, in the end you are often left with an unusable data mush. This can be really annoying, because you often lose important data like documents from your last lecture or even your entire Bachelor thesis. The aim of a backup is therefore to create copies of data in order to be able to use them in the event of data loss.

But which data should you back-up?

The simple answer from Sven and Yannic: "Everything that is important!". This includes passwords, digital certificates, your final thesis, and data of personal or emotional value, such as photos, videos, or even emails. The size of the data should be kept as small as possible, so you don't need to back-up software or documents from Ilias, for example, which can be downloaded again and again. "It's important that the backup contains the data you definitely don't want to lose at any time," says Sven. Basically, it's a trade-off between the financial costs and time involved in backing up data, and the cost of recovering the data if it gets lost. The general rule of thumb: As much as necessary, as little as possible.

Where can I store my data?

Basically, there are two options: First, physical storage media and second, online storage media. Both have advantages and disadvantages. Examples of physical storage space are hard drives and USB sticks. These are very easy to use. And you always have control over your own data because you don't have to entrust it to a third party. However, to complete a backup, these must be actively connected to the end device, and they are often stored in the same location as the original media. In the event of a fire or even theft you still lose everything. Depending on their storage capacity; hard drives and USB sticks are available from EUR 20, but even if you store them correctly, i.e. dry and cool, the service life is usually no longer than 10 years. If you use an external data carrier, it is a good idea to protect it with a password or to encrypt the data on it.

Clouds are used to store data online. Probably the biggest advantages are the local, temporal, and technical independence with which the data can be retrieved. Any changes to the software are synchronized in real time and installed properly. This is quick and easy with the help of automatic backups. But to update and download data, you do need an internet connection. The two experts from TIK emphasize, however, that data is passed on to third-party providers in this case and that you must either place your trust in the provider, or you should think about encrypting your data.

I know many students who use a cloud to back up daily lectures. The most common applications are OneDrive and GoogleDrive. Providers with servers in Germany or end-to-end encryption include MagentaCloud or Tresorit. These are just a few examples, because there are too many providers to list them all here. "Trusted" is a comparison and ratings portal for business tools and software that provides a good overview and more information.

How (often) should I do a backup?

"The 3-2-1 rule is a good guide", says Yannic. Three copies of the data should be made: Two copies on different data carriers and one that will be stored externally, i.e. at a different location. They also have a few tips for storing the files. It makes sense to organize the folders for the backup in the same way as on the laptop, because you are already familiar with this system. In addition, the data should always be clearly named with relevant words and the date. Usually, data is saved in standard formats such as PDF, JPG or MPEG so that it can still be opened in the future. After the backup has been completed, the data should be regularly checked to ensure that it is correct, complete, and readable. It is also important to test that the medium is still functional. Basically, it is a good idea to consider in advance what the ideal data backup might look like and when you might need to back up your data more often, for example when writing your thesis.

How good are we at backing up our data?

Yannic and Sven tell me that they hardly get any questions about data backups. Often, those affected only try to find information after a data loss has already occurred. Or maybe it's because most students already know how to back up their data. A fellow student tells me "I back up all of my data for the current lecture period by the end of the lecture period at the latest", while another one adds: "The automatic backups work great!"

Unfortunately, my laptop is still not working properly. The large amount of data we need to work and study these days makes data backups all the more important. These are a bit like a digital life insurance in case of emergency. And it is better to back up your data too often than not enough.


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