Now that baby photos, tax records and even real estate closing documents are all digital, it’s important to have a home backup plan in place to protect all of these important files.

One of the most common reasons given for not taking care of this kind of computer housekeeping is that it can get confusing if you’re not technically inclined. We understand that, and this post will walk you through it.

While backup and storage solutions for businesses can become complex and require custom information architecture, backing up your vacation photos and your iTunes library is really pretty simple and can be taken care of in three steps.

My wife and I lost hundreds of digital photos of our son due to a lightning strike a few years ago. You’ll be glad you took a Saturday morning in your home office to safeguard your digital assets.

1. Pick a Cloud-based backup service

While there are slight differences between the various Cloud providers available today, the most important thing for your home backup plan is that you pick one and get it installed. You’ll likely need to pay for a monthly or annual plan if you have a large collection of photos, documents or other media but the cost is normally only a few dollars per machine.

If you do a lot of work on your computer and would like to keep things up to date across different machines, choosing a “drive” solution will likely be your best bet. Drives are file sharing programs that set up a folder on each of your computers and update a copy of the folder contents in the Cloud as things change. They then update the folder on the other connected PCs so everything matches. Some of the big names for this type of option include:

• Dropbox
• Microsoft OneDrive
• Amazon Drive
• Google Drive
• Apple iCloud
• Box

If your work on a computer is mostly limited to photos, Word documents and a music collection, a straight backup solution could be a good choice for you. These programs back up selected files and folders and make a copy that is stored in the Cloud. The leading choices for this kind of service are:

• Mozy
• Carbonite
• Backblaze

The primary downside of a cloud-based backup is that it will likely take a while to restore any needed data when an issue occurs. Unless you can wait days or even weeks to get your information back in the event of a failure, the second of the three steps in your backup plan should be to purchase an external hard drive for your home.

2. Set up your external hard drive

External hard drives are pieces of storage hardware that are just like the hard drive contained inside your laptop or home PC. While newer models are available that connect wirelessly to trusted PCs, nothing beats the speed of plugging a drive into your machine.

Make sure to protect your machine on a set schedule. Almost all of the hard drive manufacturers offer some kind of backup software to go with their hardware that will do the job for basic home files. Backup software is likely even built into your machine right now, as Apple OSx has Time Machine and Windows OS has Backup and Restore to manage file backups for you.

Purchase the most storage you can afford for your budget when you choose an external hard drive. Seagate, Western Digital and Toshiba are some of the big names you’ll see on the shelf. Backblaze (a cloud-based solution from the first section) compiles an annual report on hard drive reliability that is a great resource to help you choose.

The advantage of having an external hard drive as a component of your backup system is speed. It can take a long time over a wireless Internet connection to completely back up your computer. Having a hard drive at home that you can connect with an Ethernet or USB 3.0 cable will allow you to complete a backup or a restore in hours instead of days.

The downside of a hard drive is that the moving parts in the components are going to fail sooner or later. You should look to upgrade your external hard drive every 2-3 years. This is why you should start with a cloud-based solution first and then have an external hard drive as your secondary copy.

3. Make sure your backup solution is backing things up

Every three months set a note on your calendar to check your backups to make sure things are functioning properly. Your quarterly appointment is a simple three-step checklist:

1. When was the last backup completed? If you back up each night, you’ll obviously want to see yesterday’s date at the top of the list.
2. Is the software reporting any errors? If your solution cannot back up selected items, it will let you know what’s not being covered and why.
3. Pick one file and restore it to confirm things are still configured correctly and things are in good working order.

Bonus tip for your photos: check out Flickr and Google Photos

Flickr was the center of the online photo world in the mid-2000s but slipped out of favor with the arrival of Facebook, Instagram and other social networks. In an effort to reboot Flickr, Yahoo now gives users one free TB of space. That’s a ton of storage for an ordinary consumer. The average smartphone photo is around 3 MB right now so you could store over 300,000 photos in your account.

June 2015 update: Google Photos now offers unlimited free photo and video storage. There can be a lot of compression of each file, so you may not want to use Google to store the hero shots from your big camera, but it’s hard to beat the price.

The bottom line is pretty simple: just don’t wait. It’s easy to get a home backup plan in place and when something goes wrong, you’ll be glad you did.

Photo credit: Organized by Uwe Hermann (CC by-SA 2.0)

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