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ImageNOTE: This article was originally posted 8/11/2013.

Backing up our data is important. We all know that. But particularly for creative professionals, our data is our livelihood. Lose one project due to hard drive failure, and your reputation is ruined with that client forever. And yet, so frequently I find that freelancers and even small companies don’t maintain adequate (if any) backups. Why?

Expense is always an issue, but with today’s hard drive prices, it’s no excuse for risking your client’s work and your reputation. If the confusion inherent in the backup landscape is your excuse, then I’m here to help. You don’t need a RAID array or a NAS or a SAN or a data locker to take basic precautions for data redundancy. Below is a simple, effective backup strategy I developed for a small production company I used to work for, and which I implement now in my own freelance practice.

Step 1 – The Archive
This is where your projects go to die. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. Let’s say they “retire.” Because you never know when a client will want an update to something you produced for them two years ago, or if you’ll want to go back and grab an old After Effects animation to use as a template in a new project. The Archive is where projects live after you think you’re done with them.

The Archive is simple. For every hard drive you need to keep archived material, you buy two. So if you have 1 TB worth of old projects, you buy two 2 TB drives. You put all your projects on one of them (leaving room to grow), and then you mirror it to the second. Whether you need one, two, or twenty drives, you keep them all mirrored, all the time. There’s no mismatching – each hard drive has an exact mirror. There’s no throwing projects just anywhere and then trying to remember to back them up somewhere else later, when you get a chance, and THEN trying to remember where on Earth either of those copies went. Projects enter The Archive chronologically, so when you need something you just need to remember approximately when you finished it, and then find that drive.

Step 2 – The Working Drive
Next, for active projects, you get a portable drive and a place to back it up, and do the same thing. If you’re a freelancer, that’s pretty much it. If you’re a company with multiple editors, you give each editor a personal portable Working Drive and a place to back it up. They keep all their active projects on that drive, and they keep it with them for those inevitable times when a client needs something unexpected over the weekend.

If you’re a freelancer, it works in the other direction – your Working Drive is always available to bring to a client’s location when necessary, and always has your current work on it. You can just buy two identical portable drives, but a cheaper solution is to back it up to another desktop drive. I use Time Machine to back up my portable to my Time Machine backup drive along with all my system files.

Step 3 – The System
Now we have a simple, elegant backup solution. Keep all current work on your portable Working Drive, and keep that drive either mirrored or backed up to a desktop drive. When you close the books on a given project, move that project to The Archive, make sure that it’s mirrored, then remove it from your Working Drive to reclaim the space for your next project.

You can perform the mirror backups manually, or you can use software to automate the process. If you’re on a Mac, Carbon Copy Cloner is a free program that will keep two drives matched, always updating one to match the other whenever changes are made. (If you’re using a PC, then you probably have 20 different options, none of which actually work any better than CCC.)

Bonus Level – Off-site Backup
If you’re serious about backup, you need to also think about off-site backup. Keeping all your drives mirrored protects you in case of hard drive failure, but in case of fire/flood/theft/volcano, you’re still hosed. So if you want to take that extra step, it’s built into the system: just take those mirrors and keep them somewhere else. If you’re a freelancer, keep them at a friend’s or family member’s house, or store them in a bank safe deposit box. If you’re a small company, send the mirrors home with some trusted employees. You’ll need to retrieve them when it’s time to update the mirror, but c’est la vie, amirite?

Agitator Level – But what about the cloud?
If you’ve got Verizon FiOS or an OC-3 connection, by all means, just dump it all to the cloud and forget everything I said. Crashplan has some reasonably priced plans and comes highly recommended by the interwebs. But for the rest of us, HD video is far too massive to realistically back up to the cloud. It would take days of a constant streaming upload to backup just a few hours of footage. So please stop showing off; if we had FiOS in our area, we wouldn’t rub your nose in it.