Department of Redundancy Department

This is one of my “brass tacks” articles. Yes, it’s wonder to pontificate about plot and theme and whatnot, but you also have to pay the rent. And you can’t do that if you hard drive crashes and takes all your work with it. So let’s talk about where you keep your stuff, and why it had better be more than one place.

It’s trendy to talk about “the cloud” these days. Keep your stuff in “the cloud” and you can always get to it, forever and ever. Well, maybe, maybe not. It seems unthinkable now, but Google could go out of business and shut down Google Docs. Remember when AOL _was_ the internet for most people? I rest my case.

But keeping it just on your laptop’s hard drive is just as bad, if not worse. Hard drives crash. Yes, even that nifty all-flash-chip-no-enclosure-soldered-right-onto-the-motherboard drive in the new MacBook Airs can get corrupted. If you only have your data in one place, you have it nowhere.

A wise and popular theory making the rounds on the internets is called 3-2-1 Backup. In short:

* You should have at least 3 copies of your stuff
* In at least 2 physical locations
* And at least 1 of them should be off-site/cloud-based

And note that all of those include the words “at least.” More is better, assuming you can keep them all in sync. If you can’t, don’t try. Multiple inconsistent backups can be more confusing than helpful. But it’s really not that hard to have total piece of mind that your data is safe. Here’s how I do it.

First, I keep all of my files in [Dropbox]( If you haven’t heard of it, Dropbox is a service that keeps anything you put in your “dropbox” folder on your hard drive in sync with a copy on their servers. It’s encrypted, so you don’t have to worry about security. The really amazing thing about Dropbox is how flawlessly it works to keep multiple PCs in sync with each other. If I make a change to a file on my PC at work, that file will change on my PC at home almost instantly. Add that to how many of my iOS apps also work with Dropbox, and not only do I have access to the same files no matter which PC I’m on, but they’re also all redundant backups of each other. And in a pinch, you can always download a copy from So by itself, Dropbox satisfies 3-2-1 as soon as you sync it to two PCs in different locations (like home and work, assuming you don’t work at home).

But I’m more paranoid than that. So I also backup my home PC with [Carbonite]( This is straight up cloud based backup, not syncing like Dropbox. But it gives me unlimited storage to backup what ever I need from my home PC. I use it not only for my Dropbox content, but also my whole iTunes library of music, movies and TV shows.

Okay, so I’ve got my data on two PCs, various iOS apps,, and will have a third local copy when I buy the MacBook Air I’m drooling over. But wait! Still not done!

Microsoft makes a program they give away for free called [SyncToy]( The name is a little misleading. It was part of Microsoft’s Powertoys collection of unsupported utilities, but it’s been through many revisions and works like a champ. What it does is sync or backup any folder to any other folder. So I have it set to “echo” my Dropbox folder to a 4GB USB drive. Any changes I make to the Dropbox folder will be mirrored on the USB drive the next time I run SyncToy. So as long as run this regularly–I’m thinking weekly, but no more in case I need to restore something that has already been changed across the network–I have a third (or fourth) local copy of my data as well as the two copies in the cloud. And those copies exist on two (three) hard drives, a USB drive, two server farms from different companies and my iPhone. Short of a full-on apocalypse, my data is secure, and every file can be recovered no matter what bone head thing I do.

Blaming my tools

I was going to talk about my new sooper seekrit plan to release and market Unification Chronicles today, but I experienced some technical difficulties recently that I just have to rant about. We’ll get to the business plan stuff, I promise. Eventually.


For quite some time now, my writing system has been relatively simple and has served me well. I have a notebook in Evernote for each of my major projects. In each, I have various support materials along with a note for the manuscript itself. In this note, I have the outline for the book in plain text and a .docx file attachment for the manuscript. When it comes time to edit, I open the note, double click on the attachment and edit the document. Evernote is smart enough to update the note/attachment every time the file I’m working on is saved (it’s in a temp folder on my hard drive, but that doesn’t usually matter). I also keep my progress spreadsheets in similar notes and work on them in a similar way.

Until yesterday, this system worked flawlessly. I have Evernote on every PC I use: my work desktop and laptop, my personal netbook, my iPhone. It all works great. Right up until it doesn’t.

A while back, I upgraded my netbook to use the new Evernote 3.5 beta. Keep in mind, here, that I used to be a professional software developer. I would never trust my writing to something in the alpha stage of development, but a beta is supposed to be relatively stable, just not feature complete (see the Windows 7 beta as an example). Evernote has made it clear that they will not be supporting 3.1 very long after 3.5 is officially released, so I figured I may as well start getting used to it. So I installed 3.5 Beta 4(!) and set about my work.

Yesterday, the unthinkable happened. Somehow, as I was opening the note containing my manuscript, the attachment for my manuscript completely disappeared! I wasn’t able to undo, and the desktop synced the change back to the server, so I wasn’t able to pull the attachment from any of my other Evernote clients. It was just gone. Nothing in the trash in Evernote, just gone. 57,000 words of fiction, nearly 60 hours of work.

I scoured my hard drive looking for a backup or copy of the file. In the third place I looked, I found something that looked promising, and was able to get the file back. If that hadn’t worked, I would have been forced to reconstruct it from emails sent each day to my beta readers.

Psst, programmers. Yeah, you. C’mere. You NEVER, EVER screw with the user’s data! A friend of mine pointed out that I was using beta software, but ANY bug that can irretrievably destroy a user’s data should never have made it past alpha stage! I’ll accept a beta program crashing, but I will NEVER be okay with it trashing my data!

/whacks Dave Engberg in the head

So I decided to take my data elsewhere. If I can’t trust Evernote to never, ever lose my data, I can’t trust it at all. What else is out there?

A lot of people recommend Dropbox. So if figured, sure, I’ll give it a go. I installed it on my netbook, and hey, so far, so good. The UI is clean and efficient, and it doesn’t seem to kill my Via CPU netbook (it predates the Atom, we’re talking stone age netbook). Documents saved to folders inside the “dropbox” folder on my desktop are automatically synced both to the cloud and any other PCs I have linked to my Dropbox account. Feels a lot like Microsoft’s Live Mesh, only about a kajillion times faster.

And it worked great until I got to work this morning and tried to install it on my office PC. Evernote works fine over my corporate proxy server. It uses the same proxy settings as Internet Explorer, set up in the Control Panel, so it never even asked. It just worked. And while Dropbox claims to do the same, it doesn’t work. Nor does it work if I manually set up the proxy settings in Dropbox itself, which it does allow for (Seesmic for Windows doesn’t, which is why I can’t use it at the office). No matter what I do, I can’t get Dropbox to connect to the cloud through our corporate network goblins. Stupid goblins.

So that’s two highly regarded file sync solutions blown out of the water by my particular circumstances. I don’t trust Evernote anymore—even after downgrading it back to 3.1, because I know I can’t keep 3.1 indefinitely—and I can’t use Dropbox on the PC where I spend half my waking hours. So what’s left?

Sadly, the only thing that comes to mind is good old Sneakernet. I have a 2GB thumbdrive on my keychain, and for now, I’m just going to put everything on there, and periodically use Microsoft’s SyncToy to back it up to the Dropbox folder on my netbook. That way I can access my files on any PC—well, any PC that uses Microsoft Office 2007, because I’m not giving up Word; I’ve tried Google Docs and found it lacking—and as long as I remember to run SyncToy every so often, they’ll get backed up to both my netbook hard drive and the cloud. It’s an inelegant solution, because it relies on my markedly undependable wetware to remember to back it up, but that’s all I’ve got. Every other solution I know of doesn’t meet my requirements: support my corporate network, run on both the iPhone and Windows, and be safe and dependable.

How do you store your working manuscripts?