The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

Backups, Networks and a Digital Home

– January 5th, 2012 –

Since I’ve been using computers, I’ve been unfortunate enough to have quite a few of them to fail on me. Usually mechanical failures. Failures that start with a ‘can you smell that smoke?’, or ‘Can you hear that rattling noise?’. You know the kind? The kind of failures that never end well.

Over the years, I’ve had the following either blow up, splutter and die, melt, catch fire, or just simply stop working:

  • 1 graphics card
  • 2 Power units
  • 1 LCD screen inverter
  • 2 Logic boards
  • 2 RAM controllers
  • 4 hard drives

It’s the last in the list that has caused me the most pain and anguish. Since then, I’ve been paranoid about finding a good, sensible, relatively cost-effective way of ensuring that when hard drives die — and they do — that I won’t lose any data. Losing work is bad enough, but losing precious photographs, or your entire music collection is worse.

A Digital Home in 2005

In 2005, Emma and I made the decision to sell our DVD and CD players, digitise all of our DVDs, tapes, CDs, records and stuff. Declutter our shelves from all this crap and go completely digital. To do this we needed a few things:

I went back and forth on several solutions, but opted for Apple TV in the end. Simply because we can buy shows and music, rent films and it’s easy. For a while, I used a Lacie RAID server (2TB storage) that doubled up as my work backup when I started freelancing. It was a decent bit of kit and has lasted very well (we still use it at Mark Boulton Design now). What was lacking in all of this was a backup. The NAS was expensive, so I couldn’t afford two. It was RAID, which eased my fears somewhat (until the controller actually went a few months ago).

So, I did without backup. Luckily for me, there’s no bad ending to this little story. There could have been. The drive lasted well but our media was outgrowing our storage, and I needed a way of expanding it, plus the nagging in my head that I could have some kind of hardware failure and lose everything.

A Digital home in 2012

Last year, I reorganised our storage. I bought a 4TB RAID G-Technology drive (they’re excellent), which was hooked up to my iMac and I kept my iTunes and iPhoto libraries on there. I had an old Airport Express which I put in the kitchen attached to a B&W Mini Zeppelin (which have to be heard to be believed: stunningly rich sound for a small unit), and an Apple TV in both the living room and the bedroom. These have both been ‘flashed’ with aTV Flash.

Network diagram

I’ve been using aTV flash for a few years, ever since using it on my first gen Apple TV. It provides a bunch of additional features, but by far the most useful to me is the media player which plays different file formats and also has an automatic hook into IMDB for importing meta data.

But what about backups?

Still the nagging in my head continued. We have all of our digital files sitting on one drive. Movies, music, TV shows, but most importantly our photographs. Photographs of the moments both of our children were born, our wedding, holidays, of people no longer with us. Photos I just couldn’t lose.

Last year, I sat down and had a good think about the best way to back all of this up that wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg. I opted for buying another 4TB drive which mirrored my library and would backup daily using SuperDuper. That took care of drive failure in the primary drive. But, what about if there was a double drive failure, or a fire or flood? I decided that the photos were most precious and I would back these up to Amazon S3 nightly using Arq. Of course, with the addition of iTunes Match late last year, my music also now had a cloud backup option. Work and documents are backed up to Dropbox, and I have Backblaze on continueous backup.

Backup diagram

There we have it. Paranoid? Probably.

Of course, for the backups, you could opt for something simpler; like a Time Machine and Capsule. Or you could buy a DAT tape drive. Or backup everything to Amazon S3. or just use iCloud for all your documents and photos. That’s the thing; there are so many bewildering choices out there for such an important aspect of consuming all your media in digital form. It’s so bewildering, the size of the data in question is so large, that most people don’t bother. Until it’s too late.

For playing media in your home, there are an increasingly wide range of devices available: from Boxee to Sony’s new player. There’s a lot of choice for the consumer.

After six years the nagging in my head is slightly reduced. As I said at the beginning of this post, I’ve had hardware fail many times before. I’ve lost data. I’ve lost work in the many tens of thousands of pounds that had to be recreated. If your media is primarily digital, spending a few hundred pounds, and putting in place a good scheduled backup solution, could save you the heartache of losing data in the future.

Filed in: personal.

Further reading