My computer ate my class notes!

This column was previously published in January 2009 in the Quid Novi, the newsletter for law students at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. Some of the information might be outdated and some might be targeted specifically at McGill law students.

We rely so much on our computers and laptop these days that taking good care of our computer files is a smart strategy. You laptop could be stolen, your hard drive could crash, or you can simply erase the document containing your notes. This article will go over some of the different ways you can backup your data, and give you some of the pros and cons of some of those methods.

The “do nothing” backing up method

This is by far the most popular and easiest to implement method. You don’t do anything. The only problem is that once something goes wrong, it really goes wrong. If your laptop is stolen, there is little you can do, besides going to the police. If you still have access to your hardware but have trouble finding your files, there might be some solutions. For example, Ontrack Data Recovery makes a product that allows you to recover files from corrupted hard drives (assuming the hard drive is still working). Another tool I used in the past is called WinHex: it’s a program that allows you to look at the raw content on your hard drive. You could use it to search for text you remember as being part of your document and try to extract it from the hard drive.

Anyways, I hope you read the rest of the article and never have to refer to this section when disaster strikes. While post-disaster solutions exist, they are never perfect.

WHERE: Trial of ontrack data recovery –
Trial of WinHex –
PROS: Least amount of effort – before disaster strikes.
CONS: No real plan for the aftermath.

Backing up to your local hard drive

This is one option which, if setup right, gives you some protection around accidental file removals. The problem with this option is that it’s like putting all your eggs in the same basket. If you lose your hard drive, you lose your backup. Since this isn’t really a solution, I won’t discuss it much further.

PROS: Can help with accidental file removals.
CONS: No redundancy.

Backing up to a USB key

I know many law students are quite fond of their USB keys. We can even get a whole collection at the upcoming career days. Personally, while this is better than the first option, I find it to be one of the worst forms of backups. Why?

First, these backups will typically be manually initiated. This means that if you don’t think about making that backup, you won’t have a backup. To avoid this problem, you can do something worse: use the USB key as your primary storage. This is done by opening and saving files directly on the key. This is risky because the likeliness of a USB key getting corrupted is higher than a hard drive getting corrupted. This could happen if you abruptly pull out the USB key from the computer (although there are settings to minimize this risk).

The list of negative reasons doesn’t stop here. Your key will either be carried with your laptop or separately. If it is stored with your laptop, there is a chance that if one gets stolen, the other one is stolen as well. If you carry them separately, and this can occur every time you plug your USB key somewhere, you have the chance of forgetting your USB key. If this was your primary copy, you have just lost all your files. And unless you encrypted your data, your files are for all to see. So for all these pessimistic reasons, I would stay away from using USB keys unless it’s a temporary way to transfer files.

WHERE: At the career days – although rumour has it that some firms are cutting down on the freebies.
PROS: Better than not doing a backup. Easy to carry around. Inexpensive.
CONS: Chances of corruption. Chances of losing the USB key. Manual backup method.

Backing up to a portable/external hard drive

This method shares some of the problems of the USB key. I won’t go into a detailed analysis, but one advantage is that if you buy a commercial solution (for example Maxtor One Touch hard drives, or LaCie Desktop Hard Disk), it will come with software to make backups easier. This could be a routine: every time you come home you initiate the backup process. I don’t like this solution because it’s not transparent: you have to remember to connect the external drive to your computer. One risk with this solution is that if your house is burglarized you have a chance of losing the external hard drive and your laptop. It’s also relatively more expensive than a USB key.

Where: LaCie hard drives –
Maxtor hard drives –
PROS: More robust than USB keys.
CONS: Expensive. Risk of being stolen. Manual backup method.

Backing up to a network location

By now some of you must be wondering, if I don’t like USB keys or external hard drives, what kind of solution do I recommend? My favourite solutions all revolve around using network storage. What is network storage? It’s relying on some storage unit that is accessible through a network, typically the Internet. These solutions typically share common characteristics which are rarely found in local solutions.

  1. 1. Network storage is often accessible from everywhere: unlike a USB key, you can’t “forget” your network storage anywhere.
    2. Network storage generally uses better equipment. A hard drive can crash, but companies providing network storage store the data on systems with multiple hard drives. If one hard drive crashes, the rest of the system functions without a hiccup.
    3. Network storage is more secure: provided you protect your password, then people cannot gain access to your files. The same cannot be said about a USB key.

McGill provides 100 megabytes of such storage that can be used by every student. You can use this space when you login the university computers. You can also access this space from the any computer.  To configure this, follow the “simple” instructions on the McGill ICS website (look for the WEBDAV instructions).

There are some issues with this solution. If you use the McGill space as primary storage, you run the risk of not being able to access your file when you lack Internet connectivity. If you use it for storing backups, which is what I would do, you have to remember to backup your files to it. The other problem is that 100 megabytes is not a lot of space, and it’s easy to fill it up. Still, it’s the best place to store your backups: it’s safe, it’s accessible everywhere and you can’t lose that space – at least not until you graduate.

WHERE: McGill storage –
Or go to and search for 1898.
PROS: Free. Secure. Safe. Easily accessible.
CONS: Limited space. Manual backup method.


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