Accidents happen, files get saved over or deleted, viruses intrude, and hard drives fail. So why do so many of us ignore backups? Today I’ll share a simple practice to ensure you are always protected from data loss.

Even if you exclude accidental file deletion, viruses, dropping your computer, or disasters like fires or tornadoes and lighting, hard drives will always eventually fail. Today typical drives last about 4 years. While some have longer or shorter lifetimes, that middle average means you can never be completely sure when your drive’s day will come. The only way to be ready is with a backup.

There’s no shortage of backup methods. You can create your own backups by burning a CD every day, using a variety of backup software and tools, or even online services. While I’ve written before about my own recovery from drive failure, today I’m going to share the method I use as a bare minimum, using consumer-grade services and a tool built-in to Windows.

This popular backup strategy is known as the 321 rule, and it’s simple:

3.  always have at least 3 copies of your data
2.  stored in 2 different forms
1.  with 1 copy stored off-site

This sounds like a chore, but it’s really transparent and automatic once you set it up. Let’s look at how to do that.

Store Personal Files in OneDrive

If my computer fell into the ocean, all my important documents, irreplaceable photos, product keys, and projects would be safe. In fact, this is the only place I store my files when I’m working on my PC. My local “My Documents” folder is empty except for the junk that other programs like to throw there. These templates and presets are not important to me (any that would be are stored in OneDrive). In effect, the “My Documents” folder is essentially a personal temp folder.

Nothing of value goes into my 'My Documents' folder. All this junk is placed there by other programs and would be re-generated automatically when needed.
Nothing of value goes into my ‘My Documents’ folder. All this junk is placed there by other programs and would be re-generated automatically when needed anyway. It gets backed up in my File History, but I have anything I really need to keep in OneDrive.

Dropbox has about the same feature set and integrates with Office similarly, and Google and Amazon have competitive pricing. However I like the first two best.  Here’s how their billing options compare right now.

Service Free Version Pro/Add-Ons
Dropbox 2 GB of space Flat rate: $10/month for 1 TB, comes with extra sharing controls.
OneDrive 30 GB of space Pay for more space: 100 GB for $2/mo, or 200 GB for $4 and 1 TB for $7/mo.

30 GB is a significant amount of space, enough for tens of thousands of photos, millions of document files, hundreds of videos, and more.

Just by simply storing files in a synchronized online service, we have now fulfilled two of our three backup requirements: we have our files stored in 2 different formats, with one of them off-site (in the cloud).

Maintain a Local Backup Copy

For the last piece of my backup, I use the built-in Windows File History function, which is essentially the same as the Apple Time Machine backup drive feature. File History makes backups of your files and keeps multiple versions as files change, so you can literally “go back in time” and get an old copy of a file, or retrieve one that’s been deleted. File History takes about 30 seconds to set up and runs itself from then on.  Here’s the brass tacks:

  1. Plugin a nice roomy external hard drive. You can get these online, where a couple terabytes of space currently runs around $85 dollars USD.
  2. Add your OneDrive (or other online service folder) to your Documents library. Find your OneDrive folder, right-click, and choose “Include in Libraries > Documents”. A library is essentially a collection of shortcuts to other places, and File History uses this to build it’s scope of what to backup.
  3. In Control Panel, under System, turn on File History.

That’s it, at this point it’s hands-off; File History will run automatically in the background and during regular system maintenance. If you have a portable computer, File History will run whenever the drive is attached, so just plug it in every week sometime so the backup can be refreshed. Learn more about how to turn on File History here. This in-depth look at how File History was designed is also a great read.

Windows File History
File History backs up files as they get changed, and keeps incremental backups so you can restore any copy of it.

When everything is going smoothly, you’ll never see or look at File History. It just runs in the background, any time the drive is connected to your computer.  File History makes a backup every time a file gets changed or deleted. Two awesome examples:

  1. You make a change to a file and save over it, but you now need to see the older version.  Right-click the file, choose “Restore Previous Versions” and you can see all the backup copies. Choose one to look at or restore, or you can make a copy so you can keep both the old and the new.
  2. You accidentally delete a file, and let’s assume you also emptied the recycle bin.  There’s no file to right-click at this point, but if you go up a level and right-click the Folder the file used to be in, you can “restore previous versions” of that folder too. Then view the previous version of the folder, where the file will be, and get it back.

OneDrive online also has its own version history for an added level of redundancy, which you can access at OneDrive.com.

Putting it All Together

At this point, our only mental requirement is to always save our files to the OneDrive folder, and let the computer do the rest automatically.  At all times, you’ll have:

  1. The local copy of the file on your C: drive (in the OneDrive folder)
  2. The online copy of the file in the cloud (in OneDrive.com)
  3. The backup copy of the file in your File History (external drive)

With this setup, no single or even dual-point of failure can wipe out your files. A dropped laptop computer, a house fire, or even a disaster at the online storage service would not set you back.

If you ever get a new or replacement computer, you can just login to your online account and all your files will sync down to the new computer. And even if you don’t have a computer, your files will be available to you from any browser by going to OneDrive.com.