Do you have the best computer backup plan?

Everyone agrees backing up your computer is necessary but not all backup plans are effective. Here’s how to ensure you have the best computer backup plan giving you peace of mind knowing your computer is safe. 

It starts with the 3-2-1 Backup plan

The 3-2-1 Backup plan is simple — three copies of your data: Two stored locally, one stored off-site preferable to a cloud service like Backblaze or CrashPlan. It’s a simple concept that works until it’s modified. Some think having more than three copies is better. The problem? It gets too confusing. Stick with three. 

Disaster scenarios

Unfortunately, it’s not if a hard drive will fail, it’s when. Hard drives, even SSD drives, are not designed to last forever. They will fail at some point. The goal is to have zero downtime in each scenario. The exception is if your entire system is stolen or destroyed. Thankfully we have a plan for that too. Let’s review a few disaster scenarios.

The external hard drive fails

Solution: We use the local mirrored drive as the new working drive and the replacement drive gets rebuilt as the new mirrored drive. Zero downtime.

We delete an important file

Solution: Restore just that file from our off-site backup using their online tools. Zero downtime.

The drives are stolen or destroyed in a catastrophe

Solution: We restore from the off-site service using a seed drive they can send. Unfortunately, this will take time to recover. 

What’s needed for a 3-2-1 Backup system


Don’t misuse the word “backup.” The process of backing up refers to the copying and archiving of computer data so it may be used to restore the original after a data loss event.

That’s what I thought until I deleted a file on my main hard drive and couldn’t find it on my backup drive. I chose to use file syncing as my backup format. OK, so I fix that by selecting “full backup.” I looked at my new backup drive and couldn’t read it. To save space, “full backup” compressed my files, and the only way I could see them was with the software that was provided.

My final step was to mirror the drive. That worked great until I manually saved files to the mirror drive. The software deleted them on the next sync. Have I painted a frustration scenario?

Which one should I use?

Syncing: Creating two identical copies that are updated both ways. If a file or change is detected on drive A, drive B is updated. If a file or change is detected on drive B, drive A is updated. If you delete a file, both are deleted. This is great if you make changes on both drives. This is a preferred method for us.

Mirroring: Creating two identical copies that are only updated one way. We want our second drive to be the same bit-for-bit. If a file or change is detected on drive A, drive B is updated. The difference is that changes on drive B are ignored and erased.

Copying: Select all files from one hard drive and copy them to the other. There is no link. If you change something on drive A, drive B never sees it. Use this when you are giving away copies.

Backup: Create a compressed copy of every file: Deleted files, multiple changes to that file, every file you ever created. As you can imagine, this will require more storage than your original hard drive and it can only be read or restored with software. This is a perfect format for off-site backup. It can also be used for a dedicated system that is only used for backing up your system. But remember, the last part of our foolproof 3-2-1 plan? Have a stored copy off-site.


Depending on the amount of data you have will depend on the size and type of hard drives you need. Here are a few examples.

1TB of data or less: 1TB drives are plenty for documents, music and cell phone photos. If using this setup with a laptop, use your internal laptop drive as your main working drive, then back up to an external portable hard drive. You have to be disciplined and sync your drives plus back up to Dropbox or Google Drive. This setup isn’t bulletproof, but is better than nothing.

2TB–4TB of data: If you’re running a very small home-based business, you’re a weekend photographer or a photographer starting out in business, consider getting two external powered drives. External drives that have their own power source typically are 7200 RPM drives, which is the ideal speed we need.

Plan on doubling the amount of data you have. If you have 2TB of data, get two 4TB external powered drives. The downside is that when you reach your limit, you need to replace both drives, so plan accordingly. 

4TB or greater of data: If you are a professional photographer, work on mission-critical projects where downtime is not an option, consider getting two 12TB external powered drives or invest in a RAID system. RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) combines multiple physical disk drives and manages them into a single logical unit. If a hard drive fails, you simply replace it without losing data. If you reach your data limit, you simply add an additional drive.

RAID is designed to grow with your needs. The downside, it can get expensive. In the end, it’s well worth your investment.

Building a 3-2-1 Backup system

Now that we know what is needed for a 3-2-1 Backup system, let’s put it together:

  1. Attach both external drives and copy your data to just that drive. 
  2. Download and install with Syncback Pro (Windows), Carbon Copy Cloner (macOS) or the cloning application of your choice.
  3. Once you built one external drive, use the cloning software to make an exact copy.
  4. While the second drive is being built, purchase a Backblaze or CrashPlan account. Download their software and follow the directions to copy all content from your main external drive.

Following the 3-2-1 Backup concept will ensure you have the best computer backup plan, giving you peace of mind knowing your computer and photos are safe. 

Learn to protect your photos with this free eBook!

Written by the Photofocus team, this book features articles written over the last 20 years to help you with 3-2-1 backup, safe memory card usage, hard drives and more. Plus learn about services like Mylio and Amazon Photos that let you access to your photos from anywhere!