How much is the data on YOUR computer’s hard drive worth?

This is for my friends and family in hopes that you read it and take action before you have the “Oh crap my computer won’t boot now what?” scenario. I’ve worked in Information Technology for 10 years now. Trust me, if you use a computer, some day you will find yourself in this scenario.

Your data is valuable

What is on your computer’s hard drive?

  • Important (and not so important) documents.
  • Bank Statements or bank information.
  • Tax Returns created by tax preparation software.
  • Your school work for your high school, college, post-grad degree.
  • Everything you’ve purchased from iTunes, Amazon MP3, or other services.
  • Digital pictures of your friends, families, pets, and whatever else you’ve pointed your camera at.

You may be able to recreate those documents, but some of that data cannot be replaced if it’s lost. If you want to download the music from the iTunes Store again, you’ll have to pay full price for each song/album. The same is true for Amazon’s MP3 store. (iTunes: Why do I need to back up my music library?, Amazon MP3: Can I download another copy of my MP3 files after the initial purchase?) Your pictures are a snapshot in time. We don’t have time machines that will allow you to go back in time and take another picture to replace the ones you lost.

Do you consider your time to be valuable? If you can honestly answer no, please write out a full argument justifying your position. I’m sure that it would be worthwhile reading. For the rest of us who will answer “yes, my time is valuable” consider that creating those files stored on your computer took time. We haven’t attached a dollar value to it, but already that data has some value.

In the case of digital data that you have purchased, assigning a value is obvious enough. A song purchased from the iTunes store costs $0.69, $0.99, or $1.29. The latest version of Turbo Tax costs around $60 to buy and download. The school work for your college degree could be valued in the time it took to create the documents as well as the money that you are paying for for education. Even if you’re a K-12 student your education isn’t free. Taxpayers are funding the public schools, and some day you’ll be a taxpayer too. 

So how much is that data worth?

It seems like a hard question to answer, and would involve multiple spreadsheets, extensive time tracking, job costing, and any multitude of processes that could be applied to determine the value of your data. At first glance, it seems like a task that could take hours, days, or even longer to answer.

Let me make it much simpler. The minimum worth of the data stored on a single hard drive is $600-$2,500. That is what I was quoted when I looked into a well known service to recover data off of a failed hard drive. Fortunately for me, the failed hard drive had nothing that couldn’t be replaced, and most of it was backed up. Keep in mind, this pricing was from 2007. At work, we’ve paid the same well known service $1,500 to recover a single file that was accidently deleted.

Back it up!

Instead of depending on a service who may or may not be able to recover data that was accidently deleted or was stored on a damaged drive, back your data up! If you have only a single copy of your data your data is at risk, but proper data backup goes beyond having a second copy of your data.

For starters, get yourself an external hard drive to connect to your computer(s) that is exclusively dedicated to backups. My current favorite drive is the LaCie Rugged Hard Drive ($96.96 – $128.99 on Amazon.com). The drive is bus powered so you simply connect it to your computer’s USB or FireWire port. No power supply required. The drive works great with both Windows and Mac OS.

Backing up to an external hard drive is a good first step. To really protect yourself, you need to have an off site backup as well. If your house was broken into the thief would take your computer and your external hard drive. Keeping your backup hard drive in your safe may solve the problem of the thief (you do have your safe bolted to the floor so the thief can’t steal your safe right?) but what about fire?

Paper documents stored in a fire safe are more resilient to heat than our digital media. Your safe may only have a half-hour to two hour rating for fire protection, and even if the fire is extinguished before you meet your safe’s UL rating your data is still at risk.

You need an offsite backup.

One option would be to have two external hard drives. One that you have at home and another that you store offsite. The LaCie drive I linked to above is small enough that you could easily fit it into a smaller safe deposit box at your bank. It fits perfectly in my $40 per year box.  Having two external drives requires some diligence on your part as you have to remember to change your drives on a rotation.

In any backup strategy, the human element is the most common failure. An alternative to this type of offsite/onsite rotation that requires human intervention is to use a service that will backup your data to a company’s servers on the internet. This option shouldn’t be used by anyone on dial-up or who is using a Version, Sprint, T-Mobile, etc. cell phone or data card as their primary internet connection. Dial-Up is too slow, and the cell phone companies usually have a 5 GB limit on data transfer.

If you have DSL or cable internet service, services such as Carbonite, JungleDisk, and BackJack provide excellent offsite backups. To be on the safe side, store a hard (paper) copy of your offsite backup’s authentication information (username, password, encryption keys, etc.) in that $40 a year safe deposit box at your bank.

I’m using JungleDisk myself and it’s working well for me. I’ve heard good things about the other services but I haven’t used them myself. JungleDisk uses Amazon S3 (Simple Storage Service) or Rackspace Cloud Files to store data. Carbonite and BackJack provide their own storage service. 

OK I’m convinced, now what?

Now it’s time to get your backups working. I would never finish this post if I wrote out instructions. Here are a few resources to get you started:

Leaving you with a song…

I don’t remember where I found this little adaptation of “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” but I never forgot it after reading or hearing it for the first time.

Sung to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It:”

If you can’t afford to loose it back it up!
*clap*clap*clap*
If you can’t afford to loose it back it up!
*clap*clap*clap*
If you can’t afford to loose it
then there’s no way to excuse it.
If you can’t afford to loose it back it up!
*clap*clap*clap*


Silly maybe, but also true.

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