vista-hd2-backupAnyone who has heard me speak at a CLE or who reads this blog even occasionally knows that I preach the mantra of backup. This is especially important for lawyers, and doubly (triply? quadruply?) important for attorneys with paperless law offices. But I also practice what I preach, and I am willing to endure the criticism of the IT folks who read this blog for the greater good.

So, for the benefit of all, here is how I back up my files.


First, a note about my setup. I have a desktop/file server that I use at work. I have an unprivileged user account for my business files, and a regular user account for myself. This computer is connected to a Maxtor OneTouch external hard drive.

I have a laptop that I use everywhere else. Everything but the /boot partition is encrypted, and to get the maximum benefit of the encryption, I shut the laptop down whenever I move locations. I keep a Western Digital Passport portable external drive at home.

I use two free, open-source software tools for backup: rsync and Unison. Both are *nix-based software, although there are versions for Windows and OS X. Rsync is great for backup because you can use it to back up only files that have changed, making it very efficient. Unison syncs two sets of files so that both are identical, sort of like a two-way version of rsync (which is basically what Unison is). Both work well for backing up files over an encrypted internet connection using SSH.


I maintain at least two backups at all times, in at least two different places. In practice, I actually have eight backups of varying ages at a time, and at least one backup (usually two) is less than a day old.

  1. I back up my desktop automatically every night using rsync. This backup goes to a set of rotating backups, so there are always five days of backups available, in folders labeled for the days of the week.
  2. Whenever I work on my laptop, I start by syncing my files over the internet using Unison. This way, the copies on my desktop and laptop are rarely different by more than a day.
  3. I back up my laptop to my portable external hard drive about once a week using rsync after syncing the files using Unison. This is usually the most out-of-date copy, so it is a backup of last resort, if everything else fails.

I use my daily backups like an extended “undo” function, so I know they work. Since I can access those backups remotely, if necessary, I can restore files any time, anywhere. I like having five days of backups, plus the “last resort” backup, because if there is a problem and I don’t notice it right away, I can usually still find the file I need.


I wish I had some form of RAID on my work computer to protect against drive failure, but since there are at least four drives involved in my backup system, I am not overly worried about what I am using now.

At some point, I would like to move my business files to a standalone file server using RAID. When I do that, I will add an hourly (or more often) backup to the external drive. Then, if I did lose a drive, I would not lose more than an hour’s worth of work.

Bring on the questions and criticism!

(photo: Wikimedia Commons)

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