Modern Backup for DIY PC’s

TL;DR: Big external drives are cheap. Don’t over-complicate your backup setup. Even if you have SSD+HDD, just get a big USB drive and backup to it (in addition to cloud backup). If you have a smaller case with space constraints, consider a USB DVDR, since, who really uses optical media these days?

See below for the whole thought process.

Two years ago, when I built my current PC, I decided to go with a 128GB SSD and a 2TB hard drive. Mercury OWC Extreme for the SSD (which I had to replace after a year because it died), and the Samsung HD204UI, which despite good reviews, required a firmware patch, and has weird behavior when spinning up. Fast forward to today, I’m plodding along on my new Windows 8 install and up pops the (dreaded?) Windows SMART failure dialog. Something’s wrong with the Samsung drive it says (too bad it doesn’t tell you which SMART row triggered it).

Some poking around in CrystalDiskInfo and Acronis Monitor, I find out it’s the “spin up time” parameter. Apparently the drive takes too long to spin up, which is an impending sign of failure? I can’t tell whether to take this seriously since the googles is littered with posts about how this particular Samsung drive confuses a bunch of NAS’es because of it’s long spinup. This could all turn out to be a false positive. It’s really quite hard to tell.

This really got me thinking about backup. Until today, my backup strategy was as follows:

  1. Windows 7 scheduled backup which creates a full image of my boot SSD (os + apps) on the hard drive.
  2. Crashplan to backup any media of value to the cloud (photos, videos, music, etc.)

(The backing up of the OS drive was a hard lesson learned from having my previous SSD completely die on me one day, and having to do a complete rebuild.)

This all seemed fine until I got the SMART dialog. What if my HDD died tomorrow? Sure, all my files would be in the cloud somewhere, but restoring them all from the cloud (some few hundred GB’s) would be a huge ordeal. I’d also lose a bunch of the stuff on the HDD that wasn’t getting sync’ed the cloud. Nothing critical, but would suck to lose nonetheless.

I happened to have seen hard drive prices recently. ~100$ for a 2TB drive? ~140$ for a 3TB drive? If I could make these things last a couple years, that’s a pretty cheap local backup solution. I resolved to purchase one today, just in case the Samsung was really on it’s last leg.

But then another dilemma: what setup do I use? The options as far as I could tell, were the following:

  1. Get an internal drive, put it next to the existing one, use Windows 8’s File History or File Recovery to backup from existing drive to the other.
  2. Get an internal drive, use Windows 8’s storage pools to do some fancy mirroring.
  3. Get an external drive, and do the same as #1

There are a couple other annoying constraints in my situation. My current motherboard has only usb 2.0 and fw800 ports. No Esata. No USB 3.0. This means that at any external drive solution is going to be slow.

Another one: my desktop is housed in an mATX case, of which one 5.25 inch bay is consumed by the DVD burner, another is empty but has the SSD drive loosely sitting in it, and only one other 3.5 drive slot along the bottom of the case (where the current HDD is mounted… which I also realized is right where the fan from the GPU might be blowing, which can’t be good). The point is, adding another internal drive may take some heroics due to both bay availability, and constraints around power cabling.

Using Windows 8’s storage spaces was really tempting. Logical volumes and such seem like such a cool idea, if they worked and were reliable. But they’re also super complex. AFAICT the only one that is really proven for folks like me is ZFS, and that would require a whole different setup. Storage spaces might be the shit, but it’s really too new for me to trust my data to.

And even if it did work, what’s the benefit? In theory it’s that I would have zero downtime when one of the drives fails, but really, this is just my desktop. I can wait a few days for an RMA. It doesn’t seem worth the complexity or the additional risk.

So here’s where I ended up:

  1. Got a 3TB seagate external drive (and tacked on a 1 yr warranty extension). It’s USB 3.0, so may be fast when I upgrade some day, but USB 2.0 is fast enough for a purely backup drive.
  2. Got a samsung USB DVD burner. This thing was only $30. I realized that, since I basically never use my burner, having a big 5.25 inch bay taken up by it in my machine was actually a bad tradeoff. If I could take out the DVD drive, then that opens up options for mounting actual drives that I would care about.
  3. I’ll have the 3TB permanently hooked up to the desktop, backing up stuff from the existing HDD. Might use the File History (time machine for windows) or may just go with File Recovery (which is the Win7-style backup)

Some day I’ll probably end up having some box in my house with a giant ZFS storage pool in it, serving up stuff over the network. But I’m not there yet, and I’ll try to avoid the complexity for as long as I can.

Update: As I feared, storage pools still has some rough edges, as detailed in this Ars Technica article. The fact that it can’t rebalance when adding new stuff, and the fact the write perf is so slow.. does not make it a great idea especially across heterogeneous drives.

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