Several days ago at work I had someone approach me with a terrible tale of woe. They were helping a graduate student with a technical problem and wanted some guidance from me. The graduate student had a USB memory stick that had their entire academic production stored on it and they didn’t have backups anywhere else. This student went to Wal-Mart to print out pictures that were stored on this memory stick and when they had returned to Walwood they found that the memory stick no longer worked.
Then I got involved when the staff member helping this graduate student came to me with proxied panic about the data that this graduate student had lost. I plugged the device into my iMac thinking that at least the Mac would be able to display some sort of basic block device even if the filesystem was corrupted or damaged somehow. The USB memory stick was very old and my Mac noticed the device but refused to even display the block device details – so while the controller was apparently working, the channels further along towards the flash memory chips was not working as expected. There was nothing I could do to help the graduate student or the staff member and I felt just terrible. That there are no backups just made the panic more present and awful.
What could the graduate student do to mitigate this? The answer is in the clouds. I told the staff member that it wasn’t enough to simply tell graduate students that they should get some sort of cloud infrastructure to put their information on, but that they had to be stronger about it. That they had to insist that all students get some sort of cloud infrastructure to store their data. The cloud infrastructure that I prefer hands down is Dropbox. I use Dropbox and I love it, but when I tried to extend Dropbox services for the University I ran into some legal issues which pretty much precluded me using it – but none of that would preclude graduate students from using the system.
What is it about the cloud that drives me to it so strongly? It takes away a huge issue in one firm slash. The question of backing up your data. Using the cloud effectively abstracts away storage from the user, takes it elsewhere to be handled by people who spend their entire time only considering the proper storage and backup of data. Dropbox relies on Amazon S3 for primary storage and it’s Amazon that does the backups and the media shifting and everything that if you were to read an older “protect yourself” blog post would encourage you to do yourself. Instead of relying on you to do all the heavy lifting, which lets face it, we all want the benefits of that protection but sometimes getting to that point can be daunting, having it abstracted away makes a lot of sense. If there is a problem with Amazon S3, then the Internet has a bigger problem and if that’s the case, I would argue that Earth has a problem and that singular condition trumps the conditions of your backups because there are other more important things to consider. Now, please note that I am not directly advocating loading your data into Dropbox and then ignoring secondary backup completely, but for the majority of people out there, I do believe that Dropbox and Amazon S3 is enough to ensure your data security and persistence enough to stop here. Nothing stops anyone from duplicating their Dropbox contents on another storage medium but only those who are really invested in technology really need to move beyond what Dropbox provides.
I think every student should get a Dropbox account. The basic one is free and you can store up to 2GB and Dropbox has several ways you can win more space, such as referrals and such. For the panicked graduate student there is little that can be done beyond perhaps using a data recovery service such as the one I had previous experience with, Secure Data Recovery but the price tag on recovery with them is very expensive. You only use their services because you have to, and it’s a blessing that they are there, for when shit hits the fan.
I also think as a sidelight to this, that people invest in a diversified storage layout, especially when using public systems like those at Wal-Mart. Flash drives are very cheap now and it’s easier to kill a cheap throwaway “sacrificial lamb” than it is to watch your entire life disappear in a puff of logic from an overused terminal and it’s possibly damaged or shorted-out USB port. It is also my strong professional recommendation that people put lifespans on the devices they depend on. USB Hard Drives should be replaced after five years, no matter how long they have been running or not. USB sticks should be replaced every six months. Flash technology is not bulletproof, these devices degrade over time and it’s best to be safe and not sorry and if it costs a little extra or seems wasteful, then my argument is, so be it. Better to waste money on devices you don’t need then have to spend a thousand times more to recover data from a device that you errantly depended upon for far too long.
If I were in the academic sector at my University I would take this threat very seriously and as a value-added service to the student population I would find some way to set up a “University Cloud” storage system, and open-source variant that provides the same functions that Dropbox provides, alas, I am on the wrong side of the aisle on this, so all I can do is load my good ideas into my professional trebuchet and lob it over the walls of the ivory tower. Maybe someone will read this and it’ll spark something. Just some cursory searching on the network has led me to some possibilities:
Thanks to Quora for this list
Above and beyond everything else, when your life is becoming more and more digitally based it becomes a new vital thing to protect yourself from loss. The maxim “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is more relevant and important than you may have originally considered. Don’t end up being pushed up against a wall, protect yourself, backup your digital life!