Two is One and One is None

Thoughts on the need for backups and options available today.


You may have heard the often-repeated phrase “two is one and one is none”.  I’ve heard that it originated with the Navy SEALs.  It is similar in meaning to “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” or more simply the Boy Scout motto of “Be Prepared”.

Two is One and One is None is really all about redundancy.  When most people think of redundancy they have a negative connotation.  It sounds wasteful.  That certainly can be a definition of redundancy but when IT people think of redundancy we think in terms of backup systems or protection against failure.  In this case redundancy is not wasteful but a tool used to ensure smooth operation of the systems.  Redundancy eliminates what we refer to as the “Single Point of Failure”.  The new term for this is antifragility.

What does this have to do you with you?  Computer backups.

We are so used to all the devices in our life working as expected we often forget that things do occasionally go south.  Think about it.  You have spent months scanning and organizing your family photos, your music library, your ideas for a best-selling novel, etc.  Then the unthinkable happens:

  • You accidentally delete your files
  • Your favorite application corrupts your files (I won’t name the application but I spent hours recovering from an “upgrade”)
  • Viruses could corrupt, delete, or encrypt your files
  • Your hard drive crashes
  • Your computer won’t boot, repeatedly crashes – in this case there is hope, find an IT friend; they can most likely recover your files
  • You experience a fire, tornado, or other disaster

Without backups there is not much you can do to recover your files in these scenarios but if you have backups you can rest soundly knowing your files are safe.  Two is one and one is none.  For the extra cautious or paranoid (or those burned by an “upgrade”) I prefer the “Three is two, two is one, and one is none” approach myself.

Maybe you never thought about backups before but I’ve scared you enough and you are ready to begin.  What now?  There are several options – each with pros and cons.  Here are a few:

  • Use the built-in backup utility with your computer. Depending on your operating system this varies.  I’m not going to cover the details here because I don’t recommend this option.  The pro is it free, the cons are 1) it requires your computer to be working, 2) it keeps the backup on the same system so viruses, hard drive failures, fire, etc. could destroy both copies.  One is none.
  • Purchase backup software. This can be a good option if done correctly.  These software packages are often more flexible that the built-in backup utility.  They might have the ability to backup to the cloud solving the single point of failure problem of keeping your backups on the same system.  If you don’t want to use the cloud feature you could backup to external drive that you disconnect after each backup.  Ideally you would take it to another location as well (think fire, tornado, etc.) but this requires strong discipline on your part.
  • Use a cloud back service. There are several available that are very easy to use.  Not endorsing any but here is a list to get you started: Carbonite, Backblaze, Crashplan.  Read up on each (and others) to find the one right for you.
  • Store your documents directly in the cloud. There are many solutions that allow you to save you files locally and synchronize them to a cloud service: OneDrive, iCloud, Google Drive, Dropbox are a few.  If you go with this approach I would still recommend another backup solution since changes are always synchronized between the local and cloud copies so if you delete or corrupt a local file it will be deleted or corrupted in the cloud as well.

Only you can determine the value of your files and therefore what you are willing to spend for your backups.  Hopefully after reading this you have a better understanding of the need for backups and your options.  Also, after implementing your backup strategy you impress all your friends by saying things like “yeah, I’ve taken steps to increase my antifragility; you should look into it”.  That is sure to be conversation starter at your next gathering.



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