I doubt there’s anybody out there who doesn’t use some kind of software to type and store their manuscripts. Even if you enjoy writing by hand– some do, in order to submit your work you still have to transcribe all your work on a computer. So, what I want to talk about today is: what do you do to protect your data from theft and loss, and what techniques do you employ to enable remote access to your data, while still keeping it secure.
There are three sides to this issue, as follows: data availability (where do you write?), data protection (how to protect your work files from being lost?), data security (how do you protect your work files from being stolen?)
If you are like me, you are a busy writer. You have a full-time job, a full-time family, you do full-time chores at home, and try to be a social person and meet with your friends and family once in a while. So, the need to be able to write on the run is more and more stringent. This means being able to access your electronic files and work on them from anywhere becomes paramount, especially if you want complete time-sensitive tasks, such as writing a novel in 30 days.
Remote data access has been growing in popularity over the last few years. The idea started as a collaboration tool, allowing a team of people to share access to files. Lately it became more and more popular with individual users who need to have access to their files in multiple locations and on different devices. Two ideas come to mind: Cloud Services and Data Sharing Services.
In layman terms, a cloud service is a service that is being delivered to you from the Internet. Typically the service is accessed through a regular Internet browser and doesn’t require the installation of any software on your computer. It is usually available regardless of the hardware and software platform, so compatibility is very high. Let’s look at some of the cloud services available for writers and then we’ll look at some pros and cons:
- Google Docs – By far the market leader in online document editing.
- Zoho Writer – This is a good Google Docs follower, full of features and easy to use.
- Adobe Buzzword – This is for more advanced users and runs in Flash
- Etherpad – Simple, open-source solution for online editing
Pros: Compatible with any system, as long as your browser is supported, easy to use.
Cons: You need an internet connection at all times, sometimes a good speed to get good results.
Personally I only use cloud services, Google Docs in particular, if I am stranded somewhere with internet and without access to my files. I create temporary documents, which I then transfer to my permanent work folders later on.
Data Sharing Services
These include a suite of services that allow you to share data between multiple devices (computers, tablets, etc.) You basically create a folder structure on your computer, and share that through this service. As you work and modify files, the sharing service grabs them and copies them online in your secured account. Then, when you turn on another device, part of the shared group, the service copies all the changed files, basically synchronizing your work. This is really good because you don’t need an internet connection to work, you only need it when you want to sync your files. Let’s look at some services like that:
- DropBox – This is one of my favorites tools and I use it all the time. I highly recommend it.
- SugarSync – This product has a few more features and gimmicks than Dropbox, but Dropbox’s simplicity makes this one my second choice.
Pro: Your files are backed up automatically in the cloud and on all the devices that you use.
Cons: There’s a possibility to damage files if you are not careful, and you still need internet connectivity to do the sync.
Here is a typical scenario for this: you have your home computer, a laptop and a computer at work. You install Dropbox on all of them and share your working files. Every night when you turn off your home computer, your files are already in the cloud. In the morning, you grab your laptop so you can write on the train. The laptop has all your files. You work on it throughout the day, return home and continue to work on your home computer, all seamless. You don’t have to copy files through USB drives, email them to yourself and so on. The only caveat: your laptop must connect to a network to upload.
This is how I do it: in the morning I turn my laptop on and let it “pull” the data by itself over my Wi-fi. Then I work on it during the day, and in the evening I turn it on at home and let it “push” the data. Now all my work is in three places: on my home computer, on my laptop and in the cloud.
You will ask: why can’t I just move stuff on USB drives or send it to myself via e-mail? Well, for one, why would you spend that time doing it manually, when it can be done automatically for you? Secondly, you will run in versioning issues. You will copy a file on the USB, then get busy, and three days later you cannot recall which version from where is the last one, and you start checking and wasting time.
There’s one caveat here and you have to keep it in mind. If you open a shared file on one computer, you work on it and don’t save it, then you go on the second device, work on the same file and you save it, then you return to your first computer and save – you lose your work from the second device. This is easily corrected: remember to ALWAYS save your work, and ALWAYS close the applications you use before moving to a different device.
Computers and all related devices are an integral our life and here to stay. But, we all know and have experienced this at one point or another – they break. When they break they have a tendency to create a huge chaos in your life because if the problem is significant you might lose all your data.
So, let’s talk backup. First of all, the cloud services mentioned above are a backup in themselves: the pure cloud services already store your data remotely and those companies have their own backup and disaster recovery procedures. The data sharing also mirrors your data on other devices. So, if you implement a Dropbox, for example, you are already safer than most people.
But let’s not stop there: you also want what is called a long-term backup solution. A place you don’t need to access all the time, but you know it stores all your data. Sort of like a vault that you only open in emergencies.
Long term data backup programs usually backup your data as it changes, in real-time. So, if your PC breaks in this moment, you might be able to recover everything up to an hour ago. Let’s look at some of the services that you might use:
- Carbonite – This is my favorite personal backup solution. It only costs $59 per year for unlimited backup. It’s fast and works behind the scenes.
- Mozy – This is similar to Carbonite, but I find it a bit less intuitive.
- iDrive – iDrive offers a free plan for 5GB, but you might want to consider their $59 plan instead.
- Amazon Glacier – This is by far the cheapest solution ever, at $0.01 per GB. Yes, 1 penny! The caveat here is that if you need to restore data, it takes a long time and it’s not free.
Pros: Your data is safe and it can be recovered at any time.
Cons: There are no off-site unlimited free backup services, so you will have to pay for these.
The best thing to do is to have your Dropbox installed on your devices, and then on one of the devices, usually your home computer, you add your Dropbox folder to the long-term backup. So, guess what: if your PC burns, your laptop gets stolen, your IPad is eaten by zombies and you forgot your Dropbox password– you can still recover your data. Now that’s disaster recovery at its best!
I mentioned above the increasing need of being able to work remotely, on the run, and in different places. One solution is to have your working files available on a laptop or IPad, sync them with some of the services above or move them with USB drives and via e-mail.
One way or another your data will get on your laptop and your laptop will travel with you. And when that happens, there is always the danger of losing your laptop or having it stolen. And that’s even worse if you use USB drives. You put it in your pocket, but not really, and now your entire 300 page novel is on the floor in Starbucks.
So, what can you do to protect yourself? Is the password on your computer enough? The answer is no, it is not. It’s extremely easy to extract data from a computer, even if you lack the password for the operating system. The correct answer is: encryption. Here are a few solutions for you:
- TrueCrypt – this is an open source, free tool designed by a bunch of smart people. This tool can encrypt your entire computer or laptop with military grade encryption, and won’t let you set wimpy passwords.
- BitLocker – This is the Microsoft solution for encryption. Needless to say, not too many people like it.
- DiskCryptor – Another open-source solution, similar to TrueCrypt. If you want to choose between them, go with TrueCrypt.
Most of these encryption programs ask you for a strong password. I recommend using a full sentence as password, for example: “This Is Nuts 1928#$%”. Don’t use anything that can be guessed in any way.
These programs can also encrypt your USB drives, therefore protecting your data when you travel with USB drives.
Putting it all together
Folks, let’s face it: you work for a year (or years) on a novel, you dedicate a big chunk of your life to it, and you also expect to get a lot out of it. Don’t let it all go to waste because you didn’t prepare for a disaster. Also, don’t waste precious writing time with trivial tasks that can be done for you.
Here’s your checklist:
- Do you have all your working files organized nicely under one main folder?
- Did you install a Dropbox type solution to share your data between devices and the cloud?
- Did you install a long-term backup solution?
- Did you install encryption software on any of your mobile devices (laptops, USB drives)?
- Do you take a snapshot of your work on a permanent medium every 6 months?
Yes, I added the last one, and it’s a good representation of my own paranoia. Despite all the other things that I do, I still like to make one password encrypted archive of ALL my work, every 6 months, and burn it on a DVD. I only keep four of the most recent DVDs. Ideally, if you are crazier than me, you would store the most recent one in your bank’s safety box.
There you have it, folks. I hope it was useful.
I am curious to hear any data loss horror stories from you, and also any suggestions for other types of tools that you used or heard of and you think they might be useful for this purpose.