We travellers nowadays carry digital equipment. Laptops, tablets, smartphones and digital video and still cameras. We create a lot of digital data like documents and even more digital media like photos or videos. The biggest mistake you can make is to ignore backing up your data. Broken hardware can be replaced, software can be reinstalled but lost data is gone forever and cannot be replaced! There are many scenarios how data can get lost: User failure like accidental deletion (happens quite often), failing hardware, theft, natural events like flooding, viruses or cyber attacks. You might think you are careful and it won’t happen to you. You might even be lucky to be right, but at some point it is very likely any of the named scenarios will happen to you too. If you have no backup, your data is lost forever! I have seen people lose all their photos and it’sone of the worst things that can happen in your digital life.

The biggest mistake you can make is to ignore backing up your data!

Already before I left on my journey I had thought about how to keep my important data, mainly photos, safe on the road. My main concern was to lose photos through a broken laptop, failing harddrives, theft, robbery and so on. Pictures are probably the single most valuable “good” you bring home from your trip (except your memories and stories of course).

This article will give you an overview of the most common backup options but won’t discuss detailed configuration of these. I will however share with you some of my thoughts on them.

Optical Discs

Well, pretty old school, the youngest generation might not even know this is possible. Modern laptops don’t have optical drives anymore, so you would have to find an internet cafe to do so. Write and reading speeds are also from yesterday, so you will need a good portion of patience. Then writable DVD’s have a pretty limited lifespan, they can fail after a few years even when storing them correctly. I have pulled out some CD’s with photos after some years andmy Computer couldn’t read them any more. Even at home people start using on demand movie streaming services instead of having to handle DVD or Bluray discs. This was never an option for me and it shouldn’t be for your either.

Modern laptops miss optical drives, the discs are slow and fail easily.

The good

  • Optical discs (CD, DVD, Bluray) are fairly cheap
  • Can be bought almost anywhere
  • Can easily be shipped home

The bad

  • Optical discs can and will fail at some point
  • Computer with optical drive necessary or you need to find internet cafes to burn your discs
  • Can break easily if not stored correctly
  • Very slow transfer speeds

External Drives

Certainly a practical way to go but it doesn’t free you of the risk of unexpected device failure. A bunch of USB sticks or two harddrives to keep at least two backups of every file make the failure less likely but I have heard of people experiencing the unlikely event of two harddrives acting up or even failing at the same time. Much more, it’s only halfway protecting you from thievery, you need to make sure to pack the multiple backup devices at different locations, but if you’re stripped to your underwear by a bandido this won’t help you either.

Of course you could always send a harddrive home once in a while but it’s not like you can buy them in any village’s little computer store and it will sum up pretty quickly. You could do with USB memory sticks and send those home, easier to find and cheaper, but they can also fail. I do carry some USB memory drives as well but they serve mostly to share data to other people. My RAW pictures would fill them way to quickly.

If you wanna go the “shipping home” route I suggest using USB memory sticks, always make copies on two seperate sticks and send them home seperately on different days or with different mailing service providers. This will minimize the risk of failing drives or the provider loosing your mail. For me, to much of a hazzle and there is always some risk left of the rare coincidence of everything failing at the same time.

An external harddrive keeps your data seperate from your laptop, it is easier to hide than your computer and you can send it home.

At first I did not use an external drive, I thought I simply upload my photos to my server after working on them and I can always work on them online in the cloud if I need to. However I started to use an external harddrive for the following reasons: My laptop simly has limited storage, especially since I take pictures in RAW where a single photo is easily 30 MB in size. Having ALL photos locally with me makes it easier to go back and work on some of them if I want to. Trying to work on a photo that has to be downloaded first from a server through a slow internet connection is simply a pain.

Note that my external harddrive is not my backup. I do import my photos on my laptop harddrive, but once I have culled them they are going to the external drive. In another article I will present you my photo workflow, so stay tuned for that.

The good

  • Your data is always with you
  • Data available offline
  • Fast access to your files
  • Easy to share data when together with other people (and they have their computer with them)
  • Drives can be shipped home

The bad

  • Drives can fail
  • Drives can be stolen
  • Shipped drives can get lost or damaged
  • A little bit of space needed to carry them safely

Cloud Services

Everything happens in the cloud now. For me as an IT professional this was the most obvious way to go. I am aware that in latin american countries I won’t usually find a fast internet connections with an upload speed like at home (100 Mbit/s is becoming quite normal in the german speaking countries, even upstream). But I know, as long as I am not talking Africa, I will always find a hotel with a “decent” connection and even 1 Mbit upstream does the job since I can run my uploads while out and about or fast asleep. Then my data is safely stored in another location away from the local risk of hardware failure, theft and so on.

The only way to really keep your data safe from all risk is to always have at least two copies of your files in geographically seperated locations.

There are many services out there you can use, no matter which one you choose you may have to get a paid subscription since free online storage is usually limited. I suggest testing out various providers on their free plan or the free trial to see if it serves your purpose. Also pay attention for a comfortable way to upload your pictures and see that their software supports a one-way-sync (i.e. upload sync only). Because at some point you might just run out of space on your laptop and want to delete your files locally after they have been uploaded. Synchronization is not a real backup since also local delete operations are synced to the cloud. That’s why it’s called synchronization to keep everything in sync in the same state. The cloud sync is actually to make your data available anywhere (where you have internet).

The most popular options to choose from are Google Drive (unlimited free storage for photos up to 16 megapixel), Dropbox (get additional 500MB with this link), Microsoft Onedrive (get additional 500MB with this link), Box or iCloud if you are an apple user. They offer some free but quite limited storage space between 2-15 GB. There are different subscription plans available to extend your available storage space. They all offer synchronization of your data and photos and you can also sort your pictures in galleries and share them with other people. If you are an Amazon prime user (which you might not be on extended travels) you have unlimited storage for photos on Amazon Drive.

More geared towards photos however you will want to check out smugmug (get 20% discount with this link). While there is no free plan (but you can run a 30 day trial) they offer unlimited storage for pictures in their subscription plans. The different plans offer different kind of “website” funcionality to share your picture galleries with your friends or the public. You can not just create galleries but also write travel reports along with your photos (like a blog) and then share it with friends or even have a photo book printed from your galleries and reports. Check out their showcase.

The official smugmug software for your computer allows drag and drop upload of your photos but you can also find third party software to automate upload of photos you put in a certain folder. One of them is PicBackMan which you can use for free but automatic upload is limited to 500 photos a month. Another option is giraffeupload but there is no free plan. Also read smugmug’s article on third party software.

I am not using smugmug myself but I have helped a friend to set it up. It’s pretty cool how you can organize your galleries. But at the time of writing this I must say the app fro android is pretty bad. It supports manual and automatic upload of your photos from your phone to an existing or new gallery but there is not “organize” feature in your app, so you will have to use the website interface to move your photos in between galleries.

Update 2016/03: Note that currently smugmug does not support RAW files, this might be a problem for serious photographers. For backing up your RAW files I would recommend Amazon Cloud Drive which has currently the best offer in place. Either you get unlimited photo storage along with your Amazon Prime account (RAW count as photos as well but everything else is limited to 5 GB) or you get the unlimited cloud drive plan (no prime needed). The offer for 60 US$ a year or 70€/year for unlimited everything has no competetition at this moment! It also supports creating albums and preview of your photos. One disadvantage for forum users is that you cannot create a clean jpg url link to use in your forum posts though.

I did not go with any of those services. Why? First, I don’t like subscription plans and the free options don’t offer enough storage. Even if they would they might suddenly decide to cut down storage on their free plans like Microsoft did with onedrive. Second, those companies tend to change their terms and conditions more often than you change your underwear (ok, a tiny bit of exageration but you get the point). Third I would simply prefer to have my private data in a private space and have more control over my data. And last but not least I simply like to play around with my own IT “gadgets”. :)

The good thing however on those services is that they have usually quite fast servers and connections and also they take care of backing up your online data in case on of their servers should fail. But their backups are usually covering system and storage failure and not user failure like accidential deletion of files. Just imagine you sync your photos and then delete a whole bunch of them by accident while the sync will also delete them in the cloud. If you’re lucky they have some sort of trashcan.

If backing up photos and sharing them is your main goal, which is very likely when you are a traveller, then I definitely recommend trying out smugmug.

The good

  • Professional service and fast servers
  • Easy to setup
  • Easy to share your data through share links that you can send your friends
  • Once your data is synced/uploaded it is safe
  • Once your data is synced/uploaded it is accessible on all your devices (laptop, tablet, phone)
  • Galleries and some offer blog like features

The bad

  • Limited free storage space
  • Free storage space is subject to change
  • Subscription fee for extended storage
  • Limited configurability
  • (Fast) WiFi necessary to upload
  • Can take a long time to synchronize a big amount of data (e.g. lots of RAW photos)

Personal Server aka NAS

Still being at home I always wanted to have my personal server to store all my data in one place. If I needed something, instead of having to go through a whole bunch of external harddrives that are scattered around the house I wanted a central storage with all my data. Having one big harddrive would not do as I would still have grab it and plug it in my laptop, and I cannot plug it in my tablet or phone. Also I wanted to be able to access everything from anywhere on the go while not worrying about speed when at home. And simply the data is growing every day and cloud services would soon require upgrades in subscription plans and access speed is a concern at home.

The upcoming journey made this option even more attractive to me. I could backup my valuable data to my server and always have access to all my documents, even older ones. I don’t need to worry of remembering uploading that specific file like a CV to a cloud service since I have all data stored in one place.

I want to have ALL my data in a central and safe storage, fast access at home, but available on the go!

Nowadays, instead of putting a whole desktop computer as a server in your apartment, a NAS is the way to go. NAS means Network Attached Storage device but they’ve become much more than just storage. Many of them are perfectly functional servers for personal use, you can see your photos through an app or stream music and video to your devices and much more.

For me there were two options to choose from: Qnap or Synology. I went with Synology because their “Diskstations” are just a bit more quiet in operation and I don’t like having devices with loud fans around me and I didn’t have a seperate room or basement available to put them. You want to connect them through a network cable anyway to your router which most of the time is somewhere in your living space. There are other NAS otpions available that are maybe easier to set up (e.g. WD mycloud or Seagate Personal Cloud) but I knew beforehand they would not satisfy my needs as an IT professional. Qnaps and Synologys are running a linux OS and they have a lot of plugins and apps available that make them easy to use while the option for advanced configuration is available. In case you need unsupported funcionality it is possible to create scripts for that.

I have a Synology Diskstation 215j which works just fine, quiet and enough power to suit my needs and at around 150$ still afordable (without harddrives though). I run two WD Red harddrives with 3 TB each in RAID mode. This means the data is always mirrored to both of the drives. Note that RAID is not a backup but serves availability. Should one drive fail I can still access all the data on the second one and then have someone replace the broken drive and the data will automatically be mirrored to the new drive again. In that case it could be seen as a backup but it is not, RAID does not protect you from user failure such as accidential deletion of files since that is also mirrored on all drives. The Diskstation serves as my central storage for all my “previous” data, I constantly add new data (mostly photos) to it and it also serves as a backup server for my local laptop data like my documents.

Being at home a NAS is a great thing because it’s in your local network and the speed is better than having to access data in the cloud through your internet connection. However, if you’re accessing your NAS from the road it’s important to have a somewhat decent down- and upstream speed at the location your NAS is placed. Pay special attention to upstream as many internet packages offer good downstream but lame upstream. If you get a decent upstream connection at home then the bottleneck will be most likekly the WiFi/Internet on the road.

My Synology is back home at my parents house who have more than a decent internet connection with 100 Mbit down- and upstream (!). So this is not the bottleneck for both downloading from the NAS or uploading data to it. At the time of writing they are actually running on a promotion for a few months with an insane speed of 1 Gbit down- and upstream!

The good

  • Storage space only limited by the harddrive you choose
  • Very fast when at home working in your local network
  • High configurability
  • The data is on your private server
  • Easy to have literally all your data easily accessible at home or on the go
  • Easy to share your files through share links
  • Once your data is synced it is safe
  • Once your data is synced it is accessible on all your devices (laptop, tablet, phone)

The bad

  • Cost to buy the NAS and harddrives
  • Lots of configurability options can be daunting for normal users
  • Fast internet connection (down- and upstream) at home recommended if you want to access your data on the go
  • (Fast) WiFi necessary on the go
  • Can take a long time to sync large amount of data (e.g. lots of RAW photos)

Back up your NAS too!

You may be saying now, but what if the house back home burns down, a burglar steals your NAS or having the rare coincidence of both RAID drives failing? Yes, I did think about it and after a friend dropped her external harddrive (containing all her photos) which was then phisically broken I knew I wanted to be safer than just having the NAS as my only backup. That being said a NAS is already safer because you don’t carry it around and therefore don’t drop it. But the only way to avoid all of those risks is to have geographically seperated backups.

Some people use two external harddrives to backup the data from their NAS. They rotate their harddrives between home, where it is connected to the NAS to fresh up the backup, and work, where it is geographically separated. Or you can use cloud service providers like Dropbox or Amazon Drive and have (part of) your data backed up from your NAS to those services. My reasoning about this is the same as above, I did not want to use cloud services and pay subscription fees.

So I chose to buy a second Synology which I put 400 km away  in a friend’s house. This one is a little cheaper and older model (DS 213j) with less CPU power but it mainly serves as a backup for the other “production” Synology. Basically I have three geographically separated copies of important data like my photos. First on my external harddrive that I carry with me and enables me to work with the data fast and offline. Second I have it uploaded to my “production” Synology with two mirrored drives which also enables me to work on files while online. Third it is backed up to my “backup” Synology.

I rather win the jackpot in the lottery than having all those failing at the same time. Still working on the former though ;) I know this might sound a bit paranoid but I wanted to keep my data safe for good without having anyone involved to carrying backup harddrives between locations.

If you want to have your own NAS you should be fine if you carry an external harddrive with you and upload the data to your NAS once in a while. You probably have some external harddrives laying around already so you can plug them into your NAS and use them as a backup for your NAS.

And remember this:

Lost data can never be replaced! Make sure you store copies in geographically seperated locations to minimize all risk.

In a follow up article I will show you some of the most common options to sync or backup your data and photos to a Synology NAS. While at home most of them work fine I needed something that meets my requirements as a traveller on the road.