The Importance of Data Backup and Backing up Your Backup
Gather 'round the campfire, boys and girls. This is a scary story unlike any other. It's the tale of the Demon External Hard Drive and its willingness to destroy your digital life. It stalks you for years and years, even convincing you that it is your friend. It is kind enough to offer its back as a place to store all of your precious data: pictures, videos, articles, many years worth of memories. You learn to trust it and even become solely reliant on your friendship, warding off all others knowing that your External Hard Drive Friend will always be there to stick it out with you through the bitter end. Eventually, your friends begin to notice how dependent you have become on E.H.D.F. and suggest you branch out by seeking new friends such as ZipDrive, Online Backup and even C.D.'s. And as foretold by your mother, father, children and even yourself, External Hard Drive Friend smacks you in the face, leaves you on the ground and runs away with all your data. All your videos, years worth of pictures ranging from semesters abroad to your child's first steps, are suddenly gone. But because you have no other friends to count on, there is no way to get back everything digital you have ever loved.
It is a horrifying reality. And it happens. And it happened to me. So let my stupidity be a lesson to you. Please back up your data. On top of that, backup your backup.
What to do before the loss occurs
Backup your backup. As my brother-so-full-of-hindsight explained after my Demon Hard Drive stole everything, you have to backup your backup. Sometimes even backing up your backup's backup. So if you mainly rely on an external, backup that data on CDs. Back up those CDs by utilizing an online data backup service. That way you are totally covered regardless of what gives up the ghost. Hard drives die, CDs break but the internet is always on. And when it isn't on, you can go somewhere else where the internet is on. Online data storage services are your best bet.
Luckily, when all my photographs disappeared with the plague, Shutterfly was there to save the day. Any media you upload to their site is saved in its original format. In the event something tragic happens, you just have to order up an Archive DVD of all your media and it will show up at your door step in a few short days in all its high resolution glory. Ten dollars will get you 100 photos and twenty dollars will buy you 1,000 photographs; anything past that is only $4.99. Frankly, it was a great deal considering I wasn't the one transferring thousands of photos onto DVDs.
SugarSynch is another reliable online data storage service. For $4.99 a month, you can store 30GB of data. There are larger and larger packages you can buy monthly or yearly. The only downside is that you can't do a file search within your files. If you're interested, they are offering a free trial for all of their packages. All data is synched up without effort and it records changes to files in separate files. And you can even access your files from your cell phone.
If you would rather keep your files to yourself, then perhaps DVDs and CDs would work best for you. Keep in mind that DVDs and CDs break, so if you are one to move about often then leave this method to the non-transient folks. If you have time and patience, it is really easy to do it yourself. There is plenty of purchasable software to aid in this process if you'd rather leave it to someone more capable. There is software that also includes online data backup as well. Any time you can backup to a million different places, choose that option.
So your external hard drive has bit the dust and you didn't backup the backup
Step one: FREAK OUT! Call your significant other, best friend and tech person and insist they understand the pain this causes.
Step two: Breathe deeply. Regain composure. Get a grip on yourself and your surroundings.
Step three: Consider the options. If everything is still on your internal hard drive, you hardly have anything to worry about. Buy a new external and transfer. If your external hard drive was your one and only means of backup, then you have a finite number of options to explore. Your first step is to be delicate with your hard drive. If it fell off the desk (cough-cough), this is especially important. Unfortunately, external hard drives are not built to withstand so much as a hard breeze and a fall from a desk is all but a suicide swan dive (cough-cough). If your hard drive was pulled out of its USB port without being "Safely Removed", don't panic. Don't ever do that, but if you do, don't panic.
Try to plug it into the computer again and assess from there. If the drive is not assigned a drive letter, try checking out this site for a How-To Guide for WindowsXP. There are plenty of sites out there for your specific operating system detailing the steps to reassign a drive letter. If that doesn't work, this is when you need to breathe deeper. Call around to your local computer technicians. Stay away from Big Box electronic stores that can get bogged down with numerous orders and neglect your hard drive for weeks. Allow the technician to take your hard drive into their care and work their magic. If that doesn't work, pull out your pocket book because it's about to get pricey.
If a local computer technician is not able to revive your external, the next step is to send it off to a clean room. Hard Drive Recovery Group has a good explanation of what a clean room is. Depending on who you send it off to, a clean room recovery can cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars. This is when you really have to ask yourself: "How much is all of this data really worth?" It's the kind of soul searching you never expected digital data to cause you to consider. From personal experience, it hurts just as badly as losing a childhood pet. Catastrophic loss.
Don't let this happen to you!