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This week I've been putting together a bunch of stuff for Wapiti. I needed logos, sponsorship contact information, copies of documents to various agencies from last year. And when I started digging into my hard drive to find everything I discovered only their absence. Fortunately I have a backup. I have an external drive that I backup to daily. Every couple of years I buy a new one, usually about double in size of the last one. I copy the old drive over and then start backing up to the new one. Having an external drive means that it's incredibly easy to substitute a new drive. It's also easy to move to a different computer if needed.
Those are just a couple reasons why having an external hard drive is still a good bet, even these days with nearly ubiquitous cloud computing. Having a hard drive, either connected to your computer, or connected stand-alone to the network also known as Network Attached Storage (NAS), is a great idea. And it's never been cheaper to do even with the hard drive memory shortage caused by flooding in Thailand last year.
Right now you can purchase external enclosures, the box you put an external hard drive in, for less than $25. Hard drives can be had for about $50 per terabyte. Plug in and go type external drives may be had for $150 with 2TB of storage. Very inexpensive compared to retyping all those documents, retaking all those photos, and/or recovering all those emails.
For a typical home user with a bunch of email, photos and documents, I really like Western Digital's My Book series. The highest praise in the computer geek world is: it just works and the My Book series just works. They work on Macs and PCs. They come in a variety of connections: USB 2.0/3.0, eSATA and ethernet. If you have an older computer you'll want the kind that comes with USB 2.0 or 3.0. I say or because USB 3.0 is backwards compatible. It will run as a USB 2.0 device. The only time I would get USB 2.0 is if the price was too good to pass up. eSATA is fast, but it's not nearly as widely supported. If you like the idea of having several computers backing up to the drive or accessing files from it then ethernet support is nice. In that case you plug the drive into your router and access it over the network as a file share. You can always share it from your computer if you prefer.
Network storage is very valuable once you get to the small business, or many computer household, level. These can be quite a bit more expensive. If you have a lot of data, say a few hundred movies, or thousands of MP3s then it all may not fit on a single drive. In that case you need a NAS Server that supports RAID. RAID just means that the drives share the data and reserve some storage for recreating the data if one of the drives dies. It gets shockingly technical quickly talking about RAID storage, so I'll forgo that and just say, the more drives you have, the more likely one of them will die, and a caution that RAID technology doesn't prevent the biggest data loss culprit: the user equipped with a delete key!
If you're thinking of going the NAS route I really like the Synology series. I personally use the DS411J which supports four drives and amazingly lets you put any size drive in. So I stuff it with all the old drives I have kicking around, turn on full protection and to me it just appears as one big drive on the network. If a drive dies I put a new one in, wait a while and everything is back to normal. It's just short of magic.
To summarize, you should be backing up, a data loss event will eventually happen to you. Backing up everything to an external drive is easy as pie and extremely affordable.