University of Wisconsin–Madison
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3-2-1 strategy for backing up your personal data

If you don’t know what backup tools you can use to protect your personal documents, photos, contacts and other data here’s a list of available backup tools on campus. Explore them and plan your own backup strategy. If you want to know more about the 3-2-1 strategy, read on. If you’re looking for backup options for departmental data, please see the Bucky Backup service page.

In the event that you need to backup electronic protected health information (ePHI) or other restricted data, please work with the Office of Cybersecurity to identify compliant backup tools.

The 3-2-1 Rule

Protect your data by following the 3-2-1 rule; make 3 copies, on 2 different types of media, 1 of which is in a remote location. Redundancy is key in ensuring that at least one copy of your important files is available when you need it. 

Here’s a simple strategy for following the 3-2-1 rule:

  1. Create a system recovery image of your primary computer. A system recovery image will allow you to recover your installed OS, applications and data files after a catastrophic failure of your hard drive. Because you’ll refresh this back up less frequently, you might use DVD ROM media.  DVD ROM backups are slow and tedious, though, so you may want to use an external hard drive instead. Either satisfies the 3-2-1 rules requirement for different media.
  2. Use a back up application and an external drive to create a file system backup, so that you can conveniently recover individual files as needed. Your first backup of this type will be a full back up of all data files and documents, and may take a while. Subsequent backups will be incremental, i.e., they will only include files that have changed since your last backup. Using an external hard drive for this purpose, along with a backup application that runs automatically in the background makes this effortless and quick, once its set up. For more about backup applications, see this list of back up tools.
    Note: if you used an external drive in step one, use a different drive for this step in order to meet the 3-2-1 requirement of using different media.
  3. Make copies of really important files in another location, such as a cloud storage service, or an external drive that will be stored in a safe, remote location. Remember to encrypt any sensitive files before they leave your computer!

Of course this is simply one strategy, and may not be the one that suits you best. The best backup strategy is the one you’ll follow regularly.