Written on May 15, 2017 by Stephan Wehner.

You probably know that you should backup your website. But I’d wager that you haven’t.

I know exactly why you haven’t backed up your website, even though deep down inside, you want to be a responsible website owner:

  • All that PHP-mumbo-jumbo makes the whole thing daunting.
  • Everything seems to be working fine — the chances of something going wrong are really slim.
  • I can always back it up another day — after all, it’s a slim chance that anything will go wrong anytime soon …

You couldn’t ask for a better formula for procrastination: put the pay-offs in the future, make the initial workload dull, tedious and confusing, and make the consequences of procrastinating massive but unlikely.

And that’s why you — yes YOU, the person reading this — have yet to backup your website.

In this guide, I’ll give you a much-needed nudge to backup your website and teach you what to look out for as a layman while doing so.

5 Reasons To Backup Now

Let's go over a few reasons for thinking about website backups.
  1. Things can go wrong for no reason. You don’t have to do anything wrong to have your entire website wiped out. Sometimes your hosting provider will fail for no reason, taking all your hard work with it. Maybe they (not you or your site) get hit by a virus or hacker. No backup? Tough luck. You aren’t getting your work back.

  2. While it’s unlikely for your website to fail on any given day, over a long period of time, you can almost guarantee one failure. In other words, small probabilities add up. Over the course of 3-5 years, you can expect at least 1 website failure. Doesn’t seem that frequent? Remember — this is 3–5 years of your work flushed down the digital drain.

  3. It’s even worse if you rely on your website to generate income. It can be very, very painful to restart a website from scratch. All the content you wrote, all the effort into design and development – everything – will have to redone, costing you time, money and lost potential income.

  4. To be prepared for theft, fire, power failures, hardware problems, security breaches, software glitches.

  5. To be prepared for human errors, mistakes and accidents happen. As in "Whooops, now I just deleted the whole site!!"

  6. It’s your job. Most web hosts won’t do backups for you. And even if they do, these backups aren’t usually reliable.

Backing Up: Your Options

Hopefully, I’ve illustrated how painful it is to have a website fail and not-have-a-backup. But at this point, most people would still procrastinate because backing up is daunting.

Except that it isn’t that hard. Here are a few options to get you started:

Option 1: Backup Manually

When people think of how laborious, confusing and difficult backing up is, it’s usually this option that fits the bill. Manually backing up would require some technical know-how. In this option, you’ll basically be ‘downloading’ your website into your computer, then sorting and arranging it yourself. While you could learn to do this, there are better options.

Option 2: Use a plugin/backup service

These may require some installation and quick configuration at the start, but it makes life substantially easier later on. Some plugins/services come with a 1-click installation, whereas others (especially the fancier ones) may require a more elaborate setup. Compared to learning how do manual backups, you’ll save a lot of time as these services are usually automated.

Option 3: Outsource it to an expert If you’re willing to pay a bit, you can easily get an expert to handle your website backups. This would completely eliminate all the stress in installation/configuration. It also means you are less likely to make rookie mistakes that could cost you while backing up your website.

Picture it this way: Option 1 is the cheaper but more annoying end of the spectrum; Option 3 is the pricier but more convenient and safe end. (I’d also add that some backup plugins are completely free, so Option 2 may actually be cheaper than you think)

How do I manage backups for the sites I build? (The pre-up)

I think for me it is a bit different, often I am the one to create the very first file of the site, and I am involved from the very beginning!

What I do in the beginning is, before even making the first page publicly available, I put all files, and all code that I have put together up to that point, into a Version Control System — usually simply git.

Such systems allow you to keep a history of the state of the site, down to the hour. Each change is tracked, and gets labelled. It doesn't matter if it's a small site, a static site or a large Ruby on Rails site. It will all "fit" in git. Yes, that's right, that includes this very blog post; I track it using git!

But there are many alternatives to git, and in essence they pretty much do the same. These systems are a natural fit for maintaining backups.

So for me, in this way, backups are taken care of right from the start and without much effort!

You could call it pre-up, because the backup is made before even any other person has seen the site or the newest version.

Pitfalls While Backing Up

Regardless of whether you choose a manual backup, a plugin or an expert, there are a few things you should watch out for.

Storing your backup on the same server that hosts your website

Imagine a backup like a photocopy of an important document you have lying on your work desk. Great – you have a photocopy (a backup) of your important document. But having that photocopy as a backup is rather useless if you store it in the same place as your original copy.

If coffee spills on your work desk, both your original and your photocopy are going to be destroyed. It’s a less-than-useful backup – you should’ve kept the photocopy on a separate desk.

This is quite similar to how some backups work, especially ‘free’ backups that your web host might offer you. Yeah, you’re technically creating a backup, which may come in useful in a few situations. But if your web server gets attacked (and hence your website), your backup is going down with the ship.

So if you’re using a backup plugin or hiring an expert, make sure you know where they are storing the backup.

Not creating multiple backups

So you move your photocopy to another desk – that’s a great step. But let’s say you spill your coffee on that desk as well. It’s more unlikely, but it’s still a possibility.

Better solution? Keep one photocopy on another desk, another in a vault, and another under your pillow etc.

Basically the more backup in more locations you have, the lesser the chance of all your backups/photocopies going down. Good places to keep backups include:

  • On your computer
  • In the cloud (Dropbox or similar work well here)
  • In a pendrive / DVD etc.
  • On an encrypted USB drive, stored in a safe or a safety security box at the bank.

Of course, it becomes more cumbersome having to update multiple backups. If you’re running a major website, you’ll have more. A smaller website could use 2-3.

Not having access to your backups

You’d be surprised. Most people think they’ve got a backup. But really, when things go wrong, they realize they don’t quite have access to their backup.

It could be a tricky plugin that is now inaccessible because their website has crashed. It could be a hired expert that did all the tough work of backing up your website, but has now left the country and lives in a hut in Fiji (or more likely, an expert that you’ve lost contact with or don’t do business with anymore) – your backup is lost with them.

The thing is that website owners usually wait till something has gone wrong before they check if their backups are functioning, accessible and in place. This is somewhat risky – once things go wrong, it’s a tough process getting it right again. You’re better of checking your backups while things are still going smooth.

Summing Up

Hopefully by now you’ll be slightly more motivated to get to work. And ideally when you, I do hope this guide has helped give you a feel of what to expect and what to be weary of.

If you need one more kick in the rump to get going, just think of it this way:

If I told you that your website will be going down in 2 days, you wouldn’t wait long to back it up. You know how painful it is to not have a backup.

Now apply that thinking, but bear in mind your website might not go down in 2 days, but it will inevitably. Will you be ready?

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