obrBy Joseph Gildred — Last Updated: 07 May'18 2018-03-26T02:54:40+00:00

The 3-2-1 Backup Rule: Forward Thinking for Backup

One of the biggest decisions you’re likely to face is whether or not to go with local storage or online backup. Ask an IT professional for advice on the matter, however, and the short answer is likely to be the same: pick both.

Storing copies of your files both locally and in the cloud lets you reap the distinct advantages of both while circumventing the disadvantages. This approach is so popular, in fact, that there’s even a catchy name for it.

In this article, we’ll be introducing you to the so-called “3-2-1 backup rule,” which posits that you should always keep three copies of your files, two local and on different devices, and one remote. We’ll even give you some ideas of how to approach setup, pointing out which services in our online backup reviews library best support backup to both local and cloud destinations.

Before we get into the particulars of the 3-2-1 backup rule, let’s spend some time breaking down the pros and cons of local and online backup. Armed with that knowledge, you’ll be better positioned to decide if you’re okay with half measures, or want a more complete backup plan.  

Pros & Cons: Local Backup vs Online Backup

One of the most frustrating aspects of backing up files to the cloud is the wait, especially for initial backups. We wrote a separate article on that subject if you if you’d a little more insight into how long your backup should take. In a nutshell, if you’ve got hundreds of gigabytes of data to backup, you might be waiting a few weeks for your first backup to finish.

Granted, some online backup solutions run much faster than others. If you’re the impatient type, we have a guide on getting started with Amazon S3 featuring CloudBerry Backup, which ranks among the fastest backup solutions we’ve tested. Backblaze, which you can read about in our Backblaze review, also provides a fair amount of zip, and gets you unlimited backup for just $5 a month.

Still, if speed’s your concern, nothing beats a local backup solution, whether it’s plugged into your computer or you’re sending files over WiFi. You could opt for something as simple as an external hard drive, but network-attached storage (NAS) devices provide better data redundancy.

NAS devices are a bit like file servers, but are generally cheaper. In fact, the price tags for top-tier NAS solutions like those produced by Synology and QNAP are reasonable enough that they’re not only great for small businesses, but home use, too.


Manufacturer:Model:Bays:Cost:
SynologyDiskStation1Around $100
SynologyDiskStation2Around $300
SynologyDiskStation4Around $300
QNAPPersonal Cloud NAS2Around $300
QNAPProfessional-Grade NAS4Around $600

The problem with any local storage device, external HD or NAS, is that they’re susceptible to the same sorts of things that could lead to the demise of your computer hard drive: fires, floods, burglaries, house-swallowing sinkholes — the usual.

The server facilities used for online backup are better suited to handle such problems thanks to prevention measures like fire suppression systems, raised floors, environmental controls, biometric scanners, guard patrols and backup power supplies. Some backup providers, like Acronis Backup (read our Acronis Backup review), also host your files in multiple data centers.

The crucial benefit of online backup, then, is reliability. For those with irreplaceable files, that’s at least as important as speed.

For those that won’t face a work crisis due to the loss of their digital data, or those without invaluable content like family photos or half-written novels, we can certainly understand sticking with local backup. Similarly, for those that don’t have much data to backup and don’t require quick recovery when disaster strikes, online backup alone should suffice.

For many others, though, there’s real benefit to investing in both local and online backup. If that includes you, the 3-2-1 backup rule is a backup best practice that should form the basis of your approach to building a foolproof disaster recovery solution.   

Digital Asset Management with 3-2-1 Backup

While he certainly wasn’t the first person to realize that storing files both locally and remotely was a smart idea, commercial photographer Peter Krogh is credited with making it mainstream, which he did with The DAM Book: Digital Asset Management for Photographers.

In the book, Krogh suggests that you should always keep three copies of your data, two local and one offsite, the message delivered by the 3-2-1 backup rule.

Critically, Krogh points out that the two local copies of your files should be stored on different media. Storing both copies on a single hard drive won’t do you much good if that hard drive crashes. Should that happen, you might be able to recover your files using a tool like one of those detailed in our best data recovery software guide, but there’s no guarantee of success.

Your primary file copy on your computer counts as one copy, while a local storage device would be the second. CDs, USB drives and the like aren’t good choices, since they require manual intervention, whereas you can set files to copy automatically through scheduled or continuous backup to local (and online) storage.

To be accurate, by using an online backup service, you’ll most likely be storing multiple file copies remotely, too, using a failover strategy called RAID. Most providers store at least three copies, each on a different server. With that in mind, following the 3-2-1 rule usually ends up with at least a 5-2-3 result.  

Now that we know what the 3-2-1 rule entails and what benefits it provides, let’s turn our attention to practice by introducing an online backup tool particularly geared towards implementation.

Best Online Backup for 3-2-1: CloudBerry Backup

Pretty much any online backup tool can be used to support a 3-2-1 approach, but some require less work than others. In particular, you should consider a service that supports hybrid backup, which means that it can backup files both to local storage and the cloud.

If you’re sold on going the high-tech route by using a network-attached storage device, our best online backup for NAS article outlines what we figure are the top options. In fact, these services work for backing up files to single external drives, too, which makes them just as ideal for those looking for a less expensive approach.

Of the options out there, the one that we like most for 3-2-1 backup CloudBerry Backup for reasons of speed, ease of use and security, which you can read all about in our CloudBerry Backup review.

CloudBerry Backup doesn’t provide its own cloud infrastructure for backup. Instead, it pairs over 50 different cloud services, so can pick the one you like best. We mentioned Amazon S3 as a good pairing for fast backups, but using a lower-cost cloud infrastructure service like Wasabi works great, too. Check out our Wasabi review for speed test results.

We also have an article comparing the relative strengths and weaknesses of Amazon S3, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud and Backblaze B2 if you’re trying to decide between those options for use with CloudBerry.

What makes CloudBerry Backup great for combining local and remote backup is that the tool itself promotes backup efficiency. The desktop client works first by backing up to your local device, then backing up from that device to the cloud. Other features, including block-level file copying and multithreaded backup help move files along, too.

The net result is that backup with CloudBerry Backup minimizes impact on computer resources, so as not to interfere with other important tasks, like streaming the latest blockbuster films using Kodi

The CloudBerry Backup tool will take you through the steps of creating a hybrid backup plan, meaning very little special knowledge is required.

If you do need a bit of help, though, our walkthrough on setting up hybrid backup for SMBs features CloudBerry Backup.

You can sign up for a free trial of CloudBerry if your a business user. There’s actually a freeware version for personal use, though it lacks key features like encryption and image-based backup

Alternative Backup Options for 3-2-1 Backup

If you decide CloudBerry Backup isn’t for you, here are a few other suggestions from our online backup reviews library that support easy implementation of the 3-2-1 backup rule.

For business users, Acronis Backup, while expensive, offers a terrific cloud console for managing your backup processes. Acronis also offers a more affordable backup solution built more for personal use, which you can learn about by reading our Acronis True Image review.

Neither Acronis product makes life as easy as CloudBerry Backup, since you have to create two separate backup plans, one to send files to your local device and another for the cloud. However, unlike CloudBerry, Acronis has its own cloud infrastructure, so you also don’t have to go shopping for a provider.

For a low-cost backup service that supports a 3-2-1 approach, we like IDrive. A single IDrive subscription can be used to backup unlimited devices, including external drives. IDrive even have special apps for NAS backup.

The downside to IDrive is that it can be rather slow. However, the company offers a free courier backup and recovery service called IDrive Express that can help there. Our IDrive review will fill you in on the details.

Final Thoughts

To the geek at heart, the best thing about the 3-2-1 backup rule might be that it’s the perfect excuse to not only use online backup, but invest in a NAS device, too. In addition to backup, such devices are great for building a personal cloud system for home media use.

While the approach will cost you more money, spending a little cheese can really save your bacon when disaster strikes. If you’re an SMB owner with important customer records, financial spreadsheets, emails and other critical digital data, we’d absolutely recommend it. Our best online backup for business guide will help you find a cloud solution.

For home backup, using both local and online backup isn’t always so critical. Those with time to spare or without many files to backup should be fine foregoing the local route and sticking to one the recommendations in our best online backup for home roundup. For everyone else, though, Krogh’s advice on backup is smart forward thinking.

At least, that’s where we fall the on the subject. Share your own take on the 3-2-1 backup rule in the comments below, and thanks for reading.

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