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Backing up your music library on your home network

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on July 15, 2005
(Issue 2328, Techno Talk)

Folks my age (mid 40s) aren't likely to get it – but my teenagers sure do.

My two kids no longer are interested in buying CDs of their favorite musical acts – they want to simply buy their songs or albums online, via iTunes or one of the many other online music stores out there.

My son bought himself a portable MP3 player, their mom got an iPod for her birthday, and there are iMacs at both their mom's and my place. I even have iTunes on my P4 Windows box.

So we're all using our computers to mix and match our favorite songs

The difference is, I'm not likely to buy songs online.

But the kids are – and see no point in even buying a CD when you download the songs you want immediately. And don't get them going on my vinyl collection ...

Lack of security

Here's my concern, though: If your hard drive crashes, you lose your paid-for music library.

Now, anything you've copied from your physical (CD-based) music library you can presumably re-copy – so your only loss is your time (which is still no small matter). But iTunes, at least, allows for only one download per song purchased – so if your hard drive crashes, you better hope you have your digital music library backed up.

My dad suggested burnable DVDs – and you can copy a ton of music to DVD-ROM, particularly in MP3 format. And nearly every new PC – Windows or Mac – ships with a DVD burner nowadays.

But it can get pricey making new DVD-ROMs every time you buy new music. And if you made audio DVDs rather than copying MP3s over, you're back to re-ripping all the music you originally copied from CD-ROM.

What we've decided to do at our house is take our old Pentium 3 that we just replaced and turn it into a file server – a backup on our home network that each of us can copy our files to.

It's internal hard drives probably total about 30GB right now – which won't be enough to back up all our files on our other computers.

So we'll use the internal hard drive for backing up stuff like my ComputorEdge columns, Web site and family pictures (new digital camera in the house now). And for our music files, we're going to get an external USB hard drive.

Setting it up

There are hundreds, maybe thousands of external hard drives available, both USB and FireWire, ranging from less than $100 to several thousand for a multi-terabyte model.

To determine how much storage you need on your network, you need to calculate how big your digital music collection is – and how much you anticipate the purchased digital music collection growing. Figure about 4.5 MB per song.

For instance, at my house, I see no need to back up the songs we rip from CD. My daughter and son both have several dozen songs now, but that will undoubtedly grow into the hundreds, then thousands before they head off to college. So I think 500GB will do us fine – as much as I'd like to buy a 1 TB drive (heck, I just like writing "TB" after a number at this point in time!), I can't really justify it.

If your family's music collection is, like ours, spread over several computers on a home network,you'll need to designate one of these machines as the archive – and hook your external drive up to it.

Once the external drive is set up, you'll need to set the share preferences for that drive so that others can see it over the network. Windows XP and Mac OSX work together pretty darn seamlessly now – we use the old PIII as our backup, and the Macs see it just fine, and vice versa.

Once this is done, and the external drive is set up and accessible to everyone, simply create a master directory for each person with a music collection. From this point on, each time new music is added to one of the music libraries, it can be backed up as simply as dragging the music directory contents with the mouse from your local hard drive window to the window of the external hard drive.

It's a perfect use of your local network to make backing up important files far easier than burning discs – and, over the long haul, a lot cheaper.