Why You Need to Backup Your Obsidian Vault

A collection of toys from Toy Story 2, the movie that was almost lost.

Let me tell you why I think you need to backup your Obsidian vault.

I have a large vault in Obsidian. My main vault has over 4,500 notes, and over half a million words in it. 

I cherish my notes. I’ve spent countless hours creating, maintaining, and improving them. They have become my Second Brain, helping me to be more productive and creative than I ever thought possible.

But no work is safe unless you protect it. I’m going to tell you how I almost lost my notes, but first let’s talk about Pixar.

How Pixar Almost Lost Everything

In Creativity, Inc, Ed Catmull talks about a time in Pixar’s history when they accidentally erased an entire movie.

They were working too hard on Toy Story 2 at the time. They were working so hard that they almost had a fatal accident: two parents who worked at the company left their infant in the car, forgetting to drop him off at daycare. Fortunately, another employee noticed as they were coming into the building, and saved the life of the child.

It was a time of chaos. Everyone was working long days and nights, everyone lived and breathed Toy Story 2. The deadline was coming up, and they were going to make that deadline, come hell or high water.

And then catastrophe struck: late at night, an IT guy was working on their internal backup system, and he accidentally erased the entirety of Toy Story 2. He ran a very dangerous terminal command that irreversibly erased everything. Tens of thousands of man hours, and any hope of meeting their deadline, gone in an instant.

Toy Story 2 was Erased

But Ed Catmull didn’t sweat it.

He knew they had backups and backups of their backups. No way they could have lost everything so easily.

So they checked the backups:

The first set of backups was corrupted. Apparently, they had been that way for months.

They checked the second set of backups. Those were corrupted as well.

Now Ed was sweating.

Not only had Toy Story 2 been erased, but all of the backups were corrupt. Many people had bits and pieces on their computers, but it would take months to put it back together, months that they didn’t have. They had a looming deadline, and there was no way they could hit it unless they could recover that work.

Even worse: they had sunk so much money into this movie, if they didn’t recover their work, this would probably bankrupt the company. All because of one terminal command and a couple of corrupt backups.

An Accidental Catastrophe Saved by Another Accident

It took a couple of extremely anxious days, but eventually someone mentioned Lauren.

Lauren was an employee who was on maternity leave. She had taken home a work computer, and this computer could possibly have the intact files for Toy Story 2.

They called her, and merciful heavens: she had them.

Catmull says that a computer has never been treated so gently as Lauren’s was, the day they brought it to the office. They swaddled the computer in blankets and pillows, filled the back of a van with soft things. And then with literal white gloves, they very gently brought it to the office, avoiding as many bumps in the road as possible. And sure enough: the files were intact. By the skin of their teeth, they managed to avoid disaster, and Toy Story 2 came out on time.

The Importance of Backups

This story illustrates the importance of a robust backup system. A system where there is more than one backup, and those backups are stored in more than one location.

Lauren’s computer saved the day, because it was a remote backup stored in a separate location. It wasn’t connected to the other backups, which is why it didn’t get corrupted by the other backups.

Pixar learned their lesson: Ed said they made improvements and never had a scare like this again.

I don’t know what Pixar’s backup system looks like today, but I guarantee they have many layers of redundancy.

Why You Need Redundancy

Soldiers in the American Military like to say “two is one, and one is none”. They apply this to equipment, saying that essential equipment must be carried in pairs. Otherwise, that item will certainly fail right when you need it.

Two water bottles, two radios, two pairs of socks. You must plan for every contingency.

This is true of backups as well.

One backup is good, but unless you’re checking it every day, it’s not much safer than no backups.

They almost always fail right when you need them, so it’s important to keep multiple copies.

How I Almost Erased My Notes

I had a scare a couple of weeks ago. I was trying to rename a folder in Obsidian. It is my biggest folder, with thousands of notes and references inside.

These notes are very important to me. Among other things I have ten years of journal entries stored here, which would be irreplaceable.

I still don’t really know why, but Obsidian didn’t want to rename this folder. I don’t think it was Obsidian’s fault. It could have been a plugin, or my computer. Either way Obsidian froze, it was unable to complete my request. I waited ten minutes, then I regretfully force quit the application.

When I opened Obsidian again, disaster: half of my notes were gone. They weren’t in the trash can either, they had been completely destroyed by this glitch.

Fixing My Mistake

It was stressful to see so much of my work gone. But I didn’t worry too much, because I have a system for this.

If I had used a syncing service like Dropbox for backups, I may have lost them entirely. Dropbox keeps multiple backups for paid customers, but not for those of us on the free plan. Dropbox is an easy solution, but not robust.

Or if I had no backups, I certainly would have lost them, because this glitch didn’t place the deleted notes in my trash can.

Fortunately, I back up my notes with git, and it saved me.

The Advantages of Using Git to Backup your Obsidian

Git is a version control system, not just a backup system. That means that not only are your files backed up, but every change you make to your files is stored, and instantly reversible. This is why I wasn’t worried about my files: not only do I have multiple backups, but due to the nature of Git, deleted files are always recoverable.

I didn’t even need to use my backups, a single git command reset my vault to its previous state. A near disaster was reduced to a mere inconvenience, and fixed a moment later.

If Pixar had stored their files like this, they would have been safe. Every computer would have effectively been a backup, and no one person could delete them all.

This is why my favorite backup system is Git. And even though git is most often used by programmers, it’s not too difficult to learn, especially if you use the right tools. If you want to learn how to do this with your own vault, see our article “Backup your Obsidian Vault on Github (for free!)”.

In Summary

A single backup is better than none. If you don’t currently backup your Obsidian vault, then look through these options and choose one that works for you.

If you have months or years of work in Obsidian, then you should focus on making your backup system as robust as possible, so you don’t lose anything in the future. The best way to do that is to use Git, and you can learn how get started with Git here.

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