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How Do I Backup? Let me Count the Ways

Backups. You have them, right? Like, if it became necessary for you to restore your computer to the exact state it was in on August 1 at 10:19:04:154 AM you could, right?

If you don’t have any backups from ever, or from last Tuesday, or from 10 minutes ago, you, my friend, are screwed.

Backup Strategies

A good backup strategy includes on-site and off-site backups. That is, you need to be able to restore files to your computer, or a new computer, whether you are at home or not. At some point in the backup strategy, you will ensure you have a backup of the backup. I will admit that the normal user probably does not have a backup of the backup of EVERYTHING. Though you could.

In these days of almost reasonably priced external drives of 4TB, you COULD buy three of those puppies, backup your entire computer and take that somewhere that is not your house and then attach a second 4TB drive and have that as your local backup all while using a backup service to the cloud. Then at some point, you’d do another backup with Drive #3 and swap that with Drive #1, and keep swapping them.

Which is kind of dumb, but you could. You could make sure you pick a cloud storage service that guarantees that they backup your backup AND that they can restore your backup to their servers if the primary went offline or was corrupted.

The point is this:

  • If you only have onsite backups, if your house burns down, you’re screwed.
  • If you only have offsite backups and you cannot get to the offsite location, you’re screwed.
  • If you only have backups to the cloud, and that cloud service goes out of business or is otherwise inaccessible to you, you’re screwed. (This happened to me once. It was not fun.)

You need redundancy. You need onsite and offsite storage, and you should probably have cloud storage too.

9 Nightmare Scenarios To Keep You Up At Night!

  1. You’re doing your taxes and a cute kitten jumps on your keyboard and hits delete and you hadn’t clicked “save” yet.
  2. Everything is fine until your cursor is a spinning beachball that won’t stop spinning. Ever.
  3. You boot up your computer and instead of your My Little Ponies In The NFL wallpaper you see this:
    Boot Drive Not Found
  4. Zombies, dude.
  5. You are working on a long and important document that’s taking you weeks to write and you realize the 10 pages you deleted last Tuesday are actually the most important 10 pages EVER in the history of important documents.
  6. Do you have a Blog? If so, do you have a backup of it? Yeah, lots of people say, why? And they say that right up until they say “oops” or “What do you mean 404 Not Found?” Or “What do you mean Google deleted my blog without evidence?”
  7. Do you have a website? Same thing as above.
  8. The IRS decides to audit you.
  9. Have you tested whether you can restore files from any of your backups?

What to do?

If you have a Mac, get yourself the biggest external hard drive you can afford. Hook it up and turn on Time Machine. If you’re on Windows, there are similar set ups. Do it. Right now. This post will still be here when you come back from that.

Pro Tip: Do not do what a friend of mine did, which was to direct Time Machine to his internal hard drive. Yes, absolutely he had a backup. Until his hard drive crashed. Then he did not have any backup.

If you have the bandwidth, subscribe to an offsite cloud backup service. At the JSON Ranch, we do not have that kind of bandwidth. Our internet is slow, expensive, and comes with Draconian data caps. (This is why you should be writing your congresspersons about Net Neutrality because if we don’t have it, welcome to my world, suckers. It’s no fun here.)

Identify the files you absolutely cannot afford to lose. Tax documents maybe. Photos of your family. Your book database. Your Calibre library. Back them up to a thumb drive AND, if you have more than one computer, to another computer.


People’s minds work in different ways. Some of us are natural born organizers and some are … not. If I were to say, “Send me a copy of your gramma’s digitized recipe for ravioli” how long would it take you to find the recipe?

No. I’m not telling you where I fall on the organization spectrum.

If the answer is “longer than 1 minute” you are probably not the most structured person. This means you’ll need to rely on services like Time Machine to save you, rather than knowing which directories and folders contain the crucial documents. If this is you, set up Time Machine or one of the Windows equivalents right now. Along with cloud based backup. Both of them. Not one. Both.

If you are a structured sort and your files of like groups of things are in the same folder structure, you can also zip up the folders (daily, if they change) transfer them to a thumb drive AND an offsite storage system like Dropbox or any of its many excellent competitors. (Comparing them is a whole other post, which I can do for you. Interested?)

To the extent you can get files grouped in ways that are logical to you such that you can find them quickly, you should try. It can’t hurt. Much.

What are your backup strategies?


Json is a longtime technology geek who has been, more or less in order, desktop support, Netware Admin, Network Administrator, web developer, lead web developer, data architect, database administrator. Json has a strong interest in network and computer security and currently works on the database end of software development. On the side, Json has set up a DocBooks workflow and would be done with the Hadoop install if Mongo db weren't so shiny.


  1. Ros
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 06:56:12

    I have got a bit lazier about it now but while I was doing my PhD I was paranoid about backing up everything. Files were stored on two separate computers and an external drive and dropbox. Completed chapters were also stored on gmail and on my supervisor’s computer. And there were hard copies in two different locations. I do have things in dropbox now, and some things on a separate thumb drive but mostly I’m pretty relaxed about losing stuff. I’ve had a laptop die on me and found that I was quite happy to lose a lot of files. It’s like when you move house and you finally get rid of all the clutter you never bother to throw out – huge relief.

    What I’m less clear about is backing up my website. I use a install and I have a plugin that makes back ups. These are HUGE files that I don’t really know where to store and I have no idea what I would actually need to do to reinstate the website if it crashed. In fact, it did crash a couple of years ago (before I started using the plugin) so I just rebuilt it from scratch. But it would be nice not to have to do that.

  2. Liz H.
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 07:22:45

    I back up to an external hard drive. I’ve just purchased another external drive that I’m going to duplicate the backup on, and store at a different location. I also have two external drives of photos, music, etc. that I’m going to back up on that second drive.

    The last time I tried this (4 years ago-ish) I used time machine to create the second back up, but afterwards it didn’t acknowledge my normal backup as the “time machine drive” (because it hadn’t been the most recent used?), and it tried to wipe everything out and start again. Has this glitch changed, or was I doing something wrong to start with, or is there no avoiding this?

  3. Jayne
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 07:54:12

    (Comparing them is a whole other post, which I can do for you. Interested?)

    Yes, please!

  4. Tina Gabrielle
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 08:15:00

    Great post! After all, who hasn’t lost something on their computer? I always use a flash drive, but I admit I’m not faithful about backing up my entire computer on the external drive. I’m going to do it now though!

  5. Lynne Connolly
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 08:46:53

    I’m on Windows 8.1. Soooo-
    Windows has a nifty built-in backup program that will back up as frequently as every ten minutes.
    I have three internal hard drives. The small SSD drive is for the operating system only. I use Windows Imaging every six months and backup a complete image, then, if the SSD goes phut, I have a reasonably up to date configuration I can upload to the new one.
    I have a Data drive, which is the main one that I use every day.
    I have another hard drive, and Windows backs up to this one every ten minutes.
    I have an external hard drive, but I use FreefileSync (a free backup program) which backs up to it once a day. I’m toying with the notion of using that one as a personal cloud, but my son, the techie, wants to set up a RAID array for the whole house. We have enough spare hard drives knocking aorund for that to happen.
    I have another hard drive in an external bay. I hook it up every six months, and that’s where my archives go, which is more housekeeping than backup.
    I have two passport drives (basically, little laptop drives in cases). I have two because one stopped working and I was away from home, so I just bought another one. Then, when I got home, i put the drive in a new case and voila, it worked again. So I backup to the external passport drives once a week. Using Freefilesync (honestly, it’s a great program). When I’m away from home, I take the external passport drives with me, plug them into whatever I’m using, and there’s my up to date data. My laptop and tablet are configured to use them, by putting them in to Windows 8’s Libraries.
    If all that sounds complicated, remember that you only have to set it up once. Take a day from your life, work through it and you’re set. Freefilesync is as easy as drag and drop, and Windows History (their equivalent of the Apple Time Machine) has a wizard.
    And I’ve still lost stuff. Nothing is infallible, not even paper.

  6. Mikaela
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 08:47:51

    I’m using Dropbox and planning on getting an external hard drive since my laptop is getting a bit old. Also, I managed to crack (!) my hard drive two years ago. I really don’t want to experience that kind of panic again. Nope.

  7. Lynne Connolly
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 08:48:58

    Oh, and not exactly backup, but when you travel, backup all your important docs to Dropbox or OneDrive (ah, forgot that bit – OneDrive also does backups for me).
    Then, if your passport gets stolen, if your hotel burns down you still have copies of your insurance docs, your credit card phone numbers and the rest of the stuff.

  8. DS
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 09:00:29

    Off site back ups– think of fire. I had a friend whose house burned down. Everything gone including all of her files because she did not do an off site back up– despite the fact that she could have stored the back up at the office.

    Did she learn her lesson? Noooo. Her phone was stolen a month ago– was the data backed up? Just guess. I still don’t know if she has learned from these experiences.

  9. MD
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 09:03:29

    @Ros: That’s one of the things I was taught about backups – if you don’t know how to restore them, then you don’t really have them. Part of the backup strategy has to be to try and restore them with your system, at least once, so that you know it will work when you actually need it.

    I don’t know WordPress, but on the system that I use, the plugin both makes backups and has an option to upload them automatically to various cloud-based services. Chances are WordPress has the same thing, and it’s worth looking into, because then you are using the bandwidth of you provider to do the uploads, rather than your own.

  10. Nicole
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 09:44:50

    Yes, off site backup! We keep a hard drive in a safe deposit box with pictures and other important files (like my Calibre library).

  11. pooks
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 10:13:30

    I obsessively backed up the first book in my fantasy series daily, to USB, dropbox and an external hard drive. Now that I’m deep into the second book you have reminded me that I’m not quite so obsessively backing up. I do have Time Machine, and so that is automatic. I do backup to dropbox every few days, but not daily like I should. But I haven’t been using the USB backup and that is going to change, like, NOW.

    A Time Machine-like backup to the cloud or to some off-site storage would be best for me, if such a thing exists. Also, add me to the ‘yes, please!’ for the comparison post!

  12. IAM JSON
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 11:24:34


    If your wordpress site is hosted at or .org you should check the support FAQ there about when/if they have site backups that can be restored on request. If WordPress has anything like that, I’d sign up for that, even if it costs money. Otherwise, you would need some sort of server access to restore the MYSQL db, I’m only passing familiar with WordPress hosted sites, so start with the FAQ there and backup and restore options.

    If your WordPress site is self-hosted, then things become a little easier for me to talk about. If you have a decent webhost, they should have backups of their own. Their backups may not be as frequent as you need, though. If you have a cPanel or other access portal, you should see the option to backup your site AND a MySQL backup option.

    Some webhosts limit user access to maintenance functions. If this is you, then you would have to reply on your host to configure things. I’d check with them to find out about backups and restores. If they limit your access to your own website backend, AND their answer isn’t “we have daily backups (Of the entire site!) restorable on request, you need a new webhost because you don’t have the correct webhost for what you need.

    So, if you have cPanel access, you can set up certain backups and directly load files. But most hosts have tech support that are willing and able to help with these things. What you need to do is check with them now, before there’s a problem, about backup and restore options, and confirm that you have all the correct things enabled to make that happen.

    I would continue using the backup plugin. I have one that emails the backup to me. If there were a problem it would be possible to get that file to my host, or onto my server, to use as a restore source.

  13. IAM JSON
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 11:37:44

    @Liz H.:

    I believe, come to think of it, that TimeMachine assumes one attached source that it cycles through. This is why the bigger your external drive, the better, because the farther back your backups can go.

    In the scenario I’d contemplated, if you detached the first drive and attached a new one, you would have to start over from a full backup. If disaster were to strike and you needed a file that was on the 1st drive, you’d have to carefully consider options and where and how to restore unless you were to turn the whole thing over to an expert with more time.

    You restore from drive one, and end up have a system up to the last files on that drive. You’d get your file (and SAVE it to another external drive or cloud location) and then you’d have to do another complete restore from the 2nd drive, which would restore you to the state at which that backup ended.

    For a normal persons, some backup and restore scenarios can take some time and effort because consumers don’t typically have access to the sort of redundant backup systems that can restore systems to a point in time. If this case, I would be highly tempted to restore backup number 1 to a different computer, get the file, and then do whatever my plans were for that machine.

    So, the thing to consider for your backup and restore strategy, is how far back do you think you’ll need to restore/recover? It might be easiest to just get the biggest, bitchingest external drive you can, and not have to worry about it. Much.

  14. Karen McCullough
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 11:56:56

    I’m both an author and a website designer who was once an IT person. I’ve seen so many bad things happen with computers that I’ve become pretty obsessive about backing up. I have a multi-level backup strategy —

    1. I use Carbonite which does real-time cloud backup of all the data on my main computer.
    2. As I’m writing, at the end of the day I back up my work to Dropbox
    3. Every weekend, I back up all my data to a huge external hard drive that isn’t connected to my computer except when I do the backup.
    4. Every couple of months, I back up everything on the main computer to my laptop; every other month I back everything up to a 64MB flash drive that goes to the bank safe deposit box.

    It’s worth keeping in mind that some software doesn’t store its data by default in the My Documents folder or any obvious directory. Until recent versions, the Outlook data file wasn’t in an easy-to-locate place. Be sure you know where to find the data files for things like your email program, financial management software, etc. and make sure those files are being backed up, too. A couple of years ago I realized that the file with all the bookkeeping data for my business was being stored in a directory with the software itself, which wasn’t being backed up at all. I was fortunate not to have a problem with it, but I could’ve been in deep doo-doo if I’d had an issue. These days a lot of information is being stored in the cloud. That’s probably safer than having it stored on your own hard drive, but things can happen even there. I periodically back up any data stored in the cloud. I NEVER want to have only one copy of any important file, and with the cloud you risk losing access to it if your connection goes down for a while.

    I also agree that you should periodically check your backup files to be sure you can open, read, and restore them. Every time I do a backup, I randomly open a file from the backup afterward just to be sure it will open. On the hard drive, I open a file from an earlier backup as well to be sure those are accessible. I’ve seen a situation where someone had to go to a backup file on tape and only then discovered that the backups weren’t writing properly and the files were mostly corrupted.

  15. IAM JSON
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 11:58:28

    @Lynne Connolly:

    I’d totally do a RAID configuration, but not from old hard drives, unless all those drives are the same size and spin at the same speed. You can’t have drives in a RAID array that don’t operate the same. Plus, RAID, even on the fastest drives physical drives you can get are going to be way way slower than SSDs.

    I would LOVE an external RAID array of SSD drives. That is my dream for my house. Just as soon as I win the lottery or something.

    However, a backup system that relies on equipment that is present in your house, without the offsite piece, is vulnerable. If your house burns down, it won’t matter how you set up your RAID array. It will still be toast and all your data will be gone.

    Assuming bandwidth, you also need to set up offsite backups that happen in the background, all the time, without you having to remember to synch.

    RAID = “Redundant Array of Independent Disks”
    So, the way this works, is you have, say, 10 drives that are configured as RAID, (again it’s a little more complicated than this, so I am leaving out a few details.) These 10 drives present as a single drive where the data exists across all drives. With RAID you can lose 1 or more drives and continue to operate with little to no impact on end users. Admins can replace a single drive in the array without taking the other drives offline.

    There are several ways to configure RAID, and you can optimize for writes or for reads, so in setting up your array, you have to know how you’re going to use the array. Will you mostly be writing data? Then optimize for writes. Will you read more data than you write? Then optimize for reads. Or, set up more than one RAID array. One optimized for reads and the other for writes. Then you set up your applications and direct them to the appropriate array for a given set of operations.

    SSDs change this a little because reads and writes are happening in memory, basically.

  16. IAM JSON
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 12:02:40


    There are several companies that offer full backups to the cloud. As long as you don’t have awful data caps, then these are a really good idea in addition to physical local backups.

  17. Lynne Connolly
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 12:19:29

    I think techie son wants to play. We have unused hard drives, because we buy them on offer and then we have them to clone and install when the inevitable happens. Right now my SSD has slowed to a crawl, which is to say, about one and a half times faster than my HHD, my bank of USB 3’s aren’t working so I’m worried about my motherboard, because the last one went slowly, slowing down as if shutting down its essential components one by one. It could just be the power splitter that’s going. Keep your fingers crossed.
    But if it does, I can get out my laptop, plug in one of the passport HDD’s (one of which lives at a friend’s house for most of the week) and continue while the tower is being sorted out. That’s another thing about backups to external hard drives.
    the personal cloud thing is more of an interesting experiment.

  18. Darlynne
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 13:24:21

    Any recommendations for Linux (Mint 17)? Our data files don’t change significantly and are backed up on USB drives in a few places, including DropBox. I’ve never felt the need to back up programs because, on this system, they’re relatively easy to reinstall. But I like the idea of an entire snapshot and wondered if you know of anything available for Linux.

  19. IAM JSON
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 13:40:32


    I image that the cloud based backups would be more or less OS agnostic but possibly be disk format type sensitive. A really quick Google shows many Linux options for this, but not from Carbonite. I’ll look into that when I do my survey of these systems.

    Take a look at BitTorrent sync. That might work for you, thought I’m not sure about it storing what would amount to an image of your system, though.

    As to programs, a few scenarios occur. First, if you have a hard disk crash, you have to worry about whether there was underlying corruption at the bit level. In such a case, you probably want to do a fresh install of an application. Or, you might need to if you are setting up a new computer that is not configured exactly the same as your old one.

    It depends. Installing applications can be tedious, and there are always more than you remembered using…

    But, suppose you have an always on synch to the cloud, and day 2 you are perfect. Day 3 you have malware. It would be nice to quickly restore to your day 2 condition of system files.

  20. IAM JSON
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 13:46:50

    @Lynne Connolly:

    If I recall, you said your OS is installed on the SSDs. Unless the chips are going bad, you should not see a performance degradation. I suspect this is more OS related. As, in, in typical Windows fashion, as the computer ages and the registry becomes more and more complex, with more applications running, the OS becomes more sluggish. So, your SSDs could well be performing to exactly the same tolerances as ever, but the processing that is going on in that memory space has outpaced the SSDs.

    But that’s just off the top of my head. It’s hard to say without knowing more. The good news is that even in the scenario, if your OS was on physical media, you’d see even worse performance.

  21. Sylvie Fox
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 14:08:21

    @IAM JSON: I’d love if you did a post on registry cleaning. I hate that part of Windows. Or if you can point to a really good registry cleaner that doesn’t require I hold its hand, I’d appreciate it.

    The thing I like about cloud backup is that if you have a few computers (one at least off site), then you have an automatic backup. Recently an author I know had cloud storage fail miserably with a single computer that died.

  22. Lynne Connolly
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 14:21:31

    Thanks, Json, I love you! To be honest, I only measured it recently when it slowed down a lot, but that might have been the USB 3’s going. The registry is clean, as far as I know. I use Revo to uninstall and CCleaner. occasionally I’ll spruce it up with Glary.
    Still, I have the image if it’s dying. The SSD is a couple of years old, just out of guarantee. But I guess a reformat may be called for. Sigh. I use hybrids, an SSD for the OS, which is only 51% full, and an HDD for the data.

  23. IAM JSON
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 15:26:12

    @Sylvie Fox:

    Touching the Windows registry, even if you are very confident and take a backup first, is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes, though, it’s the only way to fix a broken Windows computer. I would not recommend it for someone who isn’t an under the hood sort.

    I’m also very wary of Registry cleaners, including CCCleaner. You really really have to know what you’re doing. In other words, there is no Registry cleaner that I would trust enough NOT to be holding its hand the entire time.

    99% of the time, (excluding cases of malware) users never need to touch the Windows Registry.

    Yeah, the problem with backups is you sometimes don’t find out they weren’t doing what you expected until you need a restore … Which is why it’s wise to test your backups and to have a plan B backup method in place.

  24. Ros
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 16:59:45

    @IAM JSON: Thanks, Jason. is for self-hosted sites. I do have cPanel access, I just don’t really understand the backend stuff there. I do all my maintenance of the site via the wordpress dashboard. But I will try to get my head round the other stuff and make sure it’s all set up.

  25. Connie
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 22:01:01

    Thanks for writing this useful and important post. I have to admit that although I consider myself very organized, I not doing a good job backing up my personal files. I only have a laptop and an external hard drive, so I only have one set of backup, which is on the external hard drive.
    I guess I’m one of the few people who don’t use any cloud storage for personal file backup. If it’s just for books, that’s okay with me, but I’m really concern about the possibility of a privacy breach if I store my photos and/or any personal information (e. g. financial info, tax info) in the cloud. FYI, I work in academia, and Dropbox is deemed unsecure by our IT department. Therefore, we are not allowed to store any files that contain identifiable information in Dropbox. That alone is enough to steer me away from Dropbox.

  26. Kaetrin
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 22:20:54

    @Jayne: +1 from me too.

  27. IAM JSON
    Aug 31, 2014 @ 22:56:29


    There are more secure alternatives among the various cloud storage spaces.

    The issue is really this:

    Cloud storage has many benefits. It makes it possible for a user to share files between machines they own and with others. We can easily set up a redundant element of backup and file storage strategies. It makes it possible to synch data states between devices. It’s convenient and useful and it is enabling new ways for devices to deal with data. This is a transformative state for computing, and I don’t see us going back. In fact, the stumbling block I see, the thing that could screw this up for everyone, is if the cable/telcos succeed in eliminating Net Neutrality. If that happens, watch out for your wallet, say good-bye to streaming services except at a high price, and weep for all the apps that might have been.

    Cloud storage has many dangers. You do not own or control the third party that has your data. That third party may not adequately protect your data and they could go out of business, with your data a victim. A third party may have a different definition of “private” than you do. A bad actor might find a vulnerability and take your data.

    A governmental entity may have obtained or created through “friendly” means or not, a back door to your data and be stuffing it into their own database without your knowledge or consent.

    Next up: Why you should be thinking about encryption.

  28. Statch
    Sep 01, 2014 @ 11:02:06

    Very timely post as we replaced our SSD hard drive with the OS on it this weekend and are working now on setting up backups. We had to use a backup earlier this summer when we couldn’t get rid of the Linkey annoyance-ware any other way. I second the call to make sure you test your backups. Years ago I worked for a large organization that found out the hard way that the IT guy in charge of the daily backups had been doing it wrong. Lots of angst until they managed to find a working backup.

    When you all say that you ‘back up’ to Dropbox, do you mean that you copy the changed files over the old ones? I know that’s a basic question, but I keep my Calibre library backup on Dropbox and have been trying to figure out a way I can back up only the changes, not copy the whole directory over the old one each time (which takes a while). I could just copy over the new folder every time I add a book but I tend to forget…and it just seems like there should be an easier way.

  29. IAM JSON
    Sep 01, 2014 @ 11:48:31


    I think probably you’d need a backup program to do what you’re looking for with Calibre.
    However, you might also want to take a look at BitTorrent Sync. That might actually work for you.

  30. Darlynne
    Sep 01, 2014 @ 12:58:42

    @Statch: This is going to sound really klunky and old, old school, but I open two file explorer windows side-by-side, one showing the Calibre folder on my hard drive, the other displaying my Calibre folder on DropBox. Both folder lists are sorted in reverse date order with the newest/modified author folders at the top. By looking at the most recent folder date on DropBox, I can select only the folders I need to copy over from my hard drive.

    New author folders are automatically added. When an existing author folder is detected on DropBox and I know/think I have purchased new titles by that author, I’ll choose to update that folder when prompted to do so, but not update any existing books; you’re prompted to skip or replace for each one and new books are automatically added.

    I’m sure Json is rolling his eyes in horror, but it only takes me a few minutes and I just haven’t had the time to explore another utility.

  31. Maite
    Sep 01, 2014 @ 16:30:09

    I use Dropbox for the files I cannot lose (stories and coding), and do general backups once a year to an external hard drive.
    Yes, less than minimum, but I’ve had a tech clear out my stuff, a computer melt inside, my computer refuse to start (while writing my thesis, all hail Dropbox!), so I ended up with a majorly zen attitude. If I wouldn’t chase after a knife-wielding maniac to get the file back, I can live without it.

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