Even backups that are provided by your institution are not completely safe, and it's a good idea to roll your own, that way you will know they are working. This is illustrated by a very short story from grad school...
We were all working on a Solaris cluster, with several of us having linux workstations as well. All of our data was centralized on a RAID disk array. It was RAID, so it was safe, right? Anyway, the department had a tape backup that ran every night, so everything was cool. Weeeellll.....
One morning we came in to find that a) the amazing RAID array had suffered a catastrophic failure, and b) the tape backup hadn't been working for months. Our IT person resigned soon after this, but many people lost a great deal of work. Fortunately for me, I'd been making backups of my stuff to multiple locations, none of which were affected by this double-failure. And I'd convinced many of the ice group to do the same, so many of them were unaffected.
I currently use two tools for backups; rsync and unison. In addition, I have several scripts configured to automate parts of the process. All of this can be tunneled through SSH, so in order to automate it, you need to configure passwordless ssh. But no need to go there yet. We'll start with using unison, as that gives great bang for the buck. Maybe if there's interest I'll post about rsync another time.
First, it's important to note that my computing environment is simultaneously more complex and simpler than that of most users. It's more complex because I have several computers on which I actively work, but it's more simple because I have ALL THE SAME FILES on every one of them. How? By using unison.
So- I use a hub-and-spoke topology for my primary working computers, and use unison to synchronize files between them, and a tree topology for backing up.
LETS GET STARTED
Sorry for the long preamble. The first thing to do is choose what you want to back up. Do not waste your backup space (we're going to make multiple copies) filling it with your music collection, your movies, pictures of your dog, or other things that you can easily recover from elsewhere (this includes large datasets that you can re-download from online archives). SO that means don't just back up your home directory. Choose.
What's most important are things that take your time, not computer time, so things like code, papers, presentations, but not things like model output that could be regenerated easily. You will find that this makes your backup take a lot less space than you'd otherwise think.
When you know what you want to back up, install unison on your machine, and start configuring. Here's the text of my config file (stored in ~/.unison/hawleymbp.prf); and I'll annotate to show what are the important points:
# this is the contents of the file .unison/hawleymbp.prf (and
# others that I have modeled after it):
# the text-only interface (old skool)
# trying to get rid of properties issues
perms = 0
rsrc = false
# where unison is on the remote server (it's in a nonstandard
# location on firn; do not use this on isbrae)
This is the most important piece of the configuration; where you are syncronizing! The first root should be your local machine, and the second should be where you want to sync to; isbrae is a good choice. Note the syntax of the second root; that is what you need to tunnel unison through ssh.
# Roots of the synchronization
root = /Users/bo/
root = ssh://email@example.com//Users/bo/
Now the directories within the roots you've just listed, that you want to sync. So these are all directories just below my home folder.
# Paths to synchronize
path = local