Most of us know that backups are an important part of using a computer. A backup is a complete copy of data you want to protect. The purpose of a backup is to restore data in the event your primary copy is lost. Those who have lost data in the past are typically most diciplined about creating regular backup copies of their data.
I recently went through a series of system failures that cost me lots of time, but didn’t ultimately cost me any data. In addition to my desktop PC’s primary hard drive failing, the external drive that I had been using to take regular backups was corrupted. Since I could not restore this backup, it was worthless. This situation would have likely been catastrophic for many individuals and small businesses. Luckily I am a believer in “defense in depth” which encourages layers of different defenses for common problems. My multiple backup strategy paid off this time.
There are many important reasons to take backups of your data. I’ve identified a few here:
- Hard disk failure. All computer hard drives eventually fail, so when (not if) yours does, how will you recover your data?
- File Corruption. If you have a single file that becomes corrupted, how can you recover a previous version?
- Physical Theft. If your laptop/PC is lost or stolen, will your data be lost too?
- Physical Disaster. If your home/office burns down, will your data be safe?
If any of these scenarios played out with you today, how much data would you lose? Many companies offer hardware, software, and even online solutions to help keep your data safe. I have picked a few that work well for me. Your needs may be different, so you will need to evaluate your own needs, and how much time and money you are willing to spend to safeguard your data.
Personally, I consider my data to be nearly priceless. My family photographs are stored digitally and could not be replaced if they were lost. My music collection is mostly software now, and I have spent a small fortune on it. My finances are mostly tracked electronically, and it would be difficult ot impossible to amend old tax returns or find an old receipt without the data on my PC. I don’t need to place a specific value on all of my data, I just need to know that it is worth spending time and money to protect it.
External hard drives have replaced tapes and DVDs as my preferred form of physical backup. External drives hold lots of data, have fast data read/write speeeds, are physically small, and inexpensive. These drives come in a variety of sizes and capacities, but typically connect to your PC via USB. I keep two large capacitiy drives at home and rotate them every week or two between my primary PC and fire safe. I also keep one in my safe deposit box at my bank, this gets updated less often. I also keep a small external drive in my laptop bag to use when I travel. I update this backup before long trips and before any major software changes on my laptop.
The software I use for these physical backups is Acronis True Image. I like this product because it lets you take an “image” backup of your whole system hard disk. A system image can be restored in one step if your PC fails completely. Additionally I can restore only specific files/folders if required. I don’t use the Acronis Secure Zone feature because my data takes up most of my system hard disk.
Be sure to validate your backups by performing test restores on occasion. A backup is useless if you cannot restore it! Also remember that all hard disks eventually fail. Plan to replace your backup drives occasionally. I find that I do this anyway becase size of my backups increase regularly.
If you are regularly connected to a high-speed Internet connection, you may consider using a service that uses the Internet to transmit your data to a secure data center. I use Mozy which I have previously written about here. The great thing about Mozy is that it is easy and automatic. The downside to Mozy is that your initial backups can take a long time. You can only backup data as fast as your Internet connection will send it. My initial backup took weeks. If your whole system dies, they will mail you physical media (for a fee) that will get you up and running quickly. Home users pay only $50 a year for unlimited storage (per backed up PC.)
Most people have more than one PC. File synchronization software and online services will copy your data between your PCs so that it is stored in multiple locations. I use Windows Live Sync, which I previously wrote about here, to copy my data through the Internet between my laptop and desktop computers. In addition to “My Documents” it can also synchronize web browser “Favorites,” photos, and music. Live Sync is free, but requires an active Internet connection to work.
Note that file synchronization alone is not a good backup strategy. If you corrupt a file, the corrupt file is quickly synchronized to all of your computers!