Following from my Christmas list last month and recommending some backup products it’s only logical to talk about backing up in my first article of 2010. I’ll be covering aspects such as what backing up is and why you need to do it and some ways to get started. In the end we’ll look at how this protects you and what more can be done.
Backing up is something that every computer user needs to be aware of. A backup strategy is unique to every individual as all of our needs are different. A backup strategy that would work for most users is to simply create a copy of the directory in which your user files reside. The reasoning behind such a plan is to ensure that in the event of data corruption, hardware failure, or natural disaster your data is safe.
If you’re fortunate enough to be running Mac OS then backup is a breeze. Since Leopard, Mac OS comes with Time Machine for automated backup. Time Machine requires that you have an external hard drive or supported network based drive. Time Machine takes incremental backups of your files every hour and presents them in a form so that in the future if need be you can essentially jump back in time and restore a file. The only drawbacks with Time Machine are that it’s not automatically activated and your backup is stored locally (more on this later).
This unfortunately means that backing up on any other platform is more of a chore and the end user, you, is unlikely to do it. Any computer system that has files changing daily and new software being installed is susceptible to data corruption. When teenagers and the intrinsic activity of visiting shady websites and downloading content is added on backup becomes all the more important. There are many ways to accomplish this ranging from plain direct copy to DVD all the way to elaborate automated solutions.
The simplest solution to start backing up can be done right after finishing reading this article. Simply copy your home folder located at C:\Users\[Your User] or C:\Documents and Settings\[Your User] on Windows XP. Copy this folder to an external hard drive and you’ve completed your first backup. You can also selectively choose which folders to copy. For example if you’re not keen on keeping application settings such as Firefox preferences when you restore just bring along your Documents, Pictures, and Music folders.
The next type of backup that’s also simple to do is more archival in nature. If you maintain a picture library or collection of videos of your family this will most likely be of benefit to you. Every week you could simply copy your photo or video library to a DVD. The problem that comes into play here is if your files are larger than the 4.7GB limit of a DVD. In this case you should either take incremental backups that only take what’s changed since your last backup. Another option is to invest in a custom script to compress the files into an archive then split this into multiple parts. This method is more tedious and should only be attempted if you are looking to have a copy that’s portable and it’s not possible to invest in an external hard drive for this purpose.
As I mentioned above having an automated backup is part of the ideal backup solution. If you have an external hard drive as was recommended last month this method can be achieved in a matter of minutes. In order to automate the backup we will be using Windows Task Scheduler and SyncToy from Microsoft. Setting up SyncToy is pretty easy; essentially you select the source and destination folders and then select the action to be taken which in this case should be “Contribute.” Create as many folder pairs as you need before moving on to the next step. The next phase involves setting up Task Scheduler to run SyncToy at the desired time. Follow these steps:
The only word of caution for this method of backing up is that if you have a habit of leaving documents open overnight when the backup happens, these files will not be backed up.
Another automated backup solution that is certainly decent for a home with multiple computers is Microsoft’s Windows Home Server. Windows Home Server is Microsoft’s personal server operating system, the hardware is sold by most notably HP. Windows Home server can act as any ordinary hard drive except be accessible to anyone on your network. It also handles deploying Windows Updates and virus definitions to further protect your network. While investing in a Windows Home Server may not be your first choice it can be the best one if your network is a pure Windows network.
A trend that is becoming increasingly popular is cloud backup. The cloud refers to data storage online run by hosting providers. Two popular cloud backup solutions are Carbonite and Jungle Disk. These providers do have a small fee associated with them as you have to pay for the storage. Both services offer automated backup of your computer. Carbonite runs their own data centres while Jungle Disk out sources to Amazon S3 and Rackspace. Both providers encrypt your data before it’s sent and once again when it reaches the data centre ensuring no one can read your files. These services are the ultimate backup solution as they are automated and store your data off site. With this being said they shouldn’t be relied on exclusively as there’s always the remote possibility of a company going bankrupt or your internet connection being terminated when you absolutely must access one of your files.
Implementing any of the above solutions is a great start but more can be done. Ideally any single file would exist in four locations. These locations would be: the original on your hard drive, a backup on a USB external hard drive, another backup on a USB external drive, and in the cloud at Carbonite or Jungle Disk. The reasoning for the dual hard drive covers the case of a fire or break in. The second hard drive would be swapped weekly and stored in a safety deposit box at your bank. The dual hard drive also ensures a local copy is always present and that you can restore quickly without needing to download gigabytes of data. Some of you may be wondering why the cloud side of this strategy is even needed, let’s just think for a moment… What happens if a terrorist group manages to detonate a nuclear device in your city while you’re away (otherwise you’d be dead) or obtain an E.M.P. device which just happens to be in your area when detonated. Granted this is unlikely but in an unstable world there’s no reason not to be cautious if your data is truly important to you.
Overall this article may come across as slightly excessive making it seem as though I’m paranoid. This isn’t entirely true yet it isn’t entirely false. In the last 3 years I’ve had about 3 hard drive failures that would have resulted in data loss if I wasn’t backing up regularly. If you have any questions or suggestions about this article or others please feel free to send me a private message on the forums.