Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Backing Up Your Computer - What You Need To Know

Several people have recently asked me about online backup services.  First let me say that if you don't back up your computer now, just imagine what would happen if one day you found that you could no longer use it (for one reason or another).  Does that send your heart racing?  If so, then you rely on your electronic friend, and you owe it to yourself to take care of him or her.

There are many things you need to back up, and many ways to do it, including online backup.  What's the best way?  That may be hard to say for sure, but if your backup has the following aspects, it will work for you.

1.  So easy to do, you don't give up.
2.  Automatic so you don't have to think about it.
3.  Complete.  I can't tell you how many times I have seen backups get everything except one crucial file - invalidating the whole backup.
4.  Restorable.  This is what most people don't think about.  A file backed up while being written to may be no good.  A backup solution that is unreliable, or difficult to obtain as quickly as needed for a restoration is a false sense of security - worse than not backing up because you expect it to be handled.

So, for most home and small business use, what should you do?

Start with asking yourself these questions:
1. What do I need to back up?
- office documents, legal document scans, pictures, videos, emails, databases like financial data or contacts or sales/inventory.
2. How big is it?  Pictures and videos can get big - many gigabytes.
3. How much money can I spend to make a solution?  This indicates how important the data is to you, and how much commitment you are willing to give to ensuring you suffer the least.

If you can store your data on someone else's (a company's or organization's) server, that is typically better because they have professional IT staff that manage the hardware.  For example, using an e-mail service such as Google Mail, all of your e-mails are stored on the Google servers.  If you lose your computer, it does not affect your e-mail at all.  Other online systems, like Google Docs, also offer the ability to store documents online.  This will help to make you more resistant to point-in-time losses.  Plus, the Google services like mail, docs, calendar, etc. work extremely well with sharing with others and synchronizing with mobile devices (see my other article).

This equates to you doing most of the work.  Most computers come with CD or DVD burner drives.  Of course you have to buy disks, burn them, keep them...

If you are like me, you have many gigabytes of data to be backed up.  There are really two good options.
  1. Maxtor makes USB hard drives called One Touch. Plug them in, press the button, and your system is backed up. As of the time of this writing, a 1TB (1,000 gigabyte) drive is about $100.
  2. Online backup services back up your data over the Internet.  There are a few out there, including Amazon S3, Mozy, Norton, and SugarSync.  However right now, the best features are available for the lowest price, at Carbonite for $55 a year (http://www.offers.com/f/software/online-backup/compare/).
The down side of buying a hard drive, you need to replace it when it is too small or stops working. However there was a scandal in March 2009 where Carbonite lost customers' online backups (http://infosecurity.us/?p=8133).  Under the assumption that they have learned their lesson, I would bet they are better prepared perhaps than their competition now after suffering that debacle.  The truth is we never really know how well a company takes care of their business without going there and researching ourselves, so barring that, online backups in general tend to be more reliable.  This would be a similar phenomenon to that of airplanes - there are much fewer accidents with air travel than ground travel (e.g. online backups vs. personal backups), but one accident affects a greater population.

If you want to avoid monthly/yearly fees, and control your backups more closely, you should opt the hard drive route.  Otherwise, trust in the professionals and let them manage the hardware, while you just manage which files get backed up.

Finally, we get to an aspect of backup that few people consider.  Backing up data files means you can get them back - in the event you accidentally delete or otherwise lose them.  But, what happens in the event your hard drive fails, and you have to get a new one?  Your whole system is gone, and you need to get your apps, perhaps your e-mail.  Much of what you need resides in the applications installed, the licenses enrolled, and the configuration settings - many of which are typically not stored in the normally-backed-up paths on Windows systems.

One way to back up your system is to use software that creates an image of the hard drive - basically a snapshot of the entire hard drive.  You can store this image on another hard drive, or on CDs or DVDs.  Then, using the same software, you can restore it later to another hard drive.  Software ranges from Norton Ghost, which costs money, to SelfImage, which is free.  BartPE is a free bootable CD that you can build to restore a computer whose hard drive is gone.  It boots into Windows (you need your Windows CD to build a bootable CD), and allows you to run software like SelfImage to restore the hard drive from an image.

This takes technical knowledge - some talent at teasing the hobbling system to work, fixing the broken hardware, and more.  At worst, you can pay someone else (or guilt them into it if you have leverage!) to repair your system and get it to the point where you can restore the files you backed up using the advice above.

You have to take all of these into account to put together something that works for you.
  • Use CD/DVD burners to back up relatively small amounts of data infrequently
  • Use a One Touch hard drive to back up your data if you want to control the hardware
  • Use a backup service to back up your data if you believe they will do a better job of maintaining the data, and this can be automated to happen daily, or even instantaneously
  • Set up a system image periodically, perhaps once or twice a year - you can do Google searches on BartPE and system image software, or contact me for some advice

Hope this helps - and happy backing up.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like good advice and much of it I can attest was learned by error when you didn't back up your wife's recipe files or palm contacts and they were lost when you swore it was all saved and wiped the hard drive to start over!! Glad you seemed to have learned your lesson, although I still fear my computer isn't backing up as every day I have an error message about the back up.