Wednesday, June 25, 2014

How Good Is Your Backup?

I have covered this before, but it's so important, it's worth talking about again.  I am only addressing this article to any who use a computing device - computer, notebook, tablet, smart phone.  If you don't use any of these things, you can ignore this article!

I cannot for the life of me understand how it is that people put up with mediocrity.  If someone cuts your lawn, and they forget to trim, or leave wisps of long grass because they miss parts as they criss-cross, do you keep them on?  If someone cleans your home and doesn't do the fans, window sills, or corners - do you let them come week after week?  Heck no for me!  So if someone wants me to buy or download their Operating System, why would I even consider it if they don't provide me an easy way to back up my data?  Let's take a look at Windows and Mac.


What should a backup be?  In order to understand that, we need to understand how computers work.  And let me be clear, everything that requires electrical signals nowadays is a computer - from your smart watch to your phone and tablet.  Computers have 2 types of storage - a working set of more expensive memory, that can only hold contents while powered (this is called RAM or Random Access Memory), and longer-term memory for storage of data while it is powered off (typically non-volatile Flash RAM or hard disks).  Let's call the long-term storage a hard disk, for simplicity's sake.

The hard disk stores basically 3 types of files on it, which are used by the system.
  • Operating System files - these are data files, programs, and the like that run your device.  Without it, you have a very elaborate brick.  These may also contain configuration settings that are modified as you tweak the system to your preferences.
  • Program, or app, files - these are programs that you may add, and all the configuration and resource files they use to run and do their thing.
  • Data Files - these are what typically people think of when they think "backup" - your music, photos, documents, etc. that you download, share, create.
Now, in a well-organized system, these files should be segregated into 3 distinct locations.  Why?  Well, if you have 3 people living in the same house, and no drawers to keep their stuff - they can throw their things all over the place.  How do you know whose is whose?  Whose underwear is that?  Whose toothbrush?  Yeah, you don't want to share some things.

Organized systems means it is easy to back up.  Also, it means it is easy to restore - and restore to a different version of the Operating System, to some degree.

Now let's address another important aspect of backing up.  When you back up electronic data, you back it up (typically) to another electronic system - usually another hard drive, could be a tape or something.  This electronic system is susceptible to failure, or some kind of disaster that affects an area like your home or office could affect both the system you care about and the backup system that has its back.  So off-site backup is important as well.

However, here I would say is the great equalizer.  Offsite backup is typically handled by a service, in which case they support Mac and Windows equally.  What wins here is ease of backup, so the more organized your files are, the easier it is to include the right ones to incorporate a full backup.


From a professional standpoint, I have advised dozens of clients over decades that making a backup is great, but it is completely useless unless you actually restore it and make sure it works.  If a backup is not restorable, it is a false sense of security.

Any backup that you do perform, you should immediately perform a Restore to make sure it works.  Best, is to restore to a fresh system - so wipe the system, and restore - and see exactly the results of the restoration.  Did it get you everything you expected?  Was the backup complete?


Is this a rant?  You decide.  Let's take a look at the 3 types of files.  Windows is an Operating System.  As such, it keeps its files in the Windows folder (e.g. C:\Windows).  Under there are a whole mess of things - from the Windows Heap, Registry, Global Assembly Cache, to Windows system programs and configuration files.  But wait, some things are under C:\Program Files.  And if you are on a 64-bit Windows, some things are under C:\Program Files(x86).  Confused yet?  Wait, it gets better.

When you install a program, let's say you install it to C:\Program Files.  Your program goes there (the EXE file) and a bunch of resource files - but many settings get written to the Registry and loaded into the Heap, which is managed by Windows (yeah, what a heap).  Many are copied to the Global Assembly Cache, or other Windows system folders.  So, if you want to copy your program from one computer to another, it is practically impossible to just copy the Program Files folder, and have that work.  Good to keep people from illegally copying your program if you are a developer, but bad for backup.  And, there are better ways to prevent software piracy.

So, how do you back up a Windows machine?  Let's start with the Windows Backup, that brilliant utility that comes with your system, and lets you back up.  First, it prompts you where to put your backups.  This, it says, is where it is going to put the system image.  What is a system image?  A complete backup of your entire hard disk - everything.  This is great if, say, your hard drive takes a dump, and you have to buy a new one, and restore everything.  This really sucks if you say, buy a new computer, and want to transfer everything.  Because the entire hard drive - including the Windows system folder containing all the drivers specially loaded and configured for your hardware - will be transferred to the new system, where they almost assuredly won't work.  Not to mention that a system backup takes up a massive amount of space (good thing I didn't mention it, eh?).

So where do your little data files fit in?  Sure, you can back them up.  And this is good if you lose a file, but it doesn't take care of the important things in life.  How and when do your backups get initiated?  Do you start them manually?  Hopefully you remember.  Do they go nightly?  What happens if you lose something at 5PM after a whole day's work?  Now here's where it gets really insidious that they are so shortsighted.  You know where I talk about all those configuration files spread throughout the system, some for the app, some for Windows - all over?  Those, I would argue, are just as important as the apps to how you use your system.  Things like what printers you have set up, what passwords your system remembers, to all the little tweaks on where you put your task bar, gadgets, and colors and more.  It takes hours and days to restore a "restored" backup to all these little preferences, and you will never get them back if you have to restore a partial backup.

True, you can take a full system image.  True, Windows is better than it was - you can restore the image to different hardware, and let it go through its redetection to fix all the drivers to the new hardware.  However, this is a hack, and not a robust, well thought out solution.

More importantly, how would one go about getting a good backup?  That, to me, is the mystery here.  The tangled mess of files strewn throughout the file system is the first problem.  Let's cut to the chase - the only thing you can reasonably expect to reliably back up in Windows, are your personal data files.  These are, after all, the most priceless part of it.  Apps you can struggle with re-entering license keys, trying to get the vendor to issue you new ones, or just give up and buy it again.  Personal preferences, just give it up - you are going to have to start over each and every time you restore your system from anything other than a system image.  You get what you pay for.

OS X (aka Mac)

Let's contrast a disorganized, eclectic mess with a well-organized, streamlined symphony.  In OS X (and iOS for mobile devices), Apple has organized everything with strict respect to the purpose of the file.  An app, in fact, is a bundled "zip" file containing all the files the app needs to run inside it - the binary EXE, DLL's, text and image and other resource files, and more.  So installing an app is simply dragging and dropping it into the Applications folder.  Deleting it, simply removing it.  Configuration files are kept in well-defined system and user locations.  So too with data files.  This makes it easy to back up.

More importantly, you can back these up irrespective of what version of the OS you have.  You can restore forward and back, with some limitations - of course, config files may not be able to go back to an older OS.  All kinds of preferences - your keychain (where it keeps your stored user names and passwords), printers, graphical tweaks, sounds, etc. are included with the backup.

The Time Machine software that comes with OS X is designed to work the way people work - and the way problems occur (and the way people realize the problem occurred).  It takes hourly backups of all changed files - in the background, as you work.  If you realize suddenly you have an issue with a file, you can scroll backwards in time to find the right version of the file, and restore it.  All from your desktop.  (Specifically, hourly for 24 hours, and daily for a week, then weekly as backup space permits.)

Every aspect of what you consider "yours" is backed up, so that when you restore, your computer is precisely back to the way it was before the problem.  And, it does so as a series of changed files - you don't have to take an entire system image.  Remember, that system image includes a complete backup of the operating system, which you don't need to back up.  That is already backed up on the Recovery Volume.

I personally have done a few system restores from Time Machine backup, and let me tell you, they are so easy and complete I am left wondering why anyone puts up with anything else.  And file-by-file restore is amazing, it is so easy to flip back through time in folders and restore specific files.

Mobile Devices

Yes, as you can guess - what am I going to talk about here?  If you have a Windows phone, you already know what you're in for - more of the same as above.  A mess.  But what if you have an Android phone? Surely they have thought of this more than Microsoft?  Well, you can throw that idea out the window - backups are just as fragmented, incomplete, and haphazard as Windows.  They rely on you to know what files you want to back up - and believe me, on a mobile device that is even more difficult than on a full PC.

Which brings me around to Apple.  Yet again, they have you covered.  If you synch with iTunes on a PC, it backs up a complete backup of all your files (minus the OS), so that you can do a complete restore of a lost or damaged device.  I myself have done this dozens of times (transfer to a new device, or re-stage the device I used for iOS beta testing).  It is absolutely 100% complete and reliable.

But then they go you one better.  If you go to your iCloud settings, with the flip of one switch, you can turn on iCloud backups - which backs up all your personal data (not app/music/etc. purchases which are already on record anyhow through iTunes) automatically, in the background, over the air.  You are 100% covered, 100% of all your data, without having to think about it or spend your precious hours on it - over and over and over like those manual operating systems.  I mean, come on, is this the 1990's or something?

So, if all you ever care about is your contacts and e-mails - then you don't have to worry about backup if you use cloud-based services.  But, if you do anything else with your computer - use apps, pass files around - you can guess where I prefer to be.  Where I don't have to pay to buy backup software, where I don't have to worry because it's covered.


I'm not even going to say anything at this point - you can draw your own conclusion.  Are you willing to put up with mediocrity, or do you value yourself, your time, your piece of mind, and your data better than that?  It is hard to bring a system to market, and kudos to Google, Microsoft, and others who have done so, successfully.  But what I am saying here, is from a consumer's standpoint - the company who goes the extra mile, who gives a complete thought to every aspect of the product, who is organized, has a plan and executes it par excellence - that is the company whose product I will buy.  That is the one I will admire, support, and use.  Think about how important the data you manage with your computer is, and who has the system to best protect you.  The choice is clear.

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