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Backup: Your Most Important Task
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

Everyone who uses a computer to save or store files will at some time or another experience that heart stopping moment when they realize their files are lost. Don't let those files be lost forever. It's plain and simple: if you use a computer, you need to backup your data. It's not a question of whether you should, but rather how you should...

Why Backup?

Every day individuals, businesses, and organizations lose their precious files due to a drive failure, inadvertent deletion, or other unwanted action or event. The result is a great deal of stress, anxiety, and in the case of businesses, lost revenue.

The computer hard drive that stores all your data has moving parts, and in time your hard drive will wear out and fail. It's just a matter of when. You need to keep a copy of all your important data somewhere else.

Apart from hard drive failure, there are many other likely scenarios that may result in the loss of your valuable files like power failures and spikes, or system and file corruption due to a viruses, worms, or other malicious attacks.

Backup Location

You need to store a copy of all your important files in a different location to where your computer is situated. It's not a great deal of use having the copy of your files on your external hard drive which is constantly plugged into your computer. A thief won't leave your additional drive for you to recover your lost files, a fire or flood won't distinguish between your computer and your external drive. At the very least, keep your copy in a different location in your home. If possible, keep your backup copy in an entirely different building.

Some choose to backup their data onto remote servers via File Transfer Protocol (FTP) or by other means. Others use the services of off-site backup over the Internet. Be mindful however that your data is your responsibility. The moment you transfer that data to a third party to keep safe, new risks involving the potential compromise of that services availability and security arise.

The Ultimate Backup

There are circumstances when a backup might also be inadvertently corrupted or over-written. Regularly creating a third backup stored in a different location, although less convenient to administer, provides you with the greatest security against loosing your data. If however you are unlikely to backup often to this third location, it's not going to be worth your while as a backup needs to be updated frequently to be of any value.

What data should be backed up?

In addition to your pictures, videos, music, Word documents, spreadsheets, databases, emails etc, you'll also want to keep a copy of all the programs you use so that if necessary they may be easily reinstalled at a later date. I, for example, copy any new programs I download and install from the Internet in a special folder that gets backed up as part of my backup routine.

One especially important program to backup is the program you use for the backup procedure itself. You'll also need to save the serial number for this program and others in a secure yet memorable location so you can restore your backup to the original location at a later date should you need to.

If you use your computer for business purposes you will also need to backup all the information from your financial software, inventory control, customer databases, and other specialist business files.

Disk Imaging

To make an exact copy of your drive, including your Windows operating system, you must use 'disk imaging' software. Disk imaging copies the entire disk (the parts that are used) bit-by-bit. This results in a copy that will take up a lot of disk space, and take much longer to copy. Disk imaging isn't generally the best answer to backing up for a number of reasons.

Your Windows operating environment is constantly changing. Programs are installed, updated, uninstalled, and settings are changed. Many important security specific applications are also regularly and automatically updated. Anyone for example who users their computer to connect to the Internet should have in place Anti-Virus, Firewall, and Anti-Spyware programs that often update many times a week.

Another significant reason why creating a disk image of your drive is not an advisable routine backup procedure is that any and all misconfigurations of your system, dormant security threats, and the vast amount of junk data that is created and stored on your computer as you use it, will also be copied. Much of this junk data cannot be deleted as it is generated behind the scenes in your system. This results in a decrease in performance and speed, and can also lead to system instability.

Lastly if you change your computer then it's very possible that you won't be able to restore from a disk image as that disk image contains all the drivers and settings for your previous computers hardware, which is probably completely different (e. g. different motherboard).

These issues, combined with the much longer, costlier (more disks), and less convenient (more time consuming) disk imaging process inevitably means that for the average user, disk imaging is carried out far less frequently than the kind of backup that only copies your documents and information (usually under the 'My Documents' folder). Always remember that making regular backups to a different location is the key to an effective backup strategy.

People who use disk imaging often use file backup programs as well. For example, they take a snapshot of their hard disk using the disk imaging software, e. g. every week, month, or at ad-hoc times, but use the file backup program to make regular backups of their important files, e. g. scheduled every day or even hourly. When doing a restore they first restore the disk image then restore their files using the file backup program.

How often should you make a backup of your files?

If you work on your documents each day, you need to backup at least once a day. If you accidentally delete a file, or a program crashes while you're working on a document, you need to be in a position where you can click a button to recover that file from your backup copy, so you may well want to run the backup program in the background. The more impressive backup programs can also copy open and locked files so that a backup can be made even when you're working on a document.

Many people benefit from backing up on a very regular basis throughout the day. Writers for example may be working on a draft and may wish to review an earlier version of that draft as they progress. This kind of incremental backup is also possible depending on the backup software you use so that you can effectively roll-back to an earlier version of your document.

What should you backup onto?

There are many different types of media that you may choose to backup onto, and each has their own advantages and disadvantages. The first thing you'll have to work out is what suits your particular circumstance.

It's generally a good idea to choose media that allows you to backup all the data you wish to without having to 'span' the backup. For example, you may need many CDRs to back-up all your information. The problem with this kind of backup is that it requires your intervention to replace the new media as each disk is required. A backup that can automatically run without your intervention will save you a great deal of time over the long run. An external USB hard drive for example can plug straight into a computer and provide an instant large capacity space for your backups.

If you're a personal computer user however, the most immediate medium you're probably going to consider is to backup to CDR/W or DVDR/W, however, these mediums are also less stable over longer time periods than you might realize. For pure convenience there's nothing easier than making relatively small capacity backups to a USB memory stick that you can easily plug in, then transfer to another location. If you're a business with existing backup procedures, you may be using tape backup (which can be sensitive to heat, magnetism etc), or you may be implementing a removable hard disk procedure.

Whatever you choose make sure your chosen media is easy to use, requires as least intervention as is possible, and can easily be scheduled.

Improving Backup Procedures

If you already have a backup routine it's prudent to check it's doing what you expect, and if necessary, to make adjustments to ensure it's performing to your best advantage. Take care to read through and understand the documentation that comes with your backup program as there may be specific customizations that you may wish to make. For example, you may want to configure your backup so that the program verifies that files are copied correctly, and that the backup makes safe copies by using temporary file names before renaming the file given the copy is successful.

Some backup programs assist you in the evaluation of effective backup procedures by allowing you to test any backup you do with a simulated run. This allows you to check the backup routine functions correctly without actually copying any files.

Scheduling backups

It's very easy to have your important files backed up without you having to remember to make a backup. The backup can be done automatically, every day, while you sleep. It can be done while you're on holiday or out of the office. Computers are designed to help automate tasks, so let your computer and software automate your backups.

AbleStable and 2BrightSparks

During late 2003 I began working on improving a freeware program called SyncBack, which was featured as a download at AbleStable soon after it's initial release. During the program's early development I worked with Michael J. Leaver, neither of us having any intention other than to produce the best freeware backup program out there. I was committed to the project as a backup program would deliver a free, robust and powerful backup solution for all those creative individuals who visit AbleStable.

As a result of the incredible popularity of SyncBack, Michael and I decided to work on a commercial version that would require significant additional investment, and we therefore formed a more formal partnership to develop the program and called our company 2BrightSparks. The company was eventually incorporated in Singapore during November 2005 as 2BrightSparks Pte Ltd. with the addition of a third founder Richard Gascoigne.

Synchronization

As well as backing up your data, SyncBack freeware can also allow you to safely and easily synchronize files between two different directories. Those files could be on different drives, different computers, different devices, or even over the Internet via FTP.

You perform a backup when you want to keep a second copy of your files. A backup doesn't change your original files. If you accidentally delete a file, or make changes you don't want, etc. then you can restore the original file from the backup.

When synchronizing however, you are copying files between two computers or storage mediums, e.g. your hard disk and an external USB drive. Perhaps you've a desktop computer and a notebook computer and have copies of the same files on both computers. You may be changing those files either on your desktop or notebook depending on the situation. With synchronization, files are copied from one to the other based on when they were last changed. Files may also be deleted, e.g. you deleted a file on your notebook and so want the same file on your desktop to also be deleted.

This additional functionality and outstanding customisation, together with an industry leading online Support Area and comprehensive help file, sets SyncBack apart from the rest.

Conclusion

Backing up your data is your one essential task. If you haven't done so already, find a solution that fits your requirements today. I've mentioned the freeware program SyncBack because I've helped develop it and know it's a great solution. Whatever you do, whatever program you use, backup each and every day from here on in, and don't be one of those many who at this very moment are wishing they had....

     
       
 
Author
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author. Mike is also a Director of 2BrightSparks, a software company producing award winning backup solutions including the freeware product SyncBack.

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