Hard Drive Backup Strategies

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2302, 2005-01-14, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 22-23) and their website.

Many years ago, a doctor who ran his own practice, asked me to fix a problem with his PC. Afterwards, he casually mentioned that he stored all of his business and patients' records on a single disk. Not a hard disk, but a diskette! As the "shock and awe" descended upon me, he asked nonchalantly if there was any danger of the diskette dying and taking with it all of his records, none of which he had backed up anywhere else. I urged him to immediately transfer all of his data onto his PC's hard drive (which he had only been using for running Windows), and begin following a sensible backup regimen.

Had the good doctor's workhorse diskette gone bad, it likely would have proved devastating to his business — not just immediately, for billing and scheduling, but long-term, in case his practice were audited by the authorities and he had to produce pivotal data. Nowadays, with diskettes going the way of audiocassettes, and files getting ever larger, businesses and individuals rely upon their computers' hard drives, to which they have entrusted more information than many of them realize… until it's gone.

How could that precious data disappear? Hard drives, like their dependent owners, are mortal. Just as most people give little thought to their own demise, they seem to spend even less time preparing for a day when their hard drive fails to spin up, and their PC, if running Windows, reports that no system disk can be found. It's a truly horrible experience for anyone, if and when their hard drive dies, and they realize that all of the data that has not been backed up, is gone — unless data restoration experts can retrieve it, at much expense.

To be sure, not all drives crash and burn without warning. Some continue to spin merrily away, providing years of reliable service. But you don't want to wager your personal or business data that your own hard drive will still be functional when you choose to replace it.

Hard drive manufacturers claim that their products rarely fail, if ever — specifically, about 1 percent in the first year of use. Yet a major portion of those drives are kept running continually, in professionally-managed and dust-free data centers. As a result, the low rates of failure cited by manufacturers do not adequately reflect the experiences of consumers, who typically power up their drives at least once per day, which greatly increases wear and tear.

In the Media

It has been said that the three rules of computing are, "Backup, backup, backup!" In essence, hard drive backups are like fire insurance: You hope that you never need them, but when you do, they are necessary for recovering your data quickly and inexpensively. There are several strategies that you can employ for saving your drive's data, and many alternatives as to backup media, frequency, and location.

The most common media used for backups are: CD-RWs, tape drives, diskettes, second hard drives, and, more recently, writable DVDs and USB flash drives. There is even an alternative that does not use any local media, in which one's data is securely copied over the Internet to the data storage facilities of a service provider.

Countless PC users only utilize their machines for doing e-mail, surfing the Web, and playing games. These folks have limited backup needs, because the only information on their computers worth saving is their address books and perhaps a few documents. Such individuals could get by using (relatively cheaper) diskettes. But these are not recommended, because they are the least reliable of all options, and are definitely the first that will disappear into technological oblivion.

For those with more data to protect, optical rewritable discs can work well. Most CD-RWs now can hold 700 MB, while DVDs can accommodate 4.7 GB. USB flash drives, despite their diminutive size, are now up to a remarkable 2 GB; they are certainly the most portable option. Tape drives are still in use all over the world, though not as popular now as they were during the 1990s. Current data capacities are typically anywhere from 100 to 2000 GB.

Cheap Insurance

For maximum reliability and ease-of-use, I recommend a second hard drive, either internal (for desktops) or external (for laptops and desktops). Too many computer users have writable CD and DVD drives, as well as USB slots, that sadly go unused for backing up their files. The most common rationalization, er, reason I hear for this neglect, is that doing daily backups is a real nuisance — as if attaching a USB flash drive is just too much work.

But with a second hard drive installed, there is no excuse. Windows has a built-in utility that can do automated backups, so you don't have to even remember to begin the process. The exact steps vary depending upon your version of Windows. For Windows 2000, go to Start > Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Backup, and start the Backup Wizard. Put checkmarks in front of the directories and files you want to save. At the "Completing the Backup Wizard" dialog box, click the Advanced button and choose Daily as the type of backup operation to perform. At the "Media Options" dialog, specify "Replace the data…" so as not to run out of space on your second hard drive.

This backup utility is built into Windows 2000. But by default, it is not installed with Windows XP Home Edition; rather, it must be installed manually from the Windows disc. It is unclear as to why Microsoft chose to discourage users in this manner from backing up, by not including this handy utility in every default installation. Perhaps they figured that so few people actually do backups, that the installation process would be faster by leaving it out. Insert the installation disc; go to Start > Run; click the Browse button; find the folder "VALUEADD\MSFT" on the Windows CD; type in the file name "ntbackup.msi"; click OK, which starts the installation wizard.

Backups of all important data should be done daily. If you change files frequently, and sometimes need older versions, then you should use rotating backups, so that you have versions of data from different days and weeks. Ideally, your most critical files should be backed up onto a second medium, such as a large USB drive — in case both hard drives are damaged by, for instance, an electrical spike.

For even better protection, one full and up-to-date backup should be stored off-site. You don't want to be standing next to the fire trucks outside of your residence, wishing that you had earlier secured your irreplaceable data to a separate location. Be sure to use a strong encryption application, so thieves cannot gain access to your confidential data.

Just as I implored that doctor to take immediate steps to protect his critical business information, I urge you to do the same for your valued computer files. We humans often don't appreciate what we have, until it's gone.

Copyright © 2004 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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