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with Scott Merrill

Learn tips and hints to use a variety of electronic and technical equipment to enhance work with volunteers.

~ November 2005 ~ Topics


Backing up your data is probably the single most important thing you can do with your computer. But backing up is time consuming, and frankly boring, so too many people put it off for too long. As Hurricane Katrina has demonstrated, the importance of reliable backups of your data cannot be overstated.

There are three basic issues to consider when backing up:

  • What to back up
  • How to back up
  • Where to store it

What to back up

The easiest way to address this question is to avoid it: keep an exact copy of your computer's hard drive(s). There is fancy hardware you can get to do this, as well as some not-so-fancy software. The drawback to this mirroring of your hard drives is that you need to have as many backup hard drives as you have regular hard drives. This can become an expensive proposition.

Keeping an exact copy of your entire hard drive isn't really necessary. You're extremely unlikely to need (or want) to restore your operating system files, for example. The stuff you really want to back up is the stuff you've made: your spreadsheets, presentations, and email.

First you need to find out where all this stuff is. Most computers using Microsoft Windows will store the majority of user-created data inside the My Documents folder. Unfortunately, some programs will stick their data in other places, or in hidden folders, so you may need to spend some time (and effort) finding all of these bits. It's important to remember that the time you spend doing this now will be considerably less than the time you might spend trying to recover from the loss of this data in a disaster.

How to back up

For most single-user computers, the easiest way to backup your system is to invest in a CD writer. This is a CD drive that can place data onto blank CDs. Writable CDs usually allow data to be added, but not deleted, up to about 700 megabytes. That's ample space for most people. If you're dealing with a large media collection (say, digital images), a DVD writer may be a better choice: writable DVD media can store over 4 gigabytes of data.

Another popoular backup option is to invest in an external hard drive. These hard drives connect to your computer through USB or FireWire cables, and can be connected and disconnected as needed. An external hard drive has considerably more storage space than CD or DVD media. 200+ gigabyte external hard drives are now quite common. You could reasonably keep every version of every document you create, plus all your email, and still have room to spare!

For most situations, I recommend writable CDs or DVDs instead of an external hard drive. Using CDs, it's easy to make multiple copies of your backups. The simple truth is that you cannot have too many backups! Consider what happens if you rely on an external hard drive for your backups, and that drive develops critical errors: your backup is no longer doing its job, and you may lose all the data which you entrusted to it!

In addition to what device you will use, you need to consider the process and frequency of your backups. The easiest choice is to backup everything, at least once a week. This will produce a lot of duplicate data in your backups, as every week you're backing up all the data you backed up the week before, plus whatever new or modified data you have. I consider this to be a good thing: you cannot have too many backups!

If the quantity of data makes regular full backups impractical, you can make incremental backups: backup only that data that has changed since your last backup. Keeping track of which files are new, and which files you've edited throughout the week, can be nearly impossible. Thankfully, backup software can easily manage this for you. Several low-cost backup solutions (often bundled with backup hardware) pay attention to which files have been changed, and can automatically backup just those files.

Where to store it

Another reason I strongly advocate writable CDs and DVDs is that they are easy to store in other locations. You can make backup CDs and keep them at your house, or in a safe deposit box, or in the trunk of your car. With an external hard drive, you need to keep the unit near the computer which it is backing up.

Consider also what happens if there is a fire or other catastrophe that damages your computer. Chances are high that this disaster will also damage the external hard drive connected to your computer. By keeping CDs or DVDs in a different location, you greatly increase the chances of your backed up data remaining intact.

For even more peace of mind, you can purchase managed backup storage solutions. Companies provide temperature-controlled fireproof facilities which you can rent for a monthly fee. Some companies offer courier services to regularly pick up your latest backups, making the entire process almost completely hands-off. Such services are probably extreme for most smaller organizations.

If you're taking the time to make backups, take the time to make sure that you're not keeping all of those backups in one location.


Backing up your data is vitally important. Equally important is making sure that your backup works. If at all possible, try to verify your backups on a periodic basis, by either retrieving some files from the backup, or trying to access the backup media (CD, hard drive) from some other computer. Sometimes backups fail. Better to find out sooner, while you still have time to execute another backup, than to find out after a catastrophe that your backups are incomplete or unreadable!

Yes, backing up is boring and time consuming. But it's vitally important.

Scott Merrill is an information technology professional with demonstrated success in a variety of diverse environments, including healthcare, for-profit, and non-profit. He has participated in large-scale deployments for national and international corporations, and has successfully managed the introduction of a complete technology solution for a mid-sized nonprofit mental health facility. Scott lives in lovely Columbus, Ohio with his wife and twin daughters. He occasionally blogs his thoughts at http://skippy.net. You may reach him by email at skippy@skippy.net.

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