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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.