You say you’ve got an important paper due in an hour and your hard drive just crashed? You say you’ve got 50 items for sale on eBay and your computer just got hit by lightning and you can’t check your E-mail? Is that what’s troubling you, fella?
Computers are fallible devices just like the people that made them. As such, they Will fail, sometimes unpredictably, and at the worst possible moment. (Murphy was a computer engineer, you know!) The real questions boil down to two: How much do you depend on your computer, and how fast do you need to be up and running after a disaster?
The answers to these two questions will determine what, if any, kind of data backup plan you need. Let’s go from most elaborate to least elaborate, because more backup than you need is better than not enough. You may also just feel more comfortable with better or more frequent backups.
If you run a business from your computer, frequent and secure backups are Vital! How bad would it hurt if you suddenly lost all your customer records, bookkeeping files, and inventory all at once? For this type of scenario, you should consult an IT (Information Technology) professional, but here’s enough to get you started. You need daily backups. Many businesses backup after closing each day. Most backup programs have built-in schedulers for backups so you won’t forget. Additionally, the computer must be on for the automatic backup to happen.
You also need to rotate your backups. What this means is have at least a weeks worth of backups at all times before you start overwriting the old ones. That way, if an important file was accidentally deleted on Monday, and you only find out about it on Thursday, you still have a backup of it.
A business user may have several computers on a local network. All of these computers can be backed up to a single network drive. This drive connects to the network on a stand-alone basis, so it’s not dependent on any one computer being on for access. It can also be physically hidden or locked up to make it more resistant to theft.
For maximum safety, you also need an offsite backup. In case you have a burglary and they take everything, or, God forbid, your business burns down, you need a copy of your vital data stored completely away from the place. This can be as simple as burning it to a CD or DVD and taking it home with you periodically, or as complex as using an online file-storage service and sending the files over the internet. Make sure any service you choose has adequate ways of protecting your data, both from accidental loss and intentional theft.
If you are a home user, your data probably isn’t as vital as a business user’s is, but you’ve still got lots of stuff on that hard drive that you’d really hate to lose. For home users, I recommend backing up somewhere between once a week and once a month. Use your own judgment on this. If you’re writing the Great American Novel on your computer, daily backups might not be overkill after all.
Ways of backing up vary from simple to complex. I use a free backup program called Syncback, which simply copies all the files you want to save to another folder or drive. In my case, I have it back up to an external hard drive. These devices are not too expensive ($60-$150), have as much space as you want, and are plug-and-play easy to install. Another option is the second internal hard drive. These are slightly less expensive ($50-$100), but require you to open up your computer. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to install a second hard drive- it’s really pretty simple- but the disadvantage is if your computer is stolen or destroyed, there goes your data, and some computers, and most laptops, have no room for a second drive. An external drive can be locked up when you’re not actually backing up, or even in your safe deposit box if you want it offsite. Some external drives can also be used as network drives if you have a home network.
You can also back up to an online file- storage service. Many have free or cheap file storage for small amounts of data, depending on just how much you’ve got. A good free one to get started is Mozy. They will let you back up 2 Gigabytes free to a local folder and their remote vault, and they have several paid plans if you want more. Another and unique service is Crashplan. What makes them different is both local and remote backup to a friend’s computer (Or another of yours) is free! In other words, as long as you have the computer owner’s permission, you can back up to another person’s hard drive, whether he’s across the street or in Australia, free! You can also back up to their secure vault for a reasonable annual fee. Remember, though, if the service goes out of business, there went your backup into the ether. That’s why you always start with a local backup that’s entirely within your control.
The cheapest way to back up is to use a CD-RW, or DVD-RW, or Flash Drive and just copy the files you don’t want to lose to one of those on a regular basis. An external drive, while more expensive initially, rapidly becomes a much better choice unless your backup needs are very modest. You’ll get the lowest cost per Gigabyte with a hard drive.
What should you back up? Well, for starters, your entire “Documents” folder. If other people use the computer, you might want to back up their Documents folder also. To do this, you’ll need an Administrator account. You’ll also probably want your internet favorites (You’ll find them in C:/Documents and Settings/ your user name on XP, or C:/Users/your user name on more recent versions of Windows). Anything you’ve downloaded will need to be backed up if you want to keep it. I back up all my downloaded software so I won’t have to find it and download it again. Also, the software website might disappear and then you might not be able to download it again at any price! Anything you make with the computer needs to be backed up, and not all programs automatically save to the My Documents folder. For example: Pictures taken with a digital camera, web sites you’ve made, Powerpoint presentations, data files from GPS units or other things you plug into the computer, CD Catalogs, and so on.
Backing up your E-mails can get complicated. If you use Outlook Express, your E-mails are buried very deep. You can change the location of the “Store” folder. Go to Tools> Options and click the Maintenance tab. Click the button labeled “Store folder” and select a subfolder of “Documents”.
If you just want to save a few important E-mails, open the message, click the “File” menu, and select “Save as…”. You should save as a “Mail (EML)” file if you want to preserve all the formatting of the original. Be sure you save it to your “Documents” folder or a subfolder of it.
If you read your E-mail as webmail, such as hotmail or Gmail, your mail is not stored on your computer but on the mail provider’s machine. Again, if you really want to save an E-mail, save it to a local folder, and then back it up.
This has only been an introduction to backing up. Some users may not feel a need to do it at all, while others may only need to do it occasionally. Just remember, if you don’t, you’ll probably wish you had.