HERE’S THE PROBLEM.
Have you backed up your pictures, documents, email and address book lately? I see digital tragedies several times a week. Baby photos gone forever. Months of bookkeeping lost to the digital abyss. Thousand dollar digital music collections decimated and returned to the arbitrary ones and zeroes they came from. If you have digital assets you would miss when they’ve gone, you’d better back them up sooner than later.
The first problem is as far as technology has advanced, there is still no perfect storage medium. Each method of digital storage has its own vulnerabilities, just as any electronic device does. Depending on which you choose, it’s susceptible to theft, fire, water damage, oxidation, electromagnetic radiation, heat, power surges, poor manufacturing processes, bearing failure, and even too much sun. All hard drives and storage media will fail; it’s just a matter of time.
Secondly, our primary storage devices seem to work so well for so long that we become complacent in our efforts. It’s not uncommon for very smart people to believe their computer or phone or tablet will just store their priceless data forever.
Thirdly, the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry. For a backup to be a successful backup, it needs to be current. This requires planning and constant follow-through. Depending on your method, you may be required to manually perform the backup, or at least periodically verify your backup is working correctly.
WHAT IS A BACKUP?
It seems like a silly question, but there is definitely some confusion about what constitutes a “backup.” A backup is any second copy of your digital media that’s physically separated from your original medium. For example, if you make an exact copy of a folder containing your digital photographs originally stored on your PC to a USB flash drive that can be physically removed from that computer, you have a valid backup of that folder of photographs. Remember, if you add more photographs to your computer, your backup is not current until you’ve backed up those new photographs too. Many folks forget backing up is an ongoing process. The logic of backing up intangible things can be confusing. It might be easier to understand what is not a backup.
- Backing up to another folder on your computer’s primary hard drive is not a backup. When your primary hard drive fails, so will your backup.
- Backing up to the recovery partition on your computer’s hard drive is not a backup. A partition is a logical (not physical) separation of the same, single hard drive. If the drive fails, so will your backup.
- Moving pictures or music from your computer to an external hard drive is not a backup. By moving your data, you still only have ONE copy of your digital media, and you need at least TWO copies to have a valid backup.
- Windows’ System Restore is not a backup. Although the system restoration process may miraculously resurrect misbehaving software, it has absolutely nothing to do with your personal data. And, since all your system restore points reside on your computer’s physical hard drive, when your hard drive dies, so too will your restore points.
To recap, a backup should be defined as a second copy of digital media that is physically separate from the original digital media.
WHAT SHOULD I BACK UP?
Back up anything you consider valuable, important, or difficult to impossible to reproduce. Typically, Computer Care Clinic recommends you back up the following:
- Digital photographs, usually located in your Pictures folder under your user profile located under C:\Users\[your name]\Photos or C:\Documents and Settings\[your name]\My Documents\My Pictures. Older versions of Kodak’s Easy Share software may have stored your photographs in the “All Users” folder located in Windows XP under C:\All Users\Photos\Kodak Easy Share. Many folks forget to back this folder up.
- Digital music, movies, apps, and books purchased on iTunes, Amazon.com, or on similar sites. Most of this data will be stored under C:\Users\[your name]\Music\iTunes, or C:\Documents and Settings\[your name]\My Documents\My Music\iTunes.
- Your documents folder. This is the default location for most documents, tax files, family tree software, and many other useful things. Make sure you back up all the sub-folders in this directory too.
- If you use Internet Explorer as your web browser and you’ve stored an extensive amount of Favorite websites, you can back those favorites up too. They’re located under C:\Users\[your name]\Favorites.
- Other browsers like Firefox and Chrome store your favorites as “bookmarks.” These files are typically hidden on your hard drive and can be difficult to locate. Most modern alternative browsers have an export and/or a synchronization feature that, with a little homework, will allow you to export or save your favorites online.
- Your email and address book, if you use POP mail with Outlook, Outlook Express, Windows Mail, Windows Live Mail, or Thunderbird. This is a more advanced procedure since the files are hidden under your user profile. There are several articles and videos online that detail the steps involved.
WHAT YOU SHOULDN’T BACK UP
There are millions of inconsequential files on your computer that will do no more than waste space and time. Unless you’re creating a complete system backup that includes your operating system and programs, there’s no need to back up your Windows directory, your system restore points, your program files, and all the other incremental stuff that’s important to your computer but not important to you.
Some external hard drives come with software that will “image” or “clone” your hard drive, creating a perfect copy of everything just as it was the last time you created that image. It takes a lot of disc space to store that image, and it takes several hours to complete such a large backup. Once the image is completed, you may have the option to append that image with any new or changed files. In eight years, I can count on two hands the people who have tackled the project to attempt to successfully restore a computer from an image, and about half of those gave up trying. And since creating and maintaining a hard drive image is such an intimidating chore for an average user, it’s rare that the image was kept up-to-date with the most recent data. An image that is six months old will not have your current data on it. During the restore process, there are boot CDs that need to be created, and then the tedious process of re-establishing the image to a new hard drive. Imaging is definitely do-able, but you’ve got to be diligent. If you have the knack, the patience, and the spare time, go ahead and create an image, and keep it current. It could save you a lot of time reinstalling programs.
CHOICES IN BACKUP MEDIUM.
You’ll need to decide what media you’d like to use for your backup. There are three important considerations – reliability, cost, and storage capacity. There are no valid long-term studies on storage media since this whole computer thing is relatively new and changes so frequently. But I can derive from my personal experiences what’s worked best for my clients, and what I believe might be your best option considering your usage.
My most important lesson was to not trust any single storage medium. I have seen CDs, DVDs, hard drives, tapes, flash drives, and even cloud backups fail without notice or warning. Personally, my most important documents and photographs are backed up at least twice. And believe it or not, I still print some things out as an additional backup. Obviously, I’m not the “all your eggs in one basket” kind of guy. Here are the different types of backup media, and their pros and cons.
CDs AND DVDs
CD-R and DVD+R differ from typical software or music CDs, because they allow you to physically change them. A music or software CD can last for decades. But a writeable CD is a whole different animal.
Writeable CDs and DVDs store data when a laser burns digital pits into an organic dye, leaving a row of microscopic transparent and non-transparent areas aligned along grooves in the disc. All recordable CDs and DVDs contain a reflective layer that allows a reading laser to bounce off the CD/DVD and to be “read” by the pickup sensor in the CD or DVD replay device. Different types of dyes, recording substrates, and reflective layers behave differently. The quality of the recorded digital signal is also an important factor of life expectancy. Since consumer burners and players were not formally standardized, the data quality and life expectancy is unpredictable.
In the late 1990s, I purchased a certain brand of “gold” CD-Rs for about $2 each. At the time, these discs were touted to be the most reliable recordable CDs on the planet with an archival life expectancy of well over 100 years. I stored my discs in my climate controlled home office, in a sealed CD binder, away from any heat or direct sun. In 2005 I decided to test these discs. In less than ten years, more than half of those discs had read errors and would not work in several of my CD readers. I do not know if it was the writing process or the media itself, but my faith in CDs and DVDs has been shattered. I personally will not trust my backups to any CDs or DVDs.
Storage-wise, DVDs top out at about 8 GB for the latest dual-layer discs, which may barely be enough for today’s digital media storage needs. Even the latest (and still very expensive) “Blu-Ray” DVD discs will only store up to 50 gigabytes of data, which is relatively small by today’s storage standards.
To back up using CDs or DVDs, you can use a program that may already be installed on your computer like Roxio, Sonic, or Nero; or Windows has a built-in utility that does the same thing. You simply insert a blank writeable disc, open the CD writing program, choose the folders or files you would like to write to the disc, and most of the programs will tell you how much space you’re using and have remaining. Most CDs and DVDs are “write once,” meaning you can only “burn” them one time, and no further information may be added once the session has been closed. There are re-writeable discs available that you can change several times, but I’ve never used one – I wouldn’t trust it.
Another reason to avoid CDs and DVDs as a backup medium is many new computers no longer have an optical drive. This is a very good indication that this medium is on its way to becoming extinct.
USB FLASH OR “THUMB” DRIVES
One of the latest entries in the digital storage market is USB flash drives, often called “thumb” drives because they were originally about the size of a thumb. Today’s versions can be the size of a thumbnail, as they continue to shrink. A flash drive consists of a small circuit board shielded by a plastic, metal, or rubberized case with an external USB connector. USB flash drives draw power from the computer via the USB connection.
According to manufacturers, the memory in these flash drives is engineered with either multi-level cell (MLC) or single-level cell (SLC) based memory that is good for somewhere between 1,000 and 100,000 writes, depending on the process. There is virtually no limit to the number of reads from flash memory. Theoretically, even a well-worn USB drive may still be readable after several years. Regardless of the endurance of the memory itself, the USB connector hardware is specified to withstand about 1,000 to 2,000 insert-removal cycles before the soldering between the USB connector and the circuit board stresses and ultimately fails.
With that said, I still have an early 1 gigabyte flash drive that I have inadvertently run through my washing machine on at least three occasions, and it still works perfectly. I don’t have time to track write cycles, but I typically use flash memory for reading data more than writing data. It is at least five years old and still works perfectly. On the other hand, I also had a 64 gigabyte flash drive that has failed to read and been replaced three times under its one year warranty. It finally died after I bumped it with my wrist and compromised the USB to circuit board solder connection, well before the typical 1,000 insertions and removals.
Ultimately, these are a fairly reliable and inexpensive secondary backup device. Storage is limited but respectable, topping out affordably at about 64 gigabytes with 256 gigabyte drives now available and growing. The devices continue to shrink, making them convenient to store but also easy to lose or misplace. Backing up weekly would cause 52 annual writes and removals, which should theoretically get you thought this medium’s obsolescence well before a board failure. Granted, this technology is still relatively new, so this medium’s true longevity is still being evaluated.
Backing up to these devices is very easy. Simply copy (not CUT – cutting moves the files) and paste the files you want to back up to this drive, which will automatically show up in My Computer as the next available letter drive looking just like any other hard drive. Some devices come with backup software.
EXTERNAL HARD DISK DRIVES
The most popular method of backup is currently external hard disk drives. Currently available in capacities of 500 to 3,000 Gigabytes, they offer a tremendous amount of storage for a comparatively reasonable price. Essentially, this is an external version of the same exact mechanical hard disk drive that stores your data in your computer, typically connected via a USB cable. Today’s drives transfer data very quickly via USB 3.0, if your computer is equipped with that standard.
Some external hard drives come with imaging and/or backup software. Once installed, this software should prompt you to create an initial backup, and subsequently should automatically add any changed or new files to your backup as an “incremental” backup. This is a good method of backing up. The downside is that many people, especially those with laptops, fail to physically connect the hard drive to their computers periodically to allow the incremental backup to take place. It’s as if folks think backups take place via magic. Fortunately, some of the newer external hard drives have a wireless network interface, so as long as the drive has power and you’re on the same home network as that hard drive, your backup should proceed as planned.
An external hard drive will also allow Windows Vista, 7 and 8 to utilize its built-in backup capability. There’s an option to let Windows select the files to back up, or you can select them yourself. The interface is fairly simple, though it might take some effort to learn how to set backup time and frequency. The backup tool is located under System Tools in Vista and 7, and search for File History with Windows 8. Macs have a similar utility called Time Machine.
External hard drives have their downfalls. Most are mechanical and very sensitive to bumps or drops, especially when powered on. And since most are mechanical, they’re subject to failure just like the hard drive inside your computer. Portable solid state hard drives based on flash memory similar to USB flash drives are just beginning to hit the market. They’re still pricey, storage is limited topping out at about 256 GB currently, and the jury is out on their reliability.
To back up using an external hard drive, you may use the built-in software to configure and also schedule your backups. You may also manually back up by copying and pasting the files and folders you want to preserve via Windows Explorer or navigation via My Computer. An external hard drive will show up in My Computer as the next available logical letter drive. Remember, the external hard drive has to be connected to the computer you want to back up, and it has to be powered on at the time you scheduled your backup. You can also use it like any other hard drive or flash drive, and copy your files and folders directly to that external hard drive manually.
NETWORK ATTACHED STORAGE (NAS)
NAS devices are special computer controlled boxes that contain external hard drive storage devices that connect to your home or business network. After a network-based configuration process that can be a bit tricky to a novice, your computer treats a NAS device like any other external hard drive. Some later routers have USB ports which will accept off-the-shelf USB Flash Drives or external hard drives, essentially creating your own pseudo NAS device.
Your NAS can be configured to show up as a separate disk in My Computer and you’ll be able to access your files just as you would on any external hard drive. And since it’s not directly attached to any single PC, it can be accessed by several computers in your home simultaneously. I can seamlessly connect to the NAS I have at work from home via the Internet. Its software has let me “map” my internet connected NAS as the “L drive” in My Computer.
Today’s NAS devices come with additional features including software similar to that of external hard drives. Since it’s on your home network and always on, you won’t have to worry about physically plugging it in to complete your incremental backups. You will need a router of some sort at home, a place to store your NAS drive that has access to an Ethernet connection, and obviously A/C power.
Once again, a NAS is a single hard drive (or an array of several conventional hard drives), so they’re also subject to the same failures as any hard drive.
To back up using a NAS drive, configure the accompanying software to automate your backup. Or, similar to a flash drive or external hard drive, copy and paste your files and folders manually.
ONLINE BACKUPS VIA “THE CLOUD”
Online file storage solutions are becoming increasingly popular and are an excellent option, especially if you’re too busy (or forgetful) to backup on a set schedule. The “Cloud” is simply the collection of several third party organizations that maintain several computers responsible for storing data via a broadband internet connection. In other words, it’s a warehouse for people’s data. You upload your data, and it’s the Cloud’s job to keep it safe and let you retrieve it whenever you want it.
Internet cloud-based storage solutions include Dropbox, Microsoft’s SkyDrive, Google’s Cloud, Apple’s iCloud, Box, or Amazon’s cloud as well as scores of other paid and free solutions can add a virtual folder to your computer, which you can manage manually, just like any other folder on your computer. I use a free Dropbox account to share folders among my family and co-workers. I use SkyDrive and Google’s Cloud to backup books I’m writing as well as newsletters like this one.
Carbonite, Mozy, Norton, and several other companies offer more comprehensive backup systems in the cloud. Carbonite can be configured to automatically back up nearly every piece of data on your computer (with the exception of video files as a limitation of my $59 “home” option). The backup process happens over the internet, so your computer would have to remain on and not sleeping for this backup to work, and obviously, connected to the internet. Prices start at about $60/year. Click here for a special offer on Carbonite.
The pros of a complete backup system like Carbonite or Mozy are that they happen with no intervention from you whatsoever. No planning or manual labor is required on your part, which is perfect for many of today’s busy professionals (like me). As long as your computer is online and powered up, your data is incrementally being backed up to the vendor’s cloud storage.
Of course, things happen. You’ll need to verify your storage is backing up what you want it to back up. I had a customer who told me his data was not available after a hard drive crash due to some unidentified snafu in the cloud storage process. I’ve tested mine on several occasions, and all is well so far.
The initial backup process, depending on how much data you have to store and how fast your upload connection to the internet is, can take several weeks. Your computer will need to remain on (and not in sleep or hibernation modes) and connected to the internet for your initial backup to complete. Mine took about ten days. Even broadband internet connections with lightning fast download speeds are subject to crippling slow upload speeds. Upload speeds are typically 1/10th (or less) than your download speed, so keep that in mind. It is definitely not a fast process if you require an immediate backup due to an impeding failure.
Finally, anything online is subject to illegal access via hackers. Online services have been hacked and personal and government data has been leaked. Fortunately, cloud-based storage offers options to exclude certain files and folders from your online backup. I’ve excluded all my personal and financial data from cloud storage, and I recommend you too back that information up locally to an external hard drive or flash drive.
Finally, there is the Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks, or RAID configuration. RAID comes in many different configurations. For backup and continuity purposes, “RAID 1” uses two identically sized disks to make two copies of all your data with a process called mirroring. By writing everything on your PC to both disks simultaneously, a RAID1 mirror array ensures that even if one of your hard drives fails, your computer will still operate normally, complete with all your data, as long as the other hard drive is healthy. It’s very rare for both hard drives to fail at the same time.
There are two downsides to RAID. RAID will not save your PC in the event of a serious virus infection since both drives share the same exact data. If one drive is infected, both drives will be affected. And with few exceptions, most RAID configurations must be installed when your computer is built and initially loaded. You might have to completely reload your system to successfully establish a new RAID configuration.
Ironically, “redundant array of inexpensive disks” does not mean this solution is inexpensive. RAID mirror systems require additional hardware and configuration, and can add several hundred dollars to your computer’s upfront cost.
OTHER “PSEUDO” BACKUPS
Every time you upload a digital image to Facebook, Instagram, Photobucket, Snapfish, Flickr, or the thousands of other social media websites or online file sharing services, you’ve essentially created a backup of those images. When you email a picture to your friends or family, and if they’ve saved that picture, they’ve got a backup of that picture. In the event of a failed hard drive or some other catastrophic data disaster, you could painstakingly piece together a pseudo backup of at least some of your valuable data.
Digital cameras and smartphones store photos internally or on to SD cards or memory sticks. If you haven’t erased yours, your pictures and videos may still be retrieved from those devices. Don’t forget about printed photos in albums or frames – they can be scanned or photographed back into the digital domain.
Most of my important home videos are now stored on YouTube. Some are public, some are private. I can download those from YouTube whenever I want to, as long as my account isn’t hacked or I don’t forget my password.
And of course, there’s nothing like a laser printer, acid-free archival paper, and a fireproof file cabinet for the ultimate protection. It’s kind of old-school, but it works.
For more on this topic, read our article “Recovering from a Computer Catastrophe.” It’s definitely much easier, effective, and efficient to do your own backups, but these pseudo backups are a great third or fourth tier, just in case.