Should I Backup My Computer?

This is a draft. I’ll update it tomorrow with some SyncBack screenshots.

Should I backup my computer?
I’m surprised how often someone asks me if they should backup their PC. The answer is always YES! Think about this… Of the gazillion parts that comprise your PC, only two are mechanical: 1. The cooling fan, and 2. The harddrive. You can recover from a fan failure, but losing your hard drive is like being robbed. You may be able to recover all of your documents/photos/MP3 files, but chances are they are gone forever. As co-owner of Gentry Photography, we have a responsibility to our clients to make sure their images are protected. You can reshoot seniors, but since we specialize in weddings we have a policy that states wedding images cannot “live” on a single disk. After all, you cannot reshoot a wedding.

There are many free tools and methods for backups. In the old days, people would simply copy files to a backup disk. On the other extreme are large systems which copy data from servers, then use robotic arms to shuffle tapes around. We’ll shoot somewhere in the middle for home and SOHO users.

Get an external disk.
The easiest way to get started is to simply plug an external USB (or Firewire) drive into your PC. As I stated in an earlier post, I connect multiple drives to my home server, but the concept is the same. Don’t simply buy an external disk the same size as your internal drive thinking you will just keep an exact replica. Shoot for 3x-4x of your current drive capacity. Why so large? Regular backups are not simply for mirroring your disk, but you can use backups to offload data from your internal disk to keep it clean. You may also want to use your backup program to keep multiple copies of your data.

Keep this in mind. If you off-load data from your PC to an external disk, you are still at risk of the external disk crashing. For the photo biz, I actually have two scheduled jobs: 1. Backup the PC to external disk once per week. 2. Synchronize the backup disk with another disk once per week. This ensures that someone’s wedding images never exist on one disk at a time.

Select backup software.
Microsoft Windows includes a basic tool for performing backups and restores. In 2000/XP, Start > All Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Backup. With this tool, you can use the simple wizard interface to schedule backups of your PC or even selected folders. You can select your external drive as the backup drive if you have it mapped to a drive letter. Microsoft Backup places all files in a compressed BKF file. The BKF files make good use of compression if most of your files are documents, spreadsheets, etc… However, since many video and photo formats are already compressed, you won’t see much benefit from the BKF compression. I have not used the backup tool in Vista yet, so I’m not sure how it has changed – if at all. This is a good tool. As RonCo says, set it and forget it!

If you need more flexibility than what Microsoft Backup can give you, then check out 2BrightSparks SyncBack. This is the tool I use for personal and photo backups. This tool allows very flexible configurations. You can select whether to backup a folder, synchronize two drives, include/exclude files or folders, and practically any other option you can imagine Unlike Microsoft Backup, SyncBack does not compress files or group them into larger collections. Based on your settings, SyncBack simply copies the file structure from your PC to the backup drive. Be careful, in the rare event that you create a new file in a folder with the same name as an existing file on your backup drive, then you will have a file conflict and could lose data.

I like SyncBack because it allows me to access backed up files directly from the backup disk. (Remember, files are not grouped together based on backup job). However, this same feature is also one of its drawback for some enterprise users. The tools works great for me, but for larger installations, SyncBack needs the option to copy individual files as it does now, or as compressed groups like Microsoft Backup. Furthermore, SyncBack needs the ability to keep X versions of a file on the backup disk. In the corporate world, we use our large backup system to retain three versions of every file backed up. When a file is changed, the oldest version is simply deleted. There will always be three versions of this file. SyncBack could use this functionality

There is a new class of “cloud” type services that host your backups securely on the Internet. There are kinds of new features and pricing models available. One such serivce is Microsoft’s SkyDrive. Currently, they are giving users 5GB of free online storage. One benefit of hosted services is the ability to access your files from any Internet accessible computer, including your mobile devices. SkyDrive doesn’t have any automation tools that I am aware of.

There are several other tools for making backups and they all have similar features. The most important thing is not what tool you are using, but that you are performing scheduled backups. Let me know what tool/techniques you use to protect your data.

One thought on “Should I Backup My Computer?”

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