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A simple guide to data backups

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There are two kinds of hard drives: those that have failed and those that will fail.

Every week, new clients come to us in crisis. The worst case scenario just became a reality: a hard drive has died. A computer has crashed with years worth of data. Immediately we ask if there is a backup somewhere and inevitably the answer is no. How did this happen? They don’t know. When? Minutes ago. What have they lost? Irreplaceable pictures, financial data, emails, documents, presentations and a host of other data. Can we save it? It depends. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Could they have saved it? Absolutely.

Some problems are completely inevitable in the world of computers. Hard drive failure is one of those problems. Unfortunately, computers don’t come with a comprehensive guide that warn users of all the problems they might experience and how to resolve them. That’s why our clients always seem to be surprised that this has happened to them. After all, their computer was fully functional last time they turned it on. As we talk to more and more clients we realize that the problem isn’t that they didn’t want to back up their data, it’s that they didn’t know how. In this article, we will evaluate the different means of backing up and securing your data both locally via physical devices and online via data backup services.
Before we begin, let me stress one thing: backing up your data is so much easier and so much cheaper than trying to recover it. Don’t put it off!

1) What is a backup?
A backup is a fancy way of saying “a copy of your data.” Backing up your data does not have to be any more complicated than copying your data somewhere. On a small scale, back ups can be made of documents that are receiving multiple edits so that you can just go back to a previous version if a new one is unsatisfactory. As a more complete solution, backups can be entire copies of the content on your hard drive.

2) Where can I make backups?
Backups should be made on a medium other than the hard drive your are trying to backup. The reason for this is that if something happens to your hard drive then your backups will also be lost. That’s why backups are usually done on a second hard drive or other storage device such as a thumb drive or DVD. There are risks associated with most backup methods: a thumb drive can be lost, an external hard drive can be knocked off the desk or a DVD might get scratched. All of these things must be taken into consideration when choosing what medium to use as a backup device.

Additionally, we must plan for real catastrophes: what if your home office is damaged by a natural event and both your hard drive and backup source are damaged? While it seems like there’s a lot to consider, the lessons are simple: use multiple backups and keep them in different places.

Online service providers like Mozy and Carbonite address all the issues of choosing a recovery medium by providing data backup centers that have redundant servers with additional copies of your data. While their basic services are free, both companies charge for higher data usage on a recurring basis.

3) How do I make a backup?
First, you need to choose a medium. Because of size constraints, we recommend using an external hard drive because thumb drives and DVDs are limited by the amount of data they can store. Once you have an external hard drive, simply plug it in to your computer via the usb cable. On most computers, your main hard drive is assigned the letter C: and your external device will be assigned another letter (D:, E:, F:, H: etc…). Select the folders you would like to copy on the C: drive. In most cases, you will be interested in copying your documents, music, pictures, video and desktop folders. So why not grab them all?

On Windows Vista and Windows 7, your user folder can be found at C:\Users\*Your profile*
On Windows XP, the user folder is usually found at C:\Documents and Settings\*Your profile*

Once you have selected the folders you would like to backup, right click on them and click copy. Then, navigate to your external drive by going to Start Menu -> My Computer -> External Drive and paste them there. You can create a new folder called “my backups” or a dated folder such as “07-08-2011 Back up.” Voila! You’ve created your first backup.

Note: copying your entire profile will include copies of other folders such as your application data and local settings folders. This is where programs such as outlook store all of your email or financial data in database formats. To make sure that these folders are also copied, navigate to Start Menu -> Control Panel -> Folder Options -> View -> Select “Show Hidden Files, Folders and Drives.”

4) Automating the process.
To make sure that you have current backups, we recommend using an automatic backup program to schedule when your backups should occur. These programs will allow you to set a backup schedule and select which folders are backed up and to where. There are many different products that automate backing up. However, we would like to discourage you from using a software that converts your data into proprietary archive files because you will be entirely dependent on that software/company to store and retrieve your data.

In plain English, this means avoiding a program that takes your documents and pictures and stores them as anything other than pictures and documents. Instead of having thousands of pictures, these programs will store them in a few database files such as “data001.fbf, data002.fbf” and you will only be able to open them with that software exclusively! Anti-virus providers are now tying their backup software with their anti virus software. This means you are stuck using their antivirus and paying their fees in order to keep using the back-up components of the program.

We recommend a free and easy to use program called Automatic Backups that can be downloaded from http://automaticbackup.frigerio-ar.com/
Set the frequency of your backups to a daily, weekly, biweekly or monthly schedule. The frequency depends on you. If you cannot afford to lose your day to day work, then set a daily schedule!

5) Online backups.
To further minimize the risk of losing your data, we recommend using an online service to create another copy of your most precious data. Here is a 2011 review of current providers:

http://online-data-backup-review.toptenreviews.com/

The advantage of online backups is that they are generally safer than local backups. Additionally, you can access your data from anywhere in the world with an internet connection. However, they come with a monthly cost!

Taking care of your data backups now will save you a lot of money in the long run and a few stressful trips to a computer repair shop. Don’t wait!

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