Technology

Don’t lose all your data: Properly backup your computer today!

Melted Server Computer

You have data you cannot afford to lose

If you are like the average computer user, you probably have gigabytes of: tax returns, digital photos, videos, e-mails, letters, documents, scanned files, saved web pages, family photos, home videos, etc.  Basically, you have “stuff” on your computer that you really do not want to lose.

Most people have inadequate backups

I would guess that maybe 50% of computer users back up their data.  And of that 50%, only maybe 20% of those (or 1 out of 10 users) have a backup system that is adequate.  What do I mean by adequate?  Keep reading.

What makes a good backup

Keep reading to find out what makes a good backup…

  • Redundancy – You must have at least 3 copies of your data at all times.  This would include your computer itself, and 2 backups.  Why 2 backups?  Because you need to have 2 to ensure the backups are physically located in different places (for example, home & work).
  • Reliability – Backup media must be reliable.  This basically means that the backup media should be magnetic media (hard disk or magnetic tape).  Optical discs (CD & DVD) are not reliable backups as they fail over time.
  • Encryption – If someone were to gain access to your backup media, you don’t want them to be able to get all your files!  Since backup media is portable, the risk of losing the backup media or having it stolen are far greater than normal.  Your data must be encrypted on the backup media.
  • Speed – You don’t have time to wait around for your backup.  Choose a backup method that is fast.  What this means in a nutshell is: use a hard disk backup for speed and reliability.
  • Diverse location – You should keep one backup on your primary site and the other at a secondary location.  For example, if you are backing up your home computer, you can keep one at home in a safe, waterproof and fire resistant location (fire safes are great for this) and the other at your office in a safe, waterproof location.  This prevents loss of data by theft, fire or natural disaster.  Another option would be to store the second backup “in the cloud” using any one of a number of on-line backup services.

How to go about about backing up your machine

Step 1: Size up your machine

First, size up your machine using the instructions below for the operating system you are using:

Microsoft Windows

The first thing to do is to size up the amount of data you need to backup.  In Windows, most of your important data will likely be in your “Documents” folder.  Right-click on that folder and choose “Properties” to see the total size.

Linux

In Linux, most of your important data will be in your home directory. Either right click on your home directory in your favorite window manager  and choose “Properties” to see the total size.  Or, in a terminal window, cd to your home directory.  run the command “du -h” to see the total size in human readable format.

Apple Macintosh

On a Mac, use these instructions to determine the size of your “Documents” or “Pictures” folders in Finder.  Add up the sizes of all folders that contain data you wish to backup.

Step 2: Acquire backup media

 

Second, once you know your size, select backup devices suitable for the quantity of data you have with some room for growth.  Since hard drive storage is relatively cheap these days, go for drives that are at least twice the size of the data you currently have.  And don’t even think about buying drives that are less than 1TB each.

How to select a good drive?   Pick a drive from a major manufacturer (Western Digital, Seagate, Samsung, etc) that gets good reviews on a site like newegg.com.  After having several hard drives fail, my current “pick” for most reliable drive for the price are the drives in the Western Digital Elements line.  They get great reviews on amazon.com & newegg.com and are very reasonably priced.  If you do order your drive from newegg.com, don’t forget Mr. Rebates to save an extra 1% on your purchase.

At this point, remember that 1 of your backups can be an on-line backup service, such as mozy.com, carbonite.com, and the like.  These are handy, but they can be slow, and getting your data out can be challenging.  Be sure to consult consumersearch.com for the latest reviews on on-line backup sites before you choose an on-line backup solution.

Step 3: Back up your stuff

The first thing you are going to want to do regardless of the operating system is to use TrueCrypt, freely available encryption software to encrypt your backup devices.  Connect your backup devices to your computer and follow the instructions in the TrueCrypt Tutorial to setup your encrypted file system.  The easiest approach for beginners is to create an encrypted file container that will store your backups.

Windows

Once you have an encrypted file container, use the Windows Backup utility for your operating system to back up your data.  Or simply drag your “Documents” folder from your computer onto the backup device.  If you take the latter approach you may wish to delete any old data from the backup device before proceeding to avoid a conflict. There is a good deal of information elsewhere on the Internet regarding Windows backup approaches, so I will not go into any further detail here.  If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments.

Linux

Once you have an encrypted file container, you are left with many options as to how to backup your data on Linux.  The simplest would be to simply copy your entire home directory to the backup device.  More sophisticated approaches would use rsync or a backup utility for your linux distribution to back your data up to the encrypted device.  There is a good deal of information elsewhere on the Internet regarding Linux backup approaches, so I will not go into any further detail here.  If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments.

Apple Macintosh

Once you have an encrypted file container, you are left with many options as to how to backup your data on Linux.  The simplest would be to simply copy your photos/documents/etc folders to the backup device.  A more advanced, and probably a more recommended approach on the Mac is to use TimeMachine.  There is a good deal of information elsewhere on the Internet regarding Mac backup approaches, so I will not go into any further detail here.  If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments.

Step 4: Get those backups scheduled & rotating

Once you have established a way to backup your data, it’s time to schedule this activity so you can keep your backups current.   It would be awful to have invested in backup drives that end up sitting idle.

The best way that I have found is to simply schedule the backups on my calendar, every week or two.  At that point I will backup my machine using the backup media (hard disk) that I have located at my current location.  After the backup is complete I will take the media to my external location (work, school, grandma’s house, etc) and exchange it for my other backup drive.  Next time I do a backup I will use that drive that was previously located at the external location.  You get the point – just keep them rotated so that you don’t have a 5 year old backup at the office and a 1 week old backup at home – doesn’t do you a whole lot of good when the tornado/hurricane/fire/flood/bomb hits your house.

It is also a good idea to “test” a restore of your data once in awhile also – to make sure you are really backing up what you think you are.  This can be done on another machine, on a virtual machine or just by browsing the backup drive if the data is in a format where you can do so (this is one reason it is nice just to copy over the files instead of using a backup system – you can see, feel and touch the files that are on the backup device; with a backup archive you can’t see what’s inside, you just have to hope that it will work)

In Conclusion

I hope you have seen both the importance of backing up your data (it’s essential!) and the ease of doing so.  Sure, it takes some time and effort to make this type of backup system work, but when you have a data disaster, you will be able to survive knowing that your data is safe.

If you have any questions, please ask in the comments below, I will do my best to respond.

(photo: wikimedia commons)

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