Backing Up is NOT Hard to Do

various sized hard drives for back up

Hard drives come in many forms - photo by Ray Gordon

Backing up your computer is like flossing – eventually, you’ll realize it was a good idea to do it regularly.

Recently, I received an e-mail from a long-time friend requesting my contact information, which he had lost when his hard drive crashed. It was his first such experience, and it was far more painful than simply losing his address book.  He permanently lost important correspondence, precious family photos and hard to replicate travel memories.  It goes without saying that he now backs up his data religiously.

In my experience, most people don’t think about backing up their computer data (software programs, photos, documents, and so much more), or if they do think about it, just never get around to backing it all up.  These same people don’t think twice about carrying insurance on their car, home, possessions, and life.  Yet safeguarding information that is in just one place, in a format that is invisible, and is contained in hardware that has a relatively short lifespan should be top-of-mind.

Software corruption.  Fires. Floods.  Spilled drinks.  Hardware failures. Theft. Dropped briefcases heading toward a concrete floor.  Our computing devices are constantly in danger of losing their minds in a single unfortunate moment.  If you use any device that retains important information, the single most important task is to have multiple copies of that data.  Here are a few tips to make it as simple as possible.

External Hard Drives
The price of storage has plummeted over the last few years while capacities have expanded exponentially. The result is devices that give you plenty of space to back up all the data on a typical computer.  Most connect with an industry-standard USB cable.  There are even highly portable devices that can fit in the palm of your hand.

Files should be copied to the hard disk on a regular basis, ideally every day.  Make backing up a part of the daily routine – at the end of the day, find a few minutes to back-up.

You can use automatic back-up software to automate the back-up process.  (Programs such as Retrospect often come packaged with hard disks).  Your initial back-up can include programs as well as files, and subsequent back-ups can be incremental – just those documents that have been modified will be updated.  Back-ups can be scheduled as frequently as necessary.

Ideally, back-up devices should be stored in a secure, fire-resistant place.  We recommend that business documents, digital photos and other important data be backed-up in an off-site location (or on a remote server accessed online).

Apple users may be aware of the Time Machine feature that is built into the operating system.  This allows automated, scheduled back-ups of the entire contents of your hard drive, while allowing you to “step back in time” to view earlier versions of documents that may have been modified.

Wireless Back-Up
You can use a wireless modem to access a hard drive so you don’t have to physically connect a hard drive to your computer every time you want to make a back-up.  You can attach a hard disk (via a USB cable) to the wireless modem/router and program your back-up software to access the hard drive remotely.  Much like computers, most wireless routers include USB ports to connect external devices.

For Apple users, the company’s Time Capsule wireless router includes an integrated high-capacity hard drive.  Used in conjunction with the automated Time Machine software, your data can be incrementally backed-up wirelessly whenever you are in range of the device.

Remote Online Storage
There are several services that provide back-up off-site on a remote server.  You access the back-up site via the Internet, set-up the frequency of back-ups and the automated process takes over from that point. Apple users can use the built-in iDisk feature, and there are a number of companies that provide similar back-up services for Windows users.

As an added benefit, these services provide convenient access to your files from any location with access to the Internet.  Some provide a dedicated web site you can use to use your files from any computer with online access. Annual fees are often charged for these services but the convenience and security are often well worth the nominal cost.

Solid State Memory Cards
The latest advances in large-capacity storage have been in solid-state technology.  You most commonly see this used as removable memory cards for digital and video cameras.  Since solid-state devices have no moving parts, they are less prone to shock damage or mechanical failure.

However, although prices have come down considerably since they were introduced, large-capacity solid-state cards are still rather pricey, especially in sizes capable of backing up today’s computers with all those digital photographs and family video.  Since these cards also can fail over time, you should create a “mirror” back-up on a second device in case a card becomes unreadable.

A Word of Caution on Removable Media
I am not a big fan of backing up solely to DVDs or CDs.  Before the recent advent of very large capacity hard drives and online services, it was common practice to use removable disks, CDs or data DVDs to create archive copies of key files.  Over time, this has proven to be a poor strategy.

Removable disks (such as Jazz, Zip, and optical cartridges) had a high failure rate, the mechanisms weren’t very reliable, and they were often made obsolete within a couple of years.

CDs and DVDs are convenient and relatively inexpensive, but have not proven to be stable of long time periods. If a data disk is scratched, labeled with poor adhesives, bent, marked with a sharp pen, left in a hot car or used as a coaster – then say goodbye to all that data.  Even if kept in pristine condition in a locked safe, data can degrade over time.

We’ll cover all these back-up procedures and hardware options in more detail in future posts.  For now, the most important lesson is to back-up now – and back-up frequently!

  • Jeff Hester

    I have a 1TB iomega external drive that exactly matches the form factor and design of my Mac Mini, and I use it as both an external drive and my backup destination for Time Machine. I had to use it (once, so far) when the original tiny little 120MB internal HD on the Mini died about 1-1/2 years ago. I upgraded to a larger drive (>300MB) and was able to completely restore my Mini using Time Machine — including my user accounts, software, everything — in short order.

    Having been a long time Windows user, I was amazed at just how easy and smoothly it worked. Not to ding Windows — Microsoft does a lot of things right, but recovering everything went so smoothly with Time Machine, it felt like magic.

    However… I still have two Windows laptops that I have NOT been doing regular backups on. Do you have any recommendations for a specific configuration? Is there a wireless backup for Windows that can use my 1TB iomega external hooked to the Mac Mini? Or should I just keep it all segregated… “All the PCs to the back of the bus!”

    • Anonymous

      It’s easy to connect a large-capacity hard drive to the USB port of any Windows machine. Most drives will require you to install a software driver on your Windows computer to manage files – and format the drive, if necessary. Once you power up the drive, it will appear as one of drives you can choose (along with your optical drive, internal hard drive, etc.). USB 2.0 – which all new drives and computers support – is plenty fast at moving files from one hard drive to another.There are several third-party back-up programs, such as Genie Backup Manager Pro or Second Copy, that can automate back-ups to local hard disks or even remote servers. There are also many Windows-friendly programs that connect to online back-up services that will save files to secure remote servers, including LapLink PCsync and Dropbox. If the priority is backing up entire hard drive contents (but not individual files) then a program such as ShadowProtect Desktop gives you a lot of flexibility.Unfortunately, sharing an external hard disk across platforms while retaining full read and write functionality is not possible without special software, since drives require that the drive be formatted for either Mac or PC platforms. If you really need to share the one disk, there are programs such as MacDrive for Windows that can be installed on your Windows computer to allow a drive to be shared with a Mac (with some limitations). Sharing over a network can be accomplished using programs such as SharePoints. This requires that the hard disk to be shared is available over a network – typically using Ethernet cables to connect the computers and the drive to a router. If both computers are equipped with wireless cards, and the hard disk is connected to either computer or directly to a wireless router, then files can be accessed over that LAN (local area network). In summary, there are ways to share a single hard disk with two computers, but there are specific procedures that must be followed, and there can be technical glitches along the way. The easiest ways to manage multi-platform back-ups, and most secure, would be to use online services or multiple hard disks.

  • Tom Bunzel

    I’ve never found any systematic backup for Windows worth the effort; the problem is to restore you need to reinstall Windows anyway with all of its crap and even if it works, stuff falls through the cracks. As a sole practitioner I prefer a simple scenario–project files on my desktop in properly named folders which I drag to a flash drive daily when I finish working–then I put the flash drive in my car and take another flash drive from my car and repeat the process the next time I work–generally the next day. It’s low maintenance. I also back up important files like bookmarks/favorites, Quicken data and my Outlook PST file as often as I can, generally on a DVD or larger flash drive. I’ve given up trying to restore WIndows itself, programs and settings from any media–it is too onerous and upsetting.

    • Linda Sherman

      Thank you for your perspective, Tom. It helps us to have people weigh in from the PC side. Ray, Bruce and I have used PC’s in the past but now prefer Macs.

      Folks, you should know that Tom speaks with some authority, here is his book on Amazon:

      After reading your comment here, Tom – I have a question: Why not switch to Mac?