‘Tis The Season To Think About Backups

Digital cameras and music players are likely still high on many people’s gift list despite the economic situation.  Even if Santa doesn’t have one of these heading for your stocking, I bet you already own one in your family.  As more of our world goes digital we all benefit from how easy it is to view, share and use our most precious memories.  There is a key downside that I see almost everyday – just as digital memories are easy to create, they are easy to destroy. 

When I think about my friends and family, most people simply are not backing up their personal digital memories in an effective way.  Anything can happen – failed hardware, accidental deletion, file corruption or even situations like theft and fire.  Just this week a close friend as well as a colleague here at Microsoft had their houses broken into and their PCs with all their photos and videos stolen.  Luckily they had done a proper backup.  I know too many people that have lost pictures of their kids, the wedding, their special occasions simply because of a failed drive or an accidental deletion.

So, here is my advice (no matter what platform you use) on  backups:

  • Backup More Often – Daily If You Can.  Once a year isn’t enough.  I recommend once a WEEK at least, but there are ways to get to a daily schedule.  Home Server, for example, can do easy backups every day (this is what I use).  My PCs backup every night between 2-5am when they are not in use (and they wake from sleep, so you don’t need to leave them on all the time)

  • Organize Your Files For Easier Backup.  In the Windows world, this means putting everything in My Documents – or in a few select locations.  If you spread files around it just increases the odds that you will forget something.  This is an easy habit to pick up and it will save you a lot of time when trying to back everything up.  Having everything in one place also allows you to use a simple script tool like Robocopy.exe to backup your files. 

  • Focus On Data, Not Software.  The most important part of your PC is your data.  Software and the OS can always be reinstalled.  There are really 2 types of backup solutions – those that copy files and those that make an image of your machine at the disk level.  Both are valid ways to backup your data, but only the imaging solution lends itself to a “automatic full recovery” of a lost machine – i.e. your drive fails, you replace it, then restore everything including the software and your settings.  Most of the time, however, you might just need a simple copy of your data – i.e. your PC gets stolen, you buy a new one and you just want to put your data on it you don’t want to replace the software on the new machine.  You definitely need to be careful not to overlook any key setting files you might not want to be without – like your Outlook PST files, RSS feed lists, you contact database, etc.  These depend heavily on the software you have installed, so I focus on these key folders in Vista – most of which are in the \users directory:

      • \users\desktop
      • \users\documents
      • \users\music
      • \users\pictures
      • \users\videos
      • \users\downloads
      • \users\favorites

    Of course, if you use a imaging solution you don’t need to worry about picking out the parts of your system to backup – you just get everything.

  • Attempt A Full Restore At Some Point.  No backup solution is effective if you can’t actually recover any data.  You should always test your backup solution – once when you begin using it and then periodically to ensure your system is still doing the job you think it is.  How can you test it?  Purposely delete a file and try to recover it.  Take an old PC and attempt to restore it completely if you are using an image based backup like Home Server.  The ultimate would be to pretend that your primary PC was stolen, destroyed or had a complete hardware failure.

  • Move A Set Of Backups “Off Site” .  This might sound like something that a business would do, but everyone should think about it.  Purchase an inexpensive external drive, save a snapshot of your data to it and then get that data out of the house!  Take it to the office, your safety deposit box, a family members house, a friends house, whatever.  Here is what we do:  Home Server backs up our machines daily.  We have 2 external hard drives that we use to take a snapshot of all our data.  1 stays in the safety deposit box and the other is at home ready for the backup.  Once a quarter, we swap these drives – bringing the one from the bank home and taking the newer backup offsite – this gives us a permanent image in case the worst happens.  There are also online options that can upload your data to servers in the cloud, thus achieving the same results.  Trust me, this is the one tip that could really save your butt and it is really easy to do.  How terrible would you feel if you lost both your PC and your backups?

A well thought out backup strategy might just be the best New Years Resolution you can make for 2009.