Windows 8: Protect your files

File history gives you advanced backup features without requiring admin privileges.

Bohdan Raciborski

Backup and restore are fairly common procedures. However, most backup applications, including Windows Backup and Restore that shipped with Windows 7, require administrator privileges to set up and use. This means most of your users will have to ask you to set it up every time they need to restore a file, or to grant them administrative privileges.

This isn’t the case with File History. File History gives each user full control of backup functions. Now the user can decide if and when to turn on File History and which external drive to use. In fact, the user can select a different location to store his file history. And he doesn’t have to ask for your help to restore a file.

A user can use advanced File History features to control many operational aspects, such as:

  • How often she wants to save copies of her files: A user can change backup frequency to anywhere from 10 minutes to 24 hours. Higher frequency offers better protection, but consumes more disk space.
  • How long to keep saved versions: A user can store earlier versions forever or as little as one month. This setting is useful when the File History drive fills up too fast. The user can slow the rate by reducing the time he stores earlier versions.
  • Changing the size of the local cache: File History uses a small amount of space on the local drive to store versions of files while the File History target drive isn’t available. If the user creates many versions of files while disconnected or stays disconnected for longer periods of time, he might need to reserve more space on the local drive to keep all versions. The versions stored in the local cache are flushed to the external drive when it becomes available again.
  • Excluding folders he doesn’t want to back up: Some folders might contain large files don’t need protection because they can be easily recreated (like downloaded high-definition movies or podcasts). These files would quickly consume all of the File History drive capacity. This setting lets you exclude such folders.
  • Recommend a drive to other HomeGroup members on the home network: This setting is covered in more detail in the File History and HomeGroup section later in the article.
  • Access the File History event log: The event log contains records of events that might be useful while troubleshooting File History. It may be particularly useful if the user wants to identify files that File History couldn’t access for any reason.

You can access advanced settings, such as Exclude, from the File History control panel applet. To exclude a folder, select Exclude folders. Next, click on the Add button, browse to the folder you want to exclude and select it. Files in this folder won’t be backed up starting with the next backup cycle. To start backing it up again, simply remove the folder from the list. There are other advanced settings available on the Advanced Settings page.

File History also supports new storage features introduced in Windows 8. If you have lots of data to back up, you can use Storage Spaces to create a resilient storage pool using off-the-shelf USB drives. When the pool fills up, you can easily add more drives and extra storage capacity.

If you use BitLocker to protect the content of your personal files, you can also use File History as it seamlessly supports BitLocker on both source and destination drives. File History was designed for consumers, but could also be used by enterprise customers.

In some cases, File History might conflict with enterprise policies (such as a retention policy). To prevent such conflicts, there’s a Group Policy that lets you turn off File History on managed client PCs. You’ll find the File History policy setting in the Group Policy Object Editor under Computer Configuration | Administrative Templates | Windows Components | File History.

Minimal setup

File History is part of Windows 7, so you don’t need to install any additional software. However, File History has to be turned on, which typically requires only one click. To start protecting your libraries, simply attach an external drive or select a network location. File History will store versions of your files on this device.

File History automatically selects an external drive if there’s one available. If there’s more than one external drive, it will select the one with the most free storage capacity.

No schedule

File History wakes up once an hour and looks for personal files that have changed. Versions of all files that have changed are replicated to a dedicated storage device. This approach eliminates the need to set up a schedule and leave a computer idle for an extended period of time. One hour frequency offers a good balance between the level of protection and amount of storage space consumed by file versions. Enthusiasts can change the frequency from 10 min to 1 day in order to increase the level of protection or reduce storage consumption.

No maintenance

File History runs silently in the background. It doesn’t require any ongoing maintenance. The only time it will ask you to intervene is when the external drive is full. At this point, you’ll have to either replace the drive with a bigger one or change a setting that tells File History how long to save file versions. By default, we keep versions of user personal files forever, but if storage is an issue, it can be reduced to a period of time that best suits your needs.

File History and HomeGroup

File History is also integrated with HomeGroup to make it easier for you to set up backup for all your home network members. Here’s how it works:

  • Jane wants her entire family to have their personal data automatically protected. She knows she can do this with File History.
  • Jane creates a HomeGroup on the family’s home network.
  • Jane activates File History on a computer with a large external drive.
  • The File History control panel detects the HomeGroup and asks if Jane wants to recommend this backup destination to other HomeGroup members.
  • Jane selects this option and File History uses HomeGroup to broadcast the recommendation to all HomeGroup members.
  • Each HomeGroup member can now accept the recommendation. If they do, their libraries, desktop, favorites and contacts are automatically backed up to a network share on Jane’s computer

File History and SkyDrive

File History doesn’t back up your files to the cloud. While the cloud is great for storing files you’d like to access on the go or for sharing files with others, backing up terabytes of data to the cloud requires a specialized service.

Many cloud services today support local synchronization, where the data in the cloud is mirrored in your local file system. Sync solutions by their very nature copy changes immediately to all locations, which means accidental deletes or inadvertent changes or corruption to files will also be synchronized The best way to address this problem is to couple your sync service with a point-in-time backup solution such as File History.

File History takes advantage of your apps, files, PCs and devices being able to integrate with Skydrive. If your SkyDrive is synced to your file system, File History will automatically start protecting the files stored in your local SkyDrive folder. This is a great example of local backup plus reliable anytime, anywhere access. You can access your SkyDrive files through your PC, your phone or the Web. You’ll know File History is providing fast local backup and instantaneous access to all versions of those files.

Full-system backup

Usually a full-system backup protects your PC against complete system loss, such as when a PC is stolen or lost or the internal hard drive stops working. Research shows only a small number of users are concerned about losing the OS, apps or settings. They are by far more concerned about losing their personal files. For this reason, File History was designed specifically to protect personal files.

File History doesn’t offer the ability to do a full-system backup, but it does offer a good compromise. Together with other features introduced in Windows 8 it provides protection against such disasters. If you want to prepare for a disaster, Microsoft recommends the following strategy:

  1. Create a recovery drive you’ll use when you need to refresh or restore your PC.
  2. Connect to your Microsoft account
  3. Configure your PC to sync your settings
  4. Load apps from the Store
  5. Turn on File History

When your PC is replaced or needs to be reinstalled:

  1. Use the recovery drive to restore the OS
  2. Connect to your Microsoft account
  3. Configure your PC to sync your settings
  4. Go to the Store and reinstall your modern apps
  5. Reinstall legacy apps
  6. Connect your old File History drive and restore everything. This will restore your personal files.

It may require more steps than a file or image restore, but it has some clear benefits:

  • Software or settings you no longer want on your system aren’t restored.
  • Problems your system might have had won’t be restored.
  • Settings that might cause your system to perform badly or fail aren’t restored.

Those who need a full-system backup can still use Windows Backup to create a system image.

File History requires the Windows 8 client OS and an external storage device with enough storage capacity to store a copy of all user libraries, such as a USB drive, network-attached storage device or share on another PC in the home network.

File History silently protects all your important files stored in Libraries, Desktop, Favorites and Contacts. Once turned on, it requires no effort at all to protect your data. When you lose a file or just need to find an original version of a picture or a specific version of a resume, all versions of your files are available. With the File History restore application, you can find it quickly and effortlessly.

Bohdan Raciborski

Bohdan Raciborski is a principal program manager lead for Microsoft. He has more than 20 years of software development and program management experience. His primary focus is developing software and managing teams in areas ranging from enterprise, high availability, and high-performance storage solutions to consumer products for developed and emerging markets.