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Backing-up is (not) Hard to Do

Recently several of my friends have had their computer crash. Only afterwards did they realize that they should have been making regular backups. Yes, I know backing up is as much fun as flossing, but someday you're going to want your gums or your email addresses! There are only two types of computers: those that have crashed and those that will. So this week I'm going to tell you about my backup routine, in the hopes that it will inspire you to do something about your own.

Email

First, I backup my email files to a second location on my hard drive because it's so important. That way, whenever I backup my hard drive, I backup two copies of my email. I use a batch file, but you can do it anyway you wish. More on how tomorrow.

Here is Microsoft's guide to Outlook Express mail:
http://support.microsoft.com/kb/270670
and its guide to Outlook mail:
http://support.microsoft.com/kb/287070

Of course, web-based email should be backed-up regularly by your provider. But do you know how to retrieve an email or address that you inadvertently delete? Maybe it's time to check that now!

PCmag.com recently looked at backups in much greater detail than I can here. See
http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2322030,00.asp

Create a server

I have an old desktop computer that I now call a "home server." I stripped nearly all software from it except for Windows and security software. It originally came with a 30GB drive, but as hard drive prices hit $100, I add another to it. It now has an 80GB, a 120GB, and a 400GB drive. It sits out of sight, running for months at a time. The only time it gets rebooted is when Windows updates. Once your machines are networked, a new backup strategy becomes evident.

This "home server" holds backups of my wife's desktop and my laptop, using another one-line batch file, which runs once per week in the middle of the night, copying every file on our hard drives to folders on the server named "kitchen" and "laptop." These are our "instant access" backups, available immediately when we mess up a file and want to revert to the original. We never erase anything from the server; stuff just keeps piling up. I don't care. Hard drives are cheap.

The first time, the backup takes a long time to run, but subsequent backups take only minutes because you only copy those files from your hard drive that are newer than the server's files. Even with 200GB of data on my laptop, a backup only takes minutes.

I originally backed up every night. But after messing up a file one evening and not realizing it until the following morning, by which time it was too late and the backup was overwritten, I changed. Once a week seems a fair compromise. Occasionally, when I'm doing something intense, I backup manually to freshen the server's copies.

I backup every folder on my computer with a few exceptions, not just "My Documents." Too many files are hidden away elsewhere. I do not backup unimportant or unusable files though, files like *.tmp, ~*.*, *.log, the swapfile, etc.

Copying files

But if you don't know DOS or batch files? Google for "free sync software" or just download Karen Kenworthy's free "Replicator" program:
http://www.karenware.com/powertools/powertools.asp
It enables the same process, but with a convenient GUI interface.

PCmag.com reviewed folder backup software here:
http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2278661,00.asp

External hard drives

Another benefit of my backup system is that every computer now has access to all our music, photos, and videos. That's handy. And the worst that can happen is we lose a few day's work instead of a lifetime's.

But what if our house burned down? Or a burglar was dumb enough to steal that antique desktop computer I call a server? That's why I also keep an off-site backup. I recently bought a 1TB external hard drive online for just over $100. Yes, a million megabytes! That's cheap insurance.

How To Back Up

If any of this leaves you confused, Data Recovery Labs has a page loaded with tons of information about how to back up.

Off-site backups

My daughter occasionally brings that drive to my house when she comes to visit, during which time I backup everything onto it, too. Since it's an update, only the new stuff copies. It takes just minutes. Then she takes it home with her. She also uses it to backup her and her husband's laptops. And it's still half empty!

PCmag.com recently compared external hard drives here:
http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2322159,00.asp

Mirroring software

But what if things get really messed up and you don't need one file quickly but you want your entire system back the way it was a few days ago? When things are totally hosed, you need another kind of backup.

You want a "mirror" program to create an exact image of your hard drive. Some external backup hard drives include a mirror program. PCmag.com recently compared mirroring software here:
http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2259178,00.asp

Online backups

What about online backups? I haven't mentioned them since I consider them expensive, inconvenient and slow to restore. But they may be perfect for you, if you don't need to backup a lot of data. Here's PCmag.com's review of online backup services:
http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2288745,00.asp

Operating System

Don't forget about your OS. You need a boot CD with the OS, its latest updates, and your computer's specific drivers. If your OS gets munged, it's much easier to reinstall the OS that restore everything. Here's help, although it gets geeky quick:
http://www.nu2.nu/pebuilder

"Permanent" backups

Since you now know never to rely on any hard drive, you probably realize that means your backup hard drive, too. Anything you really must have should be in multiple locations, on a variety of media. Besides all the other systems I've mentioned, my web sites, photos, videos, important documents, etc. are also on DVDs and CDs.

So that's it.

I have redundant email on my hard drive, stacks of DVDs and CDs, a file-by-file backup plus a mirror image backup on my server, and an external off-site hard drive backup. Paranoid? I think not. Cheap insurance!

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