Backup that works

May 2, 2008 at 9:40 am | Posted in Backup, Computers | 6 Comments

We don’t make a computer backup so we can pack-rat away our computer activity. Its so we can recover our work, should something go wrong. Surprisingly though, the first is all some backup systems do.

Largely, computers are pretty reliable, especially considering how many different things any given computer will do. Unlike a fridge or telephone that does one or 2 things, a standard off the shelf computer these days comes with a security system, an operating environment, and tools for painting, writing, programing, maintenance, desktop publishing, accounting, communication, research, entertainment, document management and distribution. They also offer an unprecedented window to the world.

Macs tend to be more stable as they are a little more of a closed system. You can’t buy the Mac OS and put it on any old computer. Linux is also more stable as its based on a platform that was designed to be so in the first place – servers. Actually, thats another reason Macs are more stable – OS X is built on the same sort of underpinning as Linux. Windows computers are not quite as reliable partly because they have been a more open and adaptive system – they will tolerate more poorly designed programs and hardware device drivers. That flexibility has gradually been reduced from Windows 98 through todays Vista, one of the reasons its getting more stable. And one of the reasons Vista has had slower adoption – it doesn’t work with some older hardware for that reason.

Backup software (of sorts) has been included in Windows and other OS’s for quite some time. The idea is that you are thus protected from happenstance. Trouble is, all too many backup systems don’t actually work where it counts – in restoration. Recently, a friend of mines laptop took a jar while the hard drive was busy. It was toast. The name brand external hard drive, running name brand backup software, could not restore to a new hard drive. It required the operating system and backup software to be on board to restore. Curiously, the backup then expected a full restore only, something it couldn’t do. It was with some difficulty that I was able to extract the documents from its proprietary system.

At the moment, I am setting up a server backup system from tools someone else chose. A dominant industry tool that is very pricey and requires extras to do things like back up databases. Extras that are more expensive than the database software itself. Yet it has the same kinds of issues I mention above.  From a disaster recovery standpoint, it sucks. Yet this is a common solution sold by vendors around the world. As some studies I’ve read illustrate, a majority of commercial backup systems fail when properly tested.

One question to ask yourself in planning a backup / disaster recovery system is How much work am I willing to redo? How far back can you recover? If you lost a weeks work, could you recover it or would it simply be a loss? What impact would that have on your business if you lost sales records for a week? There are businesses that have been destroyed by data loss.

There is a definite cost balance here as you step up the chain of what ifs. The likelihood gradually goes down, but the consequences increase.

What if:
1 – an important file was corrupted. Outlooks email file (most versions store ALL email in one file), your customer records, a project document you’ve been working on for months. (a friend recently lost his only copy of an almost finished book. Fortunately he had emailed a copy a few days before to a friend)

2 – something in the software was messed up. The computer won’t boot properly, key software crashes, you get a virus infection. Hundreds of thousands of computers are compromised by trojans that are used to send you all that nice spam.

3 – something in the hardware breaks. The computer won’t start, the hard drive fails, the motherboard checks out.

4 – the computer is lost. The laptop is stolen or lost, there is a total system failure, it overheats and self-destructs.

5 – the infrastructure is lost. There is a fire, flood, earthquake, all those nice exceptions to most insurance policies

When I say the likelihood goes down, thats not to say it never happens. I’ve seen all of it. What some people don’t recognize is the gradually increasing dependency they have on that data. Gradually they’ve shifted from occasional emails to Aunt Maude to important work documents, music and photo libraries, and financial records.

Its not like we can avoid computers completely, although I know a couple of people that still do. But we do need to start treating them with a little more care. When was the last time you did routine maintenance on your computer? Took out the trash, gave it a vacuum, cleaned the windows? Some people spend more hours on their computer than they do in their car yet give their car more care.

I talk about system maintenance in these posts, but basically you want not only a backup system but a general system maintenance program. Once its set up, you can automate it as well. Unlike vacuuming, your computer can mostly self-maintain if you set it up right.

Then you have a system that rarely bogs and is much more reliable long term. And you have a disaster recovery plan. Given how computer vendors talk about the coming ‘self-healing’ computer, its surprising such functionality is not set up with any new computer.

I’ve talked about backup techniques prior. But basically you want to pick techniques to recover from any what if. Most of the software I mention is linked here)

A – you want a system backup so you can quickly restore the operating systems and programs to their prior state. By far the best tool here is an Imaging tool, NOT a standard backup program. Imaging is faster, more accurate and gets it all. Acronis TruImage gets the best review recommendations. They had an older version available for free for a short while but no longer. Recently, I’ve seen a couple of suggestions to use the free DriveImage XML if budget is an issue. The WinPE option they suggest is advantageous so that you can recover using a bootable CD. When the OS is messed up.

A system backup is something you do when you make system updates, like once a week or month. This covers major issues or problems, like those in #2 plus above. Its mainly about programs, not working files.

B – you want a file backup for the files you make. For this, a weekly full backup and daily incremental backup is the best for sensible restore. I recommend files be either copied to another location, like FileHamster and SyncToy do, or to a ZIP format archive. Many software programs use a proprietary backup format that cannot be accessed unless you have the correct software in the correct version running to recover it. Much easier if it can be recovered more easily.


As I’ve covered before, the question of Where to back up to is equally important. FileHamster may be handily automatically backing your important files up on save. But if its backing them up to the same hard drive and the hard drive fails, you’re toast. Keep in mind that on some computers, there may appear to be 2 hard drives (Say C and D) but they may not actually physically separate drives but rather 2 partitions of the same drive. So the drive fails, both partitions do too.

What you want is a separate hardware device. External hard drives have become quite popular for this, as have the larger USB sticks. Some people i know have 2 drives and alternate them each week, with the other drive being off site in the event of break-in, fire, etc. Online backup tools also put your files off site. Perhaps you only use them for critical files. I also know of people with Gmail accounts who email themselves key files, then archive them on site. A little clumsy but it works. (links in the post above)

And finally, we can touch on the reliability of the backup system itself. If you use an external drive, what sort of redundancy does it have? Microsoft is now promoting its Home Server for backup and media serving. Stashed in a cupboard, it can back up all of the computers on your network. One could get mirrored hard drives for that so that if the backup drive failed, there would be an exact copy still ‘up’. It may seem excessive, but I have seen backup systems fail at the same time as the systems they were backing up. If you want to cover this, another one I’ve been recommended is made by Qnap in their TS-200 series. Its a bit less plug and play as they expect you to choose the drives to size your system, but a pair of TB (terrabyte) drives are mirrored for the price of a single drive in a Home Server system. You can also use it as a file server, with the mirror as its backup for a little less redundancy.

Don’t worry, be happy. Easier when its taken care of.


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  3. Another quick and dirty trick for online backup is to create a free account. Set it to retain a copy. Then email your latest work each day to this account. It will keep a copy (with your work) online and accessible to you from a web browser anywhere in the world. If it’s a separate account only used for backup, you don’t need to download the email.

    Gmail gives you much more drive space free than other online backup tools and needs no extra software but backup has to be done manually. You can set yourself a reminder to get the habit going


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