What is the Best Backup? Well, Depends…

What is the Best Backup? Well, Depends...Will it never go away? “What is the best backup for me?” The issue of what is a good backup procedure for computers and their relatives just keeps erupting. The issue goes well beyond operating system preferences and nature of personal or professional computer usage. It affects everyone with something of value stored digitally. It even affects telephones. Have you ever heard of someone who dropped a smartphone in the toilet? Having a backup of your contacts is a really good thing. Effective backup applies to everything digital.

A senior friend emailed me this week to ask about backup for his computer. He wanted to know the difference between a backup, a restore disc, and system image. The nature of the question tells us a lot about his knowledge and his likely response to suggestions. Another friend of his who knew his habits was appalled at his total lack of backup and strongly suggested that this is a very bad thing, particularly if you have a lifetime of family photographs on your computer — which he does.

So my friend asked about commercial backup programs he had heard of such as Acronis and others. My response was that any one of them could be a good investment if the built-in Windows functions were not satisfactory, but before making a recommendation, we needed to assess his needs — and by that I mean provide adequate security, but in a way that would not be a burden to him. The best system in the world is useless if you do not keep up with it. Individual systems that require a lot of operator actions tend to fail simply because the operator (we) may be lazy or distracted. Systems that work great in a commercial enterprise with paid IT personnel are not always beneficial for home use. We need an intermediate solution.

In addition to the ongoing maintenance of a backup system, there is the problem of initialization. A powerful system that requires some thought and effort to set up could be a waste. Commercial stand-alone backup systems can be very powerful, but that very power is their weak point for the casual user. Protecting some photographs in a mostly static collection is totally different from protecting the constantly changing history of a business. Businesses and private senior users need different tools. I have had clients who simply gave up trying to install programs to execute automatic backups and resort to occasional manual copying. A typical complaint might be, “What is an incremental backup anyway? I just want to be protected.”

My advice to my friend was to buy an external HD, which probably would come bundled with some backup software, but to simply use Windows 7’s built-in facilities to make both a system image and start the automatic backup process. I am not one to ignore Windows functions simply because they are in Windows. Some people assume that a built-in Windows function is, by definition, second-rate or worse. Like anyone else, I have my share of biases and I can be a snob with the best, but let us not overlook perfectly fine tools that we have already paid for.

Next, I advised him to make a restore disc if he had not already done so. Finally, I said that he should get some flash drives and store his personal data (mostly photographs) on them. At this point, he would be almost done.

My last suggestion was the third part of the 3-2-1 policy that is promoted across the Internet for backup safety: three copies on two types of media and one offsite storage.

The last part, offsite storage, is more important than you might suspect. An IT specialist friend had a home network of seven computers of which one was a server that backed up the others. It was a secure system, more like a commercial setup than a home network, reflecting the owner’s tastes. However, his home was in the back country of San Diego county. For those who live elsewhere, we have more than the usual number of seasons here. In addition to the normal ones, we have a fire season. His house burned down while he was at work. All his computers were destroyed. He had neglected to have offsite storage. He knew better, but how many houses burn down?

What is offsite storage? It can be as simple as a Dropbox or SkyDrive account. It can be as formal as a Carbonite account. It can be a flash drive left in a safety deposit box or other remote safe location. The only point is to at least have your data somewhere else. You might remember to grab the external backup drive when you flee an oncoming tornado, but you might be more busy getting some quick essentials for life. While the point of offsite storage for a business would be to get back up and running as quickly as possible after a calamity, the goal of offsite storage for an individual might be to simply save data for later recovery. These are quite different needs.

Some people will quibble with me on this. Cloud storage is not private is one complaint. The provider might go out of business or sell to an unscrupulous buyer is another. Okay, both comments are part of the risk analysis. Is the risk of losing your data due to a tornado or fire greater or less than someone hacking into your personal photographs? How valuable is your data to other people? Passwords and bank account information need more protection than photographs. Can you handle them separately?

Obviously there is no simple answer to the question of effective backup just as there is no simple answer to how much life insurance you should carry. But there are some simple guidelines to both questions that can protect you, give you peace of mind, and not be a burden.

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  • Taffy

    I use Clonezilla for both my home and my work laptops.  I back up once a week and create an exact image of the drive in each on external drives.  Each external drive is exactly the same manufacturer and model as the drive inside the respective laptops.

    I do this because disk drives spend their entire lives trying to die and eventually they will succeed.  At that point I need only replace the internal drive by its external clone, buy a new drive to fill the external drive case and create a new clone.  I use Active SMART to tell me about the overall state of health of the internal drive and give me a heads up, if possible, in advance of failure so I can purchase the replacement drive.

    It takes about two hours to clone my personal laptop with Clonezilla as it is clever enough to know what has changed and what hasn’t.  The disk in my work machine is fully encrypted, so Clonezilla must make a bit-for-bit copy.  Cloning the 500 GB drive via USB 3.0 takes four hours. 

    With this solution, I sleep well at night.

    • Sdeforest

       For me, that is overkill.  But if it works for you, then great.  I update the image maybe twice a year and do a weekly backup in addition to ad hoc backups of things that seem important.  More importantly, do you use offsite storage?

  • Matthew Cheung

    I usually back-up all of my personal data and other things weekly and sometimes daily. I also have back-ups of all my important photos and documents in the cloud in addition to my own back-ups. Thanks for the tips LockerGnome!

    • Sdeforest

       So you do not use an automatic backup.  If that works for you, good.

  • http://aaronvoreck.com/ Joseph Aaron Voreck

    Yeah, in the last year or two I’ve become a backup fanatic…. I normally after an install backup right away so as to get all the programs /system settings backed up then use the weekly backups for my photo’s docs ect. I also use Win Skydrive and google docs to back up my docs and photos ,… I wasn’t sure which format would work when I bought my iPhone last month so I used both initially. Other than that just to be extra sure I bought a 16 gig encrypted USB drive that I back all file & Foto’s to every few months.

    • Sdeforest

       You did not say why you became a fanatic.  I started down that road after the second or third HD crash–I am a slow learner.

      • http://aaronvoreck.com/ Joseph Aaron Voreck

        It mostly started I think just from being my old age of 30-ish ,…. Instead of re-installing OS’s every 5 or 6 months I decided to keep things going ,…… I used to make cd’s all the time then I was like I’m ganna slow down and try auto-backup ,….. And it’s worked ,… for the most part ,… while installing Win 8 I had like 12 programs to install and somewhere w/ 3 left It crashed w/o a back up, so I had to re-install everything again …the next time it fully installed and I got all my proggies installed ,….. then faithfully did a backup ;)

  • TomologyUK

    I am thinking about using Carbonite to backup my data. Almost all my information is either on Dropbox or on my network storage box on a mirrored array. If I run Carbonite on my network box then all should be good. Covered if a single drive dies and covered if the house burns down.

    Backups are a major part of my job and that has made me realise how important it really is.

    • Sdeforest

       If you are talking about offsite storage of business information, I would say that is a good choice.  Most people do not need that level of expense for their personal data–0in my opinion.  Backup is loosely defined term, but some think of it as a fixed process

  • KevinE

    I don’t use Depends to do my backups! :-)
    I regularly backup my personal data to an external flash drive and do a full backup to an external hard drive on a scheduled basis. Having my personal data on a flash drive makes the use of multiple OS easier to work with (regarding access to personal data). Virtual machines make it easier as well.

  • Staehrmedia

    As an IT consultant I get this question asked frequently, and right now I’m researching a good backup plan for a client. Like so many things, for most users something that works consistently probably is the key. You can use external HDD, flash drives and software programs on site, as well as off site backups, but if it isn’t done regularly what’s the use. So far from what I’ve reviewed and had other clients use, Carbonite seems to be a good solution.

  • Sdeforest

     You did not say if your client represent a business or individual, or what the value is of the data being protected.  I suppose one should also consider how risk-adverse the client is.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1813155844 Antim Evtimov Batchev

    I usually don’t back up to much , maybe once per two months wich is fairly ok if you ask me … never had a serious problem with my computer and i hope i don’t have, but to backup is always good… there are people that own computers that were never backed up its entire lifespan of the same… 

    • Sdeforest

       And some people drive around with no spare tire or car insurance.  Much of life is determined by your risk tolerance.  BTW, all HD’s fail–some sooner than others.

  • Sdeforest

     Good choice.  If you do not care about the installed programs or the effort to rebuild a system, that is adequate.  I would suggest leaving at least on flash drive in a safe deposit box or at least off site.