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People have asked me how often they should backup? And how to backup? As well as what to backup?

These are all good questions. The conventional answer is that you should backup whatever you don't want to lose. And a consideration is how many iterations of your backup do you keep, and will they all be stored on the same device(s).

Let's start with the WHAT?

For a start, on a Windows system, I would include the Documents/Music/Videos/Pictures (Vista and Win7) / My Documents (earlier versions of Windows, which includes My Music, My Pictures, etc.); Favorites; Desktop and email files (including your Contacts or Address Book), if you run an application from your hard drive which copies/moves messages from a host server to the hard drive. If you have a Downloads folder, this should also be included.

There are several other files that you might need to consider – if you run financial applications such as Quicken, QuickBooks, Microsoft Money, etc., that data may not reside in your My Documents folder. The data can be in the All Users/Public profile, or with the application in Program Files. If you use a PDA, your backed up (synchronized) data is probably somewhere in the Program Files folder with that software. Additionally, if your word processing/spreadsheet/presentation programs allow you to save non-dictionary words (so that you aren't told repeatedly that they might be misspelled), then you want to save that custom dictionary.

For non-Microsoft browsers (Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Apple Safari, etc.) your saved weblinks are in Bookmarks, rather than the Favorites folder. These web addresses are not in an easy location to copy for a backup, so use the browsers Bookmark Tools to export a file containing these links so that they can be imported if needed. The export should be done prior to starting your backup.

Now for the other easy question: WHERE?

Here, there are multiple options, but the critical factor is how much data you have. If you have only about 100 text files, then you might get by with a few floppy diskettes, although fewer and fewer new machines have drives to read them. Semi-permanent optical media, such as CDs and DVDs, have capacities of 650-800MB to 4.7GB respectively. When the data is "final-d" to the media, many times these files are marked "read only", which means that you will not be able to alter them. Resetting that attribute bit on 1000 files can be tedious, so consider optical media as a method for permanent storage, not dynamic backup. CDs (rather than higher capacity DVDs) are more forgiving to read if scratched, which is why I suggest CDs.

The next option I offer is a media which has multiple descriptors – I prefer calling them thumb drives, but they are also called USB memory sticks, as well as other names. They use a direct USB connection into the computer which is part of the apparatus, and their capacity ranges from 128MB (usually given as free promotional items) to 64GB. Be advised that these devices may (will) fail at some point, depending on use and care. But these can be used to backup data, as well as transport between computers. And the data on them can be modified directly onto the stick. Use caution with thumb drives on keychains - don't have the keys weighing down the drive when in the computer.

The final " local" solution is a second hard drive. This drive can be internal to your computer, internal to another computer on your local network, or externally connected via network, a USB cable or a firewire cable. There is a technology called R.A.I.D. which automatically duplicates/mirrors one internal hard drive to a second internal hard drive. In addition, various websites will host offsite backup servers which use the Internet to transfer the data. [There are several older technologies which can also be mentioned, ZIP and DAT which aren't being considered here.] In the end, the destination for your data needs to be larger than the amount of data you want to backup.

HOW do you backup?

Well, this question is the most complex, because it really depends on how much data you want to backup, if it has been backed up earlier, and where you will be backing up.  Oh, yes, and when – are you going to do it manually (start the pre-configured process or use Windows Explorer to drag files and folders from one drive to another) or have it scheduled to run in off hours?  Let me propose a few scenarios as examples.

  1. There is a small amount of grouped data and it changes infrequently. This can be backed up to a thumb drive, floppies or a CD. In the case of a USB stick or floppies, Windows Explorer will easily allow you to drag files and folders from one window (the source) to a second window (the back up destination) as long as the windows are not maximized. This can be done each time the data is changed, or on a periodic basis (if CDs are used) such as monthly or quarterly.

  2. Much of your data consists of digital photos and music that you have original media for. The music may not need to be backed up – you can always "rip" it anew if the files are lost, damaged, erased. Digital photos tend to not be changed once they are downloaded and printed (or uploaded to website(s).) I feel that photos (and videos) can be backed up using a CD burning program whenever enough new pictures have been added. I recommend making 3 copies when burning CDs (CD-Rs are cheap, and use paper sleeves) so that you have one on hand, one near the house/office (such as the car trunk or glove box) and one distantly offsite, in case of serious local disaster.

  3. Your financial data changes daily. If you update it regularly on your computer, then that data should be backed up prior to quitting the program, and I recommend putting it on a USB thumb drive that is attached to your keychain. You will most likely always have it with you. If your software prompts you to back up again when you close the application, put it on a second drive. This covers the infrequent occasions when a thumb drive fails.

  4. You are running a small business and have a peer-to-peer network (this means that you don't have a Windows domain set up with a server managing accounts and files across the network) with important business data that is shared by users at more than one computer. You can have a master location for the data being used, but you can backup that data to the other computer(s) in case something happens to the master computer's hard drive. This can be done manually or on a schedule, with Windows Explorer or a backup application.

  5. You want to backup all your data to external media because it is something you do quarterly, annually, periodically. Depending on backup media , the process may be using the CD/DVD burning software to copy files and folders to one or more disks; using Windows Explorer to copy to an internal, external or network drive; or using a backup application to copy and compress the files. Windows XP Professional, Windows Vista and Windows 7 have Windows versions of a backup process, which compress the files into "zipped" or compressed files, so that retrieving single files without using the Windows Restore function might be tedious. Other manufacturer's software, which might typically come with an external hard drive, might not allow you to backup all the data that you want (some preclude backing up files and folders in hidden structures, such as email.) Some Internet Security protection software, such as Norton, also includes backup processes.

WHEN you do your backup, you need to consider the recovery/restore function.

Will you be searching for singular files or folders, or will you be recovering all your data? Sometimes a file or folder is accidentally deleted, and it is important to get it back from the backup. Other times, you want to move all your data from one computer to another. What the process is may be important, because minimizing the storage used by the backup may become critical, or being able to easily find and get that one picture may be the final consideration. So you need to find out how the backed up data is stored, so you know what the recovery process is. And you need to know if you will be able to backup all the files you want, not just the categories that the software vendor feels are important.

With the advent of cloud computing, backing up to a storage service on the Internet is also an option. This puts the responsibility for maintain the equipment used to house your backup on a service provider, and can be recovered anywhere an Internet connection is available. You must have an account and password (which you need to know) in order to backup or recover data.

One final option – a FULL hard drive backup.

There are two applications I know about that do this well – Norton Ghost and Acronis True Image. These offer a snapshot image of everything that is on the hard drive, allowing you to recover back to that day and time. This might be good insurance for rebuilding a computer should your hard drive fail or become corrupt. See my notes at the end of the discussion on Surviving a Computer Disaster for some additional thoughts.

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