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6 ways to backup your stuff

14th February 2011

Let’s face it, backups are quite boring really. Everyone knows they should do it but not many people are really good at it, and we think this might be partly down to a lack of knowledge around what you should be doing and how to best reassure yourself you are taking the appropriate steps to protect your data. Not all the “stuff” you have needs an expensive backup solution: it all depends on how valuable and/or irreplaceable it is to you, how vulnerable it is and how fast you might need to restore it if the worst happens. It all boils down to a simple formula:

RISK = vulnerability x impact

So you may have some data that is stored on an (old-skool) floppy disk. This is vulnerable as it is likely to become corrupted or lost, but if the loss of this data won’t matter to you very much, there’s not a lot of point in acquiring an expensive or high-maintenance backup solution for it. On the other hand, if the data on your floppy disk is critical to managing your affairs or running your business, you’d be well advised to ensure it’s backed up securely as you could easily suffer a catastrophic loss if you lost it.

Enough theory. Let’s look at a few practical ways that you can back up your data and see if we can’t identify what the best use-case for each might be.

1) copy the files to a new folder on the same computer

The simplest way to perform a backup is to copy the relevant files to another folder. This prevents accidentally overwriting or deleting them, but won’t help you if the disk fails. Actual complete disk failure are relatively rare these days, and there are specialists who can recover data from damaged disks, but this is inconvenient. On the other hand, if your computer itself is secure and well looked-after, this can be a surprisingly easy and cheap way of providing some assurance. It can also be scheduled to run automatically on your PC, so you don’t forget.
Verdict: COST – Very Low; EASE – high; VULNERABILITY – medium; USE FOR – low impact and non-critical information, or as a short term solution in conjunction with another solution.

2) copy the files to external storage (eg a USB drive)

A slightly less straightforward option is to copy the files to external storage such as a USB stick or external hard drive. This is slightly more secure in that you are protected against disk failure: on the other hand it can be surprisingly easy to lose a USB stick, meaning it’s not as secure as all that. You also need to remember to do it and safely remove the USB device from the computer.
Verdict: COST – Low; EASE – moderately high; VULNERABILITY – medium; USE FOR – low impact or seldom used information and make sure you store the external drive somewhere safe!

3) install a second hard drive for backups

Many modern PCs have space for a second hard drive to be installed. Although the installation is not for the faint-hearted (if you aren’t geek enough we recommend you hire a pro to do it for you), once installed it can be easy, cheap, and reliable to set up a scheduled task to copy your files to the second disk at regular intervals. This option is more secure than option 1) as it protects against failure of the disk: the downside is the cost and complexity of getting the new disk set up. It won’t help you if the computer itself fails, however: then you’ll need to fix or find another PC before you can access the data.
Verdict: COST – moderately low; EASE – high (once installed); VULNERABILITY – medium to low; USE FOR – medium impact, moderately critical information.

4) use network attached storage

If you have a network where your PC is, then you can buy storage devices that attach directly to the network and act as storage for your backup. Again, the setup isn’t always straightforward but once there you can set up scheduled tasks to regularly backup your data there. The advantage of this is that you can be back up and running relatively quickly on another PC if your primary one fails. You are still vulnerable to theft if your office location (or your home, in some cases) is burgled or suffers from some kind of accident: but nevertheless this can be more secure than the previous options.
Verdict: COST – moderate; EASE – high (once installed); VULNERABILITY – low; USE FOR – medium/high impact, moderately critical information.

5) back up to removable media, store off-site

this is a similar operation to option 2) but involves using a read-only medium such as a DVD-R and storing it in a separate, secure location. This option is highly secure but not totally risk-free, as there will be risks to the backup whilst in transit. It’s always good practice to encrypt this data before storing it to mitigate this risk. Commercial companies will offer this service for a fee, or you can use (at lower cost and lower security) a trusted friend or colleague to store the media for you.
Verdict: COST – moderate/high; EASE – moderate-low; VULNERABILITY – very low; USE FOR – high impact critical data

6) back up to the cloud

A number of services (such as Mozy, Google, or Amazon amongst many others) now allow you to transfer your data to an internet-based storage provider. This allows you to take advantage of the security and backup of another provider, usually for a monthly or per-GB fee. Although this is a great plan in theory, not all providers are the same. In particular, you need to bear in mind that if some of the data is about other people then you may need to ensure the data is being stored within the EU to comply with the Data Protection Act.
Verdict: COST – moderate/low; EASE – moderate; VULNERABILITY – low; USE FOR – high impact non-personal data.

Some caveats

  • If you are running databases, they will need to have their own backup regime that “snapshots” their contents to a file before any of the above methods can be used.
  • if files are open when you run backups, the backups taken may not be accurate. Tools like SyncBack can overcome this limitation
  • these instructions are primarily for backing up personal devices such as PCs. Server backup generally calls for higher levels of security than personal computers and different areas of servers (that you might not expect!) will need backing up. Take advice if you don’t know what you are doing!