The First Rule of Data Backups – Part Deux

Welcome back to Doc4 Design's backups for beginners, wherein we continue to break the First Rule of Backups by talking about backups!

In part one, we discussed the need for, and benefits of, backing up your computers, along with the main types of backups and some simple backup schemes. In part two, we're going to briefly look at some tools to help make your backups as easy and automatic as possible.

The first type of backup to think about is immediate, incremental backups. These are quick, local backups that are intended to let you easily restore previous versions of specific files. If you accidentally delete a file or save an unintended change, then having an incremental backup running in the background can allow you to roll back to a good version of your file. In this context, "local" can mean either "on your local computer" or "on your local network."

If you're using a Mac, then the solution is simple: use Time Machine. Time Machine is built into OS X, and as with most things Apple does, it's easy and intuitive to use. Time Machine allows you to backup to an external disk, connected via USB, Firewire, Thunderbolt, ethernet, or wifi. Time Machine can actually serve as a full system backup, too, since what it creates is a restorable image of your computer's hard drive.

The main pros of Time Machine are that it's easy, it comes with your Mac, and it stores your backups away from your computer. The main con is that when you aren't connected to your disk, your data isn't getting backed up.

If you're using Windows Vista or later, your cheapest, easiest option is to turn on the Windows Volume Shadow Copy service and System Protection. The combination of the two can keep periodic backups of previous versions of files, but it isn't as easy as Time Machine. Configuration and setup are outside the scope of this article, but more information can be found online (for example http://blog.szynalski.com/2009/11/23/volume-shadow-copy-system-restore/).

The pros of this option are that it's included in current versions of Windows and it can work regardless of where your computer is. The main con is that, because the data is stored on the same disk as your original data, any damage to your computer will affect the backup. So, in that sense, it doesn't provide a true backup. Also, the stored versions will take up extra space on your disk, which could be a problem if you're don't have much storage available.

These basic tools are probably already on your computer, so there's no additional cost for the software. For the backup disk and supported network router, plan to pay between $100 (for an external USB disk) and $500 (for a high-end Apple Time Capsule). A good average would be $200-300.

The next type of backup to consider is nightly system backups.

Again, if you're on a Mac, Time Machine has you covered. All you need to do is leave your computer turned on and connected to your backup disk (either directly or over the network) overnight so it can have time to catch up on any changes from the previous day. To make a backup of your Time Machine backup file, you'll need another disk that's at least as big as the file. If you're using an Apple Time Capsule as your backup disk, you can plug in your second disk to the Time Capsule and use the built-in Archive utility. Otherwise, you can use OS X's Disk Utility to make a copy of your backup disk onto your second disk. Again, there are tutorials and guides available online that can walk you through both processes.

If you're using Windows, then a good option may be using the backup utilities that come with many large external disks. Western Digital disks, in particular, usually include WD's SmartWare backup tool. Depending on the vendor, these backup disk utilities can usually be configured to make overnight system backups or incremental backups, so they could to double duty for you. If you're already buying a large disk to store your backups anyway, you might as well take advantage of the free tools that come with it. Just as with the Mac's Time Machine, you'll need to make sure your computer is connected to the backup disk often enough to keep up with your changes.

In either case, once you have a full system backup of your computer, don't forget to store a copy somewhere other than your house. This backup of your backup acts as your insurance policy against catastrophic events in your home that could result in the loss or destruction of everything stored there.

You should expect to pay at least $100 each for the external disks you'll use, although $150-200 might be a better range, depending on speed and size. If your backup configuration requires two external disks to rotate in and out, then plan to double that amount.

The final category of backups that we're going to cover is off-site backups through a backup service. Popular backup services include, in alphabetical order: Backblaze, Carbonite, CrashPlan, IDrive, and Mozy.

These services charge a monthly or annual fee to store your data on their servers. After signing up, you install a utility that runs in the background of your computer all the time and uploads copies of your data. Obviously, your computer needs to be online for that to work, so if you're using a laptop that's disconnected from the internet much of the time, you may need to plan to leave it on and connected overnight a few times a week to stay up-to-date.

Backup services can be easy, cost-effective solutions, and by their very nature, they solve the problem of keeping a backup off-site. Their main drawback is the speed of your Internet connection (or lack thereof). All of your data has to get from your computer to their servers, and that can take time. In fact, you should plan for your initial upload to take weeks, although ongoing updates of daily changes should take much less time. You don't have to leave your computer undisturbed the entire time since the process will stop and start automatically depending on your connection. During that initial upload, though, know that your data isn't yet fully protected.

Likewise, when you need to access your backups, you'll need to download it, and speed is an issue, so it can take time. While downloading single files or folders can be reasonably fast, it isn't practical for large-scale restorations. That's why you still need local backups for fast, convenient access to large files.

As an added bonus, a common feature of backup services is the ability to access your files from other computers. Carbonite, for instance, allows you to access your files several ways, including from a web browser and an iOS app. That kind of anywhere access can be priceless when you're away from home and need a file.

All of the online backup services have pros and cons, and although most of them support both Windows PCs and Macs, some better with one OS or the other. Spending a little time researching the options, reading reviews, and considering your particular needs, can save you time, money, and frustration. Changing services later may not be technically difficult, but the prospect of repeating the multi-week initial backup can be a daunting barrier to switching, so choose wisely.

Features to consider include remote access to your data, the available storage, cost, and OS-level integration. Most average households will probably need options and services costing $5-10 per month, but there are usually free trials and discount codes available.

If you've been keeping score, that probably brings your cost for the first year to an average of around $500, with on-going expenses around $100 per year. If those totals are out of your price range, then it's ok to start small and take an incremental approach. Sign up for a free trial of an online backup service, and get a single disk you can backup to every weekend, then keep it at your office during the week. Later, when you're able, add a second disk so there's always one in each place. Small steps, when added together, can take you a long way.

Data backups can be a deep and complex subject, which is why many people find them intimidating…but they don't have to be! By implementing just the basic approaches we've discussed here — incremental local backups and system backups, combined with an online backup service — you'll be well-protected from most common data problems. If you touch all three of these bases, you'll be home free!

Of course, there is another emerging backup-like option: The Cloud!

But that's a discussion for another day …

Ryan Wells

Ryan Wells

Owner / Lead Developer at Wellhouse Software