Data backups

How Do I Create a Backup of My Computer?

The first question is perhaps ‘why do I need to make a backup?’  Well the answer to that will vary.  If you store nothing that has any value on your computer and have the installation disks (you remember, those disks that came with the computer when you first got it), then you may not need to bother. Unfortunately, whether it is our own home computer or it belongs to the organisation that you work for, it is rare that there is nothing of value stored on it, whether it is your emails, photos, music collection, finance details or the records of the project that you have been working on for the last year.

The nest question should be ‘how often do I need to make a backup?’  This will depend on how much of the valuable data has changed since the last backup.  If you are storing your company accounts on the computer, it would seem reasonable to take at least daily backups, so that in the event of a system failure, you can restore the system to a ‘good’ state as at the end of the previous day and you only have to recreate the data for the last day.  If you have data that is less volatile, then less frequent backups may be adequate.

Making a backup of your computer does not need to be difficult, but first you have to decide what it is you want to back up. Do you just want to back up your data or do you want to back up the whole system?  A backup of the data will be quicker, but in the event of a serious problem on your computer, rebuilding it so that it has the same look and feel that it did before the problem can be time consuming and difficult.  On the other hand, backing up the complete system – your operating system, applications and data will take longer and occupy more storage space, but it should be easier to recreate the look and feel of the original much more easily.  Perhaps the answer may be in a mixture of the two.  You make regular backups of your data and less frequent backups of the entire system.

Once you have decided to make a backup, there are a number of options out there to help, and for the most part, they aren’t complicated, once you get used to using them.

If you only have a small amount of data to backup, the taking a manual backup may be appropriate (copying the files you want to back up to a USB drive), however, you have to mark it up correctly and you also have to store it somewhere suitable (more on that later).  A good backup system is one that is as easy as possible to use.) The best backup systems automatically perform incremental backups so you don’t need to think about it or remember to do anything about it once the system is set up.

Types of backup.

The first is a bootable Backup (or “Clone”)

A “bootable backup” (also known as a “clone”) is a complete copy of your computer’s primary hard drive (sometimes called a “boot disk”). If your computer’s primary drive stops working or becomes corrupted, you can replace it with the clone, reboot your computer from it, and have immediate access to not only all of your files but also all of the software you use, including all of the settings and configuration changes that you have made. Depending on the configuration of your computer, one good tip is that when you first set it up, you make a copy of the “boot disk”, so that in the event of a problem, you can quickly replace the problem boot disk with the clone and continue to work.  One down side is that you will need to recreate the “clone” every time that you update the system or your applications in order to keep it up to date. Another down side is that you data will probably not be stored on the “boot disk” and will need to be backed up separately.

The next is an external Backup Drive

You can use an external hard drive to create an archive of your changed and deleted files. An archive is different from a clone in a number of ways: first, it isn’t bootable; second, it isn’t limited to a “snapshot” of your entire drive at one point in time. Instead, it can be used to store incremental backups, which keep up to date and are updated as you work.

An external drive backup are primarily intended to provide a backup of your data files, such as documents, spreadsheets etc. Instead of copying your entire hard drive, this type of backup only checks at certain folders, for example your home directory. With this type of backup, it means that if files that are on your computer’s hard drive are changed or deleted, you can go back and undo the changes or even recover the deleted files. If your computer is corrupted or dies, you can take the external backup drive, plug it into a different computer and immediately have access to all of your files, as well as the history of changes and deleted files.  While this has all of the advantages of giving you an up-to-date backup, the main shortcoming with this type of backup is that if there is a piece of malicious software such as ransomware, it is likely to have been copied to the backup and contaminated it before you discover it.

Most computer operating systems come with their own backup software.  On Microsoft Windows systems, this is normally found in the Control Panel, System and Security, Backup and Restore sub directory. Apple Mac systems use the “Time Machine”, which will run every hour and check for changes. It will save hourly backups for the previous 24 hours, daily backups for the previous month, and weekly backups for previous months. While the Time Machine is easy to use, it does have drawbacks, as having to connect an external hard drive to your computer can be inconvenient, particularly for laptop users who need to be able to move their computer around and use them in a range of environments. An alternative solution that is offered by Apple is the “Airport Time Capsule” (a Wi-Fi router with a built-in hard drive), which allows the user to do backups over Wi-Fi. However this is relatively expensive (currently £215 for 2 TB, or £280 for the 3 TB version).

Some of the advantages of storing your backup to a local external drive are that, once you have bought the external drive, the only cost is your time, you have control of the external drive and, have immediate access to it when you need to recover your data. Some of the disadvantages are that you can only store a finite amount of data on the drive, so the number of previous versions of files, and deleted files you can recover, is limited by the size of the. You also have the problem of where to store the external drive – remember it has all of your data on it and needs to be stored securely and protected.  If you have a fire or a burglary and have left the disk next to the computer that you have backed up, you will probably lose your backup at the same time as the computer. Finally, the backup drive is still a computer disk and will be liable, over time, to the same problems as the disk in the computer and will be subject to wear and tear.

Cloud Based Backup

Having a backup on an external drive that sits next to your computer is a good start, but your best protection against the types of losses mentioned above is to store another backup somewhere else, away from your work or home location.

Backups to the cloud are probably the easiest to create and maintain. You simply create an account with the respective service, download the software, enter your account details and, if necessary, set your preferences. Once the initial setup is completed, you do not need to take any further action, as the software will automatically backup your computer whenever it is turned on and connected to the Internet.  When you backup to the Cloud, your files are encrypted so no one else can access them and then they are copied to a number of drives (so that if one of the cloud drives fails, other copies will still be available).

One of the main issues with setting up an off-site (Cloud) backup is that, because of the communications bandwidth limitations, the initial upload can take a considerable amount of time, depending on the size of the computer disk that you are backing up. Another issue may occur when you lose your bootable drive and need to recover all of your files is the time it will take to download them – again, depending on how much data you have stored.

What is the best Backup option?

This will depend on your personal or organisational needs. For your data, you may want to consider a three-two-one backup strategy, which would be 3 copies of your data, 2 of them stored on-site, and 1 offsite. If you choose to only have one solution, an online backup is recommended, because:

  • While a bootable backup (Clone), lets you recover if your computer dies, if the problem is anything other than your hard drive, it won’t help. You also need to keep it up-to-date.
  • If you use a desktop computer a local external drive backup is great, but in reality there are fewer people are using desktop computers these days, and if you use a laptop you either have to remember to plug in the backup drive or get a wireless backup system, which may not be convenient.

Online Backups

With the online backups, you don’t have to buy any hardware or figure out how to configure it. There are a large number of online backup providers such as Idrive (https://www.idrive.com/), CrashPlan (http://www.code42.com/) and Carbonite (https://www.carbonite.com).  A quick search online will show you lots of suppliers, but be careful to check that what they are offering meets your needs, for example how much storage are they providing, how many versions of your backup will they store and for how long?

Once you have got yourself organised and set up your backup regime, there is one final thing that you will need to do -check that it works!  Experience over time has shown that in many cases, people faithfully back-up their systems, but have never checked to see that the process has worked and when they need it, they discover that the process has not actually been working at all.  Some sobering facts from Pivotal IT1

  • In the past two years, Over 50 percent of businesses experienced an unforeseen interruption, and the vast majority (81%) of these interruptions caused the business to be closed one or more days.
  • 80 percent of businesses suffering a major disaster go out of business in three years, while 40 percent of businesses that experience a critical IT failure go out of business within one year. In the case of suffering a fire, 44 percent of enterprises fail to reopen and 33 percent of these failed to survive beyond 3 years.
  • Vendors offering disaster recovery solutions have stated that between 60 and 70 percent of all problems that disrupt business are due to internal malfunctions of hardware or software, or human errors that may lead to fraud.
  • 93% of companies that lost their data centre for 10 days or more due to a disaster filed for bankruptcy within one year of the disaster. 50% of businesses that found themselves without data management for this same time period filed for bankruptcy immediately.
  • Companies that aren’t able to resume operations within ten days (of a disaster hit) are not likely to survive.
  • Every week 140,000 hard drives crash in the United States.
  • 31% of PC users have lost all of their files due to events beyond their control.

1http://www.itispivotal.com/2012/08/10-backup-disaster-recovery-statistics-must-know/

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