I can’t tell you how many times I have told people how important regularly backing up your computer is. I consider this as important as wearing your seat belt, as important as a helmet while riding a motorcycle. If you are not backing up your system, you are asking for trouble. Well, the truth is that not enough people wear their seat belt and I see bikers without helmets all the time. I am willing to bet that at least 1 out of 4 of you reading this aren’t backing up your computers. When it comes to data, it isn’t a matter if something will fail… it is a matter of when something will fail.
Let me begin by telling you a short personal story.
It was a day much like any other, everything was normal and I had just finished checking emails. Microsoft Windows decided that it was time for a reboot after installing some Windows updates and thinking nothing of it, I decided to let the system do as it wished. Upon reboot, Windows was unable to start. A quick reboot from the black (yes, black) screen of terror and I was now facing an SSD in panic mode. That means, that my primary drive was gone and all my work, designs, benchmarks, etc were gone with it.
At this point, I am not really all that worried. After all, I have Acronis True Image doing the dirty work of backing up all my workstations. However, In my efforts to restore my incremental backup, I was plagued with Acronis being unable to find the full backup that the incremental backup was built from. Immediately looking to my network storage, I was unable to find any of the full backups, thus confirming Acronis’s warning! As the story unfolds, having backups of backups is a staple in this guy’s office. I quickly search my backup NAS and the full backup was sitting there, waiting to be restored!
Backup types are like opinions… one is better than another for one reason or another. I am not going to bore you with which software package I think is better than another… instead, I am going to provide you with a bit of information and outline how I handle my backup requirements.
First, let’s get some definitions out-of-the-way.
File based backups
File based backups, simply defined, copy files from one location to another. These types of backups can be set to run on a schedule and can be intelligent enough to copy only files that have changed. You can usually pick and choose which folders you want to back up and where you want them backed up to.
Image based backups
Image based backup solutions are those that are designed to help you recover and complete what is known as a “bare metal backup”. This type of backup is usually disk or volume based and covers it all. It is an exact copy of your disk. If your system fails and you need to install a new hard drive, you use an image to restore your operating system and software as if nothing had ever happened.
There are commonly 3 different types of image based backups.
A full backup is the whole kit n caboodle. Each full backup has everything and will take a lot of space. Full backups are not optimal to run and store regularly as the space requirements will quickly grow exponentially. Typically, most will employ either an incremental or differential backup scheme.
Incremental vs Differential Backups
Incremental backup builds from a Full backup. Each day that something changes on your system it backups up the changes from the previous day. If you could imagine a ladder, you take one step at a time. If you were to consider a backup chain of 5 days, the 1st day is your Full backup and Day 2 is built on changes from day 1. Day 3 is built on changes from Day 2 which is built on changes from Day 1. You get the picture.
The advantages to an Incremental backup are most evident when performing a backup. The backups will tend to be smaller because you are only backing up changes since your last backup. Restores may take longer than a Differential backup because you have to reconstruct backups from all the backups in the chain.
A Differential backup only backs up changes from the last Full backup. In contrast to Incremental, the interim backups are not needed for a restore. Day 1 backup is your Full backup. Day 2 is the differences from Day 1. Day 3 is still the differences from Day 1.
A Differential backup is usually quicker to restore because you are only using 2 backups to do the restore, the full backup and the latest backup you wish to restore from. However, Differential backups will usually take up more space than incremental backups.
What I do
For backups on my network and in my home, I use a combination of software packages. First, Acronis True Image handles my system images and my incremental backups. Acronis is configured for daily Incremental Backups with a high-compression level (to reduce the size of the backups). This increases the amount of time it takes to complete a backup, but having the compression levels set higher is worth the time it takes. It is set to create a new full backup every 5 incremental versions and to start purging the backups after 30 days. The backups are stored on my NAS and backed up through RSYNC to another NAS. (RSYNC with the option of leaving deleted files intact).
To handle file based backups, I use CrashPlan and QNAP’s NetBac Replicator. With CrashPlan, my file based backups are distributed amongst various PCs and NAS. No worries about unauthorized access to my files… as the backups are encrypted. I can do file based restores and I ensure that core files, like Outlook PST, are backed up regularly. If I suffer from a catastrophic failure, mentioned above, and need to restore a daily image, I don’t have to worry nearly as much about real-time backups as I still have my safety net from CrashPlan.
QNAP’s NetBak Replicator is scheduled to copy the same information to other sources every 30 minutes. Unfortunately, there is no encryption implemented within the application to keep my data safe from prying eyes. However, I have the replicator backing up my important data to the home folder for my username on my QNAP NAS.
What you can do
You don’t have to employ my backup methodology. Developing your own backup strategy may be easier than you think. Most versions of Windows still come with Windows Backup and Restore. At a minimum, you should be utilizing the software you already have at your disposal. See Configure Backup and Restore in Windows 7 for more on that.
There are also plenty of freely available backup solutions for you to choose from. CrashPlan, mentioned above, offers free and paid versions of their software. QNAP’s NetBac Replicator is free as well. Runtime Software, makers of GetDataBack, also have a free drive imaging software solution, DriveImage XML V2.44.
As far as storage goes; if you don’t have a NAS, use an additional HDD or an external for a little extra piece of mind. No external hard drives or extra HDDs lying around? You can back up your files to a folder on another computer in your house.
For small backups you can use a free service like Dropbox for your Photos and Documents. You could have a few friends install CrashPlan and start a “backup ring”. There are countless ways you can ensure you are safe from a failure without spending a ton of money, or any money for that matter.
Whatever your flavor of software… cover your bases. If you are not backup up, you are asking for trouble. Also, just because you are backing up… it doesn’t mean that you are safe enough. Having backups of backups may seem a little crazy, but you may need it one day.
How are you backing up?