Free Tech Advice: Maintain A Backup

For those who don’t need to be convinced about backing up data, here are some tips based on operating system:

I am frequently called by fellow Peace Corps volunteers about potentially lost data and how to recover it; viruses that have ravaged computers; dropped machines that, “for some strange reason,” just don’t seem to work anymore.  To all of these problems I have one very simple solution: backup your data.  Also, to anyone purchasing a new computer, anywhere in the world, I offer one piece of advice: factor in the cost of a backup hard drive and then backup your data!  Of course, what the heck does that even mean?

A data backup is, just as it sounds, a second copy of all of your personal data: music, documents, photos, everything you hold dear and cannot afford to lose.  But as a techie, I take a very particular attitude towards data backup that may or may not be shared by my peers.  It’s also a very conservative approach.  I suggest that everyone purchase an external hard drive that at least equals the size of the hard drive in your personal computer, be it a laptop or desktop.  Plug this hard drive in at least once a week and synchronize your personal information between the external and the computer.  Then take this backup and put it somewhere safe, and when I mean safe, I mean somewhere a) physically separate from your computer, and b) protected against everything from curious children to fires.  For example, I have a data backup of my computer’s hard drive in America locked away in a fireproof lock-box.

The reasons I suggest this are many.  For the specifics: you should keep it physically separate because there is a good chance that any tragedy that may physically befall a computer would also most likely befall other items near to the computer i.e. a fire would most likely burn in at least a whole room of a building, not just the computer desk.  You should keep it physically protected for similarly basic reasons: a hard drive is not impervious to physical damage such as drops, fires and the like and should thus be prevented from sustaining such trauma.

Some might argue that for the average user this advice is needless.  In fact, this advice does stem from larger-system practices of backing up critical data, but nowadays applies directly to average users as well.  More important information is stored on an average user’s computer than ever before.  From tax returns to receipts and other financial information; from purchased music that only exists digitally, as well any paid-for, downloaded applications; from personal pictures that also only exist digitally, digital data is more and moreseamlesslyintegrated into our daily lives and should be protected as such.

How does one go about performing a backup and synchronization?  It depends on the system you use, and for each example, I will just talk about a synchronization, which is where your backup disk contains only the most recent copy of your files.  This is not for restoring a file from a few days ago that you may have deleted, but is rather intended to lessen the impact of a potential computer catastrophe.  If the suggestion I offer below also offers more fine-grain backup, then great!

  • All Systems – No matter what operating system your computer uses, one is always able to do a simple copy/paste backup.  Simply plug in your external hard drive, delete the last version of your files from the external, then select the new files to backup from your computer, copy them and paste them onto the external.  It may take a while, especially if you are backing up dozens (or hundreds!) of gigabytes of data.  This method also suffers from a drawback: if something goes wrong during the copy, you have already deleted your backup and that may cause problems.  Use this method only as a last resort.
  • Mac OS X – If your computer is running Mac OS X, you have what is arguably the most integrated backup solution.  It’s called Time Machine, and it makes incremental backups of your hard drive as long as it’s turned on.  To fulfill my backup requirements though, you need to tweak the default settings, which are under Apple Menu -> System Preferences -> Time Machine.  There, you should select your external hard drive (which must before formatted as HFS+, or Mac Formatted, I believe) as the primary storage device.  When your device is not plugged in, there is a chance that Time Machine will warn you it is not operating.  This is fine, as long as you remember to plug in your hard drive at least once a week.  But don’t leave your backup hard drive always plugged in, as that defeats the first rule of backing up: keep your backup disk physically separate from the computer.
  • Linux – If you are running a general Linux-based OS on your computer, I have had a very good experience using Unison for my synchronization.  I know, I know, some of the hardcore guys will yell at me for not using RSync and not writing a cron script and not doing this or that command-line voodoo, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t trust myself enough with my own data.  I know Grsync exists for the more visually-inclined, but I have just had a bad experience using that.  Unison has just worked in my experience, though I do not think it is actively being developed at the moment.  It should be available in major distribution repos.
  • Windows – Man, I wish I could help more here.  Windows has had integrated backup solutions built into all versions since Windows XP (or maybe even earlier), but I have never personally used any of these.  For Windows 7, some information can be found at this Microsoft Resource Link, and for Windows XP, here.  The one caveat that I have is that on Windows, there is currently a much higher virus-infestation rate than on other operating systems.  When backing up, you may in fact be backing up a virus that is hiding in your personal data folders.  Make sure to run virus scans with up to date anti-virus software before performing a backup.  N.B. The reason I don’t offer advice for computers running Windows Vista is because upgrading to Windows 7supersedesyour need to backup your information.  I am serious, get off of Vista and on to 7.

Hope that helps!

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