Essential Tasks – Computer Backup

When using a computer everyone generates data – a lot of it.  Pictures, videos, documents, and game save files are a few examples of the information people create.  If a computer (including phones and tablets) is lost, stolen, infected, or damaged this data is gone.  The only protection for loss is to use a backup system so data can be recovered in the event of a disaster.  Some purchased software can only be downloaded for a short time so it is important to back up programs and the operating system as well as data.

There are many ways data can be backed up but, the methods fit in two primary categories: local storage and web storage.  Each routine has advantages and disadvantages.  Selecting a method to back up your computer system should fit in your workflow.  Automatic backups allow you to set up your system and let things operate on their own.  Manual backup methods require regular attention to keep things up to date and forgetting to run a backup can lead to some data loss. 

This article pertains to home backups.  Workplace backups should be handled by the technology administrator and office policies. A few products are mentioned as examples.  Evaluate any services before using and/or purchasing a solution.  These products are not recommendations, simply a starting point for research into a solution that fits the workflow being used.

Local Backups

A local backup is completed by storing files on media at your home or home office.  The most common way to perform a local backup is to use either a USB storage device or a NAS (network attached storage).  A USB drive can often be less expensive than a NAS.

If using a USB storage device I would recommend getting a USB 3 external hard disk drive (HDD) or solid state drive (SSD).  Typically these device will have a better lifespan and more storage capacity than a flash drive/thumb drive/usb stick.  In many cases a manufacturer such as Western Digital or Seagate will provide a backup software to use with their own USB drives.  This can lock you into their brand for file backup and restores which can be a disadvantage.  Most of these programs will only read their own backup file format. 

Using a utility built into Windows called robocopy or a download tool called RichCopy can eliminate the proprietary backup format.  Robocopy is a command line tool but  Robocopy GUI has been developed to make using robocopy easier.  Both of these tools are typically a manual backup but you can use Windows scheduled tasks to automate the process.

Don’t store the backup copy of the files in the same place as the original files (the computer) if possible.  A disaster could impact both the computer and the backup at the same time.  This type of disaster could be a flood/burst pipe, lighting strike, or theft.  After making the backup you can store the drive off site – at a family members house or your office reducing the risk of both copies be damaged at the same time.  If the data is critical, family photos for example, you could make two copies.  One copy can be updated at home while the other is stored offsite.  Rotate the drives to update files and keep the files on both drive up to date.

Always be careful when moving a USB drive or NAS.  If the device is dropped it could be damaged causing the backed up data to be useless.

Cloud Backups

Cloud backups save your data on the Internet at a data center somewhere.  Most tablets and phone will store data online automatically providing an automated backup that can be restored to a new device easily; Android and iOS have their own systems for this backup.  A computer often requires a client software to be installed to back up files to the cloud.

Several services for backup are offered by companies in the consumer space.  These include Google Backup and Sync, Microsoft One Drive, and iCloud.  In these systems files are stored on the computers local drive and in the cloud.  All of these products require installing the client software which is often quick or bundled with your operating system.  Saving files in the correct folder allow them to get synchronized to the cloud based service fairly quickly.  Some programs must be closed before the documents can be synced.  There are two great advantages to these systems.  The backup, or sync, is automatic and the files can be access on multiple computers.  The primary disadvantage to these services is that files that get corrupted will sync automatically and corrupt the online version as well.  These services are not true backups because of this disadvantage but are very low cost and provide at least some protection.

There are services that site between professional products and the consumer products.  These prosumer products include services like iDrive and Carbonite.  These products must be installed on a computer and then told what should be backed up.  These are true backup solutions that run automatically and can provide version revisions.  This will allow restoring a file from an old copy if it get corrupt or saved over by accident.  Plans for individuals can be very competitive with the consumer focused services.