The Number One Rule of Computing

The Number One Rule of Computing: Back it up! (imho)

target audience: home user

If you are reading this blog, then you probably live in a world full of data. Data that you depend on, for work, finances, travel, entertainment, and more. Without this data you day-to-day life would be turned on end. And yet, this data along with the technology that reads it can be fickle and fragile. I think most everyone has at some point tasted the bitterness of failure from forgetting to save a document. Many people have hung their heads in defeat as critical hardware went to an early grave. And a few people have even suffered theft, fire, or floods. Murphy can visit in many forms, so it is critical that we back-up all of our important data. It is not my intent to discuss specific products, or deliver a complete how-to (look for future articles) but rather to explain several varieties of back-up. Read on to find out the basics of back-up solutions for the home PC.

On-site Back-up

When I discuss back-up solutions with my customers, I break them down into two basic categories: on-site and off-site. On-site back-up is where the data is on a device that resides at the same location as your computer (e.g. an external hard drive). Off-site would be where your data is in a different physical location (more on that later). So which is best? Well, they both have their positives and negatives. I actually use and recommend a combination of both. Let’s take a closer look at on-site back-up options.

On-site back-up is quick and convenient, but it is putting all your data in one basket should a major disaster occur. There are myriad devices and programs to execute an on-site back-up. For a home user you should look for an external hard drive, or perhaps a home server or  Network Attached Storage device (NAS). By far the easiest option for an average home user would be a simple external drive with the option to automatically back up your files.  These drives are a great way to back-up files, but generally aren’t configured to back up your operating system or programs. You can however, use imaging software to make an exact copy of your hard drive. If you have certain versions of Windows you may not need to by 3rd party software (see below).

If you already have an extra hard drive (preferably in an external case) Windows actually has a few built-in options for back-up. For Windows XP you have NTbackup.exe which is okay for backing up your documents. The Business and Ultimate versions of Vista and Windows 7 have the most robust back-up utilities. Vista has “Complete PC Back-up” and Windows 7 has System Image. These utilities create an image similar to a virtual machine and can be used to not only restore your files, but your windows installation and programs. I have heard from a Microsoft MVP that this image is flexible enough that it can restore your system on different hardware. If you have an extra system handy, your down-time could be rather small.

Windows 7 System Image & Vista's Complete PC

Windows 7 System Image

The downside to these images is that they aren’t incremental, and in their raw state, they can’t be dug into for individual files. Because of this it is a good idea to schedule  incremental back-ups with Windows normal back-up utility or use 3rd party software/hardware.

Standard Back-up

Windows 7 Back-up (not a system image)

One more feature built into Vista and Windows 7 is Shadow Copy. It keeps tracks of multiple versions of documents. That is to say if you made several changes to a Word Document and recently saved it 5 times, your “Documents” folder would show the most recently saved version, but shadow copy would give you access to the other 4. It’s as easy as right-clicking and selecting “Restore Previous Versions.” If you are running Vista Home or Home Premium you will not see this program, but you can download Shadow Copy Explorer to access older versions of files.

I should also comment on one option that is commonly talked about, but is not generally helpful for a home user. That is RAID. RAID is not a back-up solution… especially not for the average home user. There are many configuration of RAID, but the basic idea is to create parity data so that a single drive failure won’t take down a system. It was really designed for servers where technicians are constantly monitoring everything, and can quickly troubleshoot the system and replace the faulty drive (they would have many replacement drives on-hand). In a home computer it is very likely that a virus or bad power supply, etc. could ruin subsequent drives before you could replace the bad one. Furthermore, RAID itself doesn’t protect against changes to the data. So if you or a virus overwrites the data, it will be overwritten on all drives.

Offsite Back-up

Any of the above solutions are worthless if you suffer theft, a massive power surge,  or natural disaster. These events are catastrophic enough to wipe out all your hardware simultaneously. Even if you lock an external drive in a fire proof safe (a good idea especially for small businesses) it is still a mechanical device that can fail. The solution to these concerns is off-site back-up. There is a lot of buzz about moving to “the cloud.” That is having all your data off on some server somewhere, that you can then access from any secure machine. This has its obvious advantages should your computer die, but it also raises security concerns. Furthermore, downloading your data for a recovery can take a very long time depending on the speed of your internet connection. Also, the best of these services have a recurring fee. But first, lets check out two free options.

If you have, or sign up for a free Microsoft Live account you can store up to 25GB of file on Skydrive. This it a generous amount of data, but this interface is a bit cludgy and you have to download 1 file at a time rather than having direct access to them. A free program such as Gladinet can help you access your sky drive by treating it as a networked drive. A more convenient alternative is Dropbox . Dropbox uploads all the files in its folder and  automatically syncs this folder between PCs. Dropbox allows you to upload up to 2GB for free. Because it is a regular windows folder you aren’t restricted to any specific file type. You run portable apps, from it, encrypt it, or do a number of amazing things with it. My favorite hack it to combine it with KeePass, to provide a secure mobile password keeper. You can also expand the size of Dropbox by referring other people, or paying a recurring fee.

So, you want a secure automated off-site back-up that can span multiple folders and back up many gigabytes of data? Then your should try Carbonite or Mozy. These services can be used to back-up an unlimited amount of data of any type. They work by putting a small program on your computer that encrypts your files and then uploads it to their servers. The servers implement multiple levels of redundancy to ensure the safety of your data. As part of my business I offer free trials and sell licenses to many customers, and they really like it. (You can get a free trial here: ). Not only do these programs allow you to downloaded all your backed up files should disaster strike, but they also let you view and download files individually. This is great if you are on the go a lot and need to access something from a laptop, say a presentation or tax documents, but its at home on the Desktop running Carbonite. It’s also great when someone accidentally deletes or overwrites a file.

Carbonite and Mozy offer great off-site back-up options.

Off-site back-up Protects you from catastrophic disasters.

There are two downsides to these services. The first is psychological: you have to trust someone else with your data and balance that against threat of an on-site disaster. As for me, I gladly choose off-site. The second problem is that these services rely on an internet connection… a fast internet connection. If you have dial-up or slow DSL you’re pretty much out of luck. Furthermore, when the worst happens, you will need to find someplace to connect to the internet (not that big of a deal) and then you will have to wait while everything downloads (big deal). How long this takes will obviously depend on how much data you have. The good news is that you can grab individual files that you need most through their web interface. Overall restoration through downloading will be much slower than a simple external hard drive. Because of this, it’s not a bad idea to actually implement both types of back-up solutions: an external drive for speed and an off-site subscription service in case the really bad stuff happens.


Before I wrap this article up there are a few more points I would like to hit on. Most importantly, once you implement a back-up solution be sure to test it. It is possible, and terribly tragic, that you could set up a back-up solution only to find out that the external hard drive was formatted wrong, or you had the wrong folder selected for automatic back up, or whatever. You want to find out now that something is wrong, not after you lost your data. I can’t stress this enough. If you have a back-up plan but have never tested it you only have a false sense of security. Secondly, if the worse does happen and you lose your data without a back-up, your average tech might not be able to recover it… in fact we could make it worse. Many of us have great software tools for recovering deleted files or fixing a boot record. But if a hard drive is physically damaged simply turning it on can cause further damage. If you value the data on your dead hard drive at hundreds or thousands of dollars, they you need a specialist with all the right tools.

Thank you for reading this article. I really hope that it has encouraged you to back-up your data. I’m sure you’ve been told to, or thought about it many times, and now it the time to actually do it. Use my above guidelines to choose a solution that’s right for you. If you need help with the technical aspect of implementing a back-up solution call your local PC tech. They will be more than glad to help you. I also plan on posting some more in-depth how-tos for specific solutions. If you have any questions or comments post them right here. I will be glad answer.

– Be safe out there.


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