Backups – what are they good for? A quick guide on keeping data safe

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Data is vital. Photos, documents, projects, videos, music, emails, contacts, programs and settings are all types of data that we keep and often rely on in a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, it is a known fact that 100% of data storage systems will fail, and usually do so spontaneously, without too much warning. Here’s an example of a failed hard drive with over 10 years worth of lost business data looks like. And no, that groove in the middle isn’t supposed to be there.

Whilst it’s no trouble to replace hardware, replacing data from a disk like the one above is just not possible. It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to take responsibility and make a backup of your data, no matter of what type of user you may be. Still not convinced? Here are some situations where having backups can save your bacon: 

  • Computer theft
  • Hardware failure
  • Software error or malfunction
  • Failed updates
  • Virus and malware infection
  • Malicious data ransom
  • User error and accidental deletions

The best part about all this doom and gloom is that once you understand the fundamentals of computer backups, having a decent backup system is cheap, easy and painless. In fact, once it’s setup you can usually forget about it and all you have to do is just check on it every once in a while.

The Golden Rule of Backups

Whenever you set out to make a backup, consider the following question:

“Is there a copy of my most recent version of my critically important data in a separate storage location?”

This is a question you should always keep in mind when setting up a backup system. If the answer is “no”, you have some work to do. Notice how we also use the words “most recent”. All too often people set up a backup but fail to consider that their data changes every day and is spread across several storage locations. You should have a system that takes care of this and ensure that ALL your data is backed up on a regular and consistent basis. If the data is VERY important, then this should be taken one step further and your data should be regularly moved to a completely different physical location to protect against fire or theft.

Planning your Backup

If you have recently purchased or had your computer repaired by Ninderry Computers, we may already setup a basic backup system for you. See here for more details. But just like any disaster, whether it be a devastating cyclone that takes out your house or your cat 3 year old nephew using your laptop as a hammer, you should have and understand a plan so that you are prepared and know exactly what to do when (not if!) disaster strikes. Planning out what needs to be backed up doesn’t take much, but is a step you should consciously consider. Proper planning of backups will save you a lot of time, data and tears. Lets look at the following example:

“Ben runs a small photography business. He works from home so he uses his computer for both personal and business use. He has two internal disk drives on his computer – a 60GB boot drive and a 640GB data drive. His computer’s operating system, software (which took hours to setup) and business documents are stored on his 60GB drive, whilst his music, movies, temporary files and photographs are stored on his 640GB data drive.”

From this example, we can come to two conclusions. Firstly it is fair to say that the entire 60GB boot drive should be backed up as ALL of the data is important. Loss of the data on this disk would be extremely disruptive for Ben.

As for the 640GB data drive, Ben must make a choice as to what needs to be backed up. Firstly, all irreplaceable data (such as photographs) should definitely be backed up. As for Ben’s music, movies and temporary files, Ben must consider the following statement:

“If all this data were to disappear right now, would my work and personal life be affected and if so, what sort of cost (both temporal and financial) would be incurred to place myself back in a position before the data was lost?”

If the data being lost does not affect you at all, then it’s fair enough to say that you don’t need to back that data up. However if the loss of the data does affect you but it is so small that it outweighs the effort of making a backup, (eg. something that can easily be re-downloaded, such as music from iTunes) then you could probably skip backing up that data if you have to. Whilst it’s ideal to back up EVERYTHING, sometimes the effort and storage space required isn’t worth it, however backing up the important stuff always is. For most people though, you will at least want to backup your entire operating system ( C: )drive.

Determining Storage Requirements

Now that we have an idea WHAT we need to backup, now it’s a good idea to work out how much storage we need to allow our backups to happen reliably. Our rule for the absolute minimum recommended for backups to work on a consistent basis is have at least TWICE as much storage available for backups than what is actually being used. Ideally, you want four times the storage to allow for incremental backups to occur and allow for some growth of data requirements. To work out how much storage we need, we can follow on from the example in the section above and check how much storage is currently being consumed on our disks. We can do that by opening File Explorer and taking a look at our storage devices.

By right clicking on either of these disks, we can right click on any of these disks, click “properties” and find out how much storage is consumed.

Here we can see a basic overview of the data consumption of an entire disk. Pay particular attention to the “File System” type. You will need it to be formatted as NTFS on your backup disks as the old FAT32 format doesn’t accept file sizes greater than 4GB. If you are using the old FAT32 format, you will need to reformat it.

If you want a more specific breakdown of data consumption on a disk (perhaps you’re only interested in backing up certain parts of your disk) you can also open the disk, select multiple folders and then right click and select “properties”.

Windows will then give you an overview of the storage consumed for those folders you have selected.

As you can see from this example, our 60GB Boot drive has around 24GB of used storage and the 640GB Data drive has around 217GB of data that needs to be backed up. As a minimum, we would want 500GB storage to backup this computer reliably, but 1Tb or more would be ideal.

Storage Types

Now that you know roughly how much storage you should have for your backups, you should then determine what type of storage system you are going to use. There are two general types of storage – persistent storage and removable storage. Persistent storage refers to a storage medium such as a hard drive or networked storage location which is connected and available at all times. Removable storage on the other hand refers to a storage device which is removable and is not connected to a computer at all times, such as an external hard drive. Each have implications on how your backups are run. Beyond that though, there are various specific types of storage to consider, such as CD, DVDs, USB flash drives external hard drives. We’ve detailed the pros and cons of each these in the following table.

It goes without saying that CDs, DVDs and USB flash drives should NOT be used for backups. They’re just too small and annoying to be suitable for storage backups and are not worth your time. Online backups can work as a supplementary system for small files (more on that here) but are unsuitable for most Australian internet connections. This leaves you with using some form of external, internal or network attached storage.

So what to choose?

There are a range of factors to consider when choosing a backup system. They come down to availability, accessibility, complexity, redundancy, cost and storage requirements. Without getting into too much detail, networked storage systems are often best (especially if you have multiple computers) if budget allows, and an internal hard drive (or permanently connected external hard drive) usually comes second. Since these storage systems are always available your backup systems can be run on a time schedule and be completely automated. This means you don’t need to remember to run your backups – they just happen.

Understandably though, this isn’t going to work for everyone. If your main computer is a laptop which travels a lot with no ability to expand storage internally (you can replace the DVD drive with a hard drive if needed – talk to us), you may have to opt for an external hard drive.

Unfortunately, having a backup system on disconnected or removable media does mean that you have to remember to run your backups manually. This means you need to discipline yourself to run a backup on a regular basis (yes, that means adding a reminder to your electronic calendar). If you are having difficulty picking or getting your hands on a storage system for your backups, talk to us and we can help.