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Eric Moore

Tips on Backing Up Your Computer

Eric Moore, CUGG

August 13, 2005

I am employed as a PC technician for the Weld Library District at Farr Library.  Recently a staff computer quit working.  When attempting to start, it halted with the message that no system disk was found.  After bringing it to our IT lab and checking it out, my co-worker determined that the drive was dead.  When starting up, the only sound it made was a dull thunking noise, as if a ping pong ball was bouncing around inside.  The BIOS did not recognize the drive nor did Windows.  The data on the drive is lost.

This incident only serves to reinforce a longstanding imperative:  Always back up your data!  Viruses and worms trash files and encrypt entire hard drives.  User error leads to deleted and overwritten files.  Hard drives, floppies, Zip disks, and recordable CDs and DVDs will eventually fail.  It is only a matter of time.  The best thing you can do is to be proactive by backing up your data regularly and not trusting in any storage media for more than a few years of archiving.

Unless you have a large quantity of files and/or space is at a premium, you probably do not need a fancy backup program with compression.  Instead, you can simply copy or burn your files to removable media such as CDs, DVDs, or Zip disks.  As a rule, text-oriented files such as word processing files and spreadsheets usually compress well.  Programs, pictures, videos, and sound files compress much less or not at all.  If you do need a backup program an adequate one is provided with Microsoft Windows.  You may need to install it your self by opening the Control Panel, double-clicking Add/Remove Programs, clicking Add/Remove Windows Components, and selecting the option for Microsoft Backup under system tools.
My backup strategy is build around the principle of redundancy.  Rather than trusting in one particular device or one type of storage, I use more than one.  I have two hard drives in my computer.  Each hard drive has a dedicated partition for storing my backups.  One partition has a size of 20 GB and can hold several months’ worth of backups.  The other has a size of only 1 GB and can hold the few most recent months’ worth of backups.  Whenever I create a new backup, it is first created on the 20 GB partition and then copied to the 1 GB partition.  This way, if one hard drive should fail, I will still be able to restore my data from the other hard drive.  In addition to storing my backups on my two hard drives, I also copy them to a DVD+RW disc.  This way I am prepared for the event of a major system meltdown such as a worm or virus attack that has taken out both hard drives.

The importance of your data and budget will be guiding factors as to how you prepare your backup strategy.  Having two hard drives to back up your data may not be necessary for you, but I do suggest using a hard drive partition for storing backups if for no other reason than that it is quicker and more convenient to restore at a later time (especially if you cannot find your removable media).  Remember that hard drives have shorter access times than removable media.  I also recommend using removable media or an external hard drive for storing copies of your backups.  If you don’t have the hard drive space on your computer, then you may consider keeping duplicate copies on separate disks, such as two CD-Rs, a CD-R and an external hard drive, or a CD-R and a Zip disk.  I do not recommend using floppy disks for long-term storage.  Floppy disks wear out much faster than other media and can “rot” while just sitting in a storage box.

After backing up your data, you should test the backup by restoring some or all of the files.  You can do this by restoring them to another folder rather than overwriting the original files.  This ensures that the media is sound and reliable if you should ever need to recover your data.  You should also store the removable media in a safe place.  At the very least, you should store the media away from heat, magnetic fields, and direct sunlight.  If possible, store it offsite as insurance against flood, fire, and other natural disasters.  You may consider storing the media in a safe deposit box, or leaving it in the care of a trusted friend or relative.

If you use optical media such as recordable CDs or DVDs, be aware that there is still an ongoing debate about their long-term reliability.  Estimates as to how long the data will last range from a few years to several decades.  The technology is so young that nobody seems to know with certainty.  The best caveat I can give you is to use such media with care.  In addition to protecting the discs from scratches, heat, and direct light, be sure to recopy the data to new discs every couple years or so.  In fact, you should also recopy data on magnetic disks, as they will also degrade over time.

It can be hard to discipline yourself to perform regular backups, but the practice will pay off in the long run.  If you tend to forget, then use a calendar program to remind you when it’s time to perform a backup.  However you go about it, back up your data before it’s too late!


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