How To Back Up Your Computer
Once you've finished building your computer, you have to face the sad fact that just like anything else, computers do break down from time to time. Hardware can fail, software can crash, and viruses and other malware can infect your system. Sometimes these problems can be repaired without any loss of your data, but sometimes they can't.
That's why one of the first things you should do after your build is finished is to create a backup solution. I recommend that you make both System Backups and Online Data backups, which we'll talk about further down the page. For a more complete (and funny) discussion about computer backup solutions, I suggest you have a talk with the Backup Nut.
Every operating system I know of comes with some sort of local backup program, and these usually work well enough for most folks. In order to recover your system using drive images created by these programs, you usually either have to reinstall a basic version of the system or boot to an optical disk.
Usually, the OS setup disk can also be used to restore a backed-up image. There also are zillions of free backup programs available for download from sites like Sourceforge, as well as a bunch of inexpensive commercial backup programs.
Computer Backup Basics
Before we go on, there are a few basics that you need to know about backup. Let's look at the lingo first.
The backup source refers to the thing you're backup up. This can be an entire machine, a hard drive, a partition, a folder or directory, or even a single file. Most often, though, it refers to a partition of a hard drive (such as the C:\ drive on a Windows machine) or a folder (such as C:\Users\your_stuff) for data backups, or an entire hard drive when making an image or clone.
A backup set refers to the collection of stuff that you have elected to back up when doing a data backup. This usually would consist of your documents, favorites, email, desktop, and certain system settings.
The target or destination refers to the place where you're sending your backup to be saved. This can be another hard drive (internal or external), an optical drive like a DVD-R, a tape drive, a directory on another machine on your network, or a server located somewhere else when doing online backup.
Local backup means a backup stored someplace where you can actually touch it, such as on a hard drive in your room. It can also mean a backup stored on another computer on your local network.
Network or remote backup means backup to a machine that's somewhere else, such as an online backup company's server. It can also mean a backup stored on another computer on your local network.
Versioning refers to the possibility of storing more than one version of your backup data, usually based on the date that it was backed up. Versioning is possible when using hard drive imaging (Which I talk about a bit down the page) or when using most data backup programs.
FTP, WebDAV, HTTP, HTTPS, and rSYNC are some of the popular protocols used to actually send the files from the source to the target.
Compression is a way to combine files into a single file, and (usually) make the single file smaller than the files it contains. Some popular compression formats include ZIP (the most popular for Windows),as well as RAR, TAR, 7-ZIP, and many others. Compressed files can also be password-protected and/or encrypted.
Encryption is a way of scrambling up the data so it can't be read while in transit or by anyone who doesn't possess the password or key. It's essential for online backups, and not a bad idea for local backups (someone could steal your backup drive, after all). But it does add another step to the recovery process because you have to decrypt the backup; and if you lose the password or key, your backup will be useless.
Types of Computer Backups
There are several different kinds of computer backups, but most of them fall into one of two categories: System Backups or Data Backups. Let's spend a few moments looking at both kinds of backups.
System backups, as you may have already guessed being the smart geek that you are, back up your entire system, including the operating system, programs, documents, and any other user data. Having a system backup means that if your computer crashes, you can be up and running again in a relatively short time.
System backups are critical if you use your computer for school or work because they minimize downtime. They're also very important if you have a lot of programs installed on your computer -- especially games or other big programs that take a long time to install or that save your user information (past and current games and so forth) on the drive itself. With a system backup, everything will be restored exactly as it was when the backup was made so you don't have to reinstall all that stuff and restore your user data. The two most common methods of making system backups are hard drive imaging and hard drive cloning. Let's look at the two.
Hard Drive Imaging creates a compressed image of your hard drive. In the event of a crash, the compressed image is decompressed back on to your computer's hard drive, usually by booting to an optical disk provided by the software vendor that contains the restore program.
Imaging programs can usually make incremental or differential backups, which save time between full backups. The way this works is that the first backup image is a complete picture of your hard drive, which can take a lot of time to create. But after that first image is made, future backups will take less time because they only contain the stuff that's changed. This saves time, but more importantly, it allows you to restore your computer to a point prior to the most recent partial backup.
Now why, you ask, would you want to do that? Well, you might discover that your most recent backup had a virus on it. Or maybe you you deleted some information or uninstalled a program prior to your most recent backup, and now you want it back. Either incremental or differential backups give you a way to go back in time and do that: You simply choose a backup point prior to the most recent one. But there's a difference between how incremental and differential backups do this.
Incremental backups only save the data that changed since the last backup, whether the previous backup was a full backup or an incremental backup. This means that incremental backups tend to be very small most of the time, so they're usually very fast. Unless you installed new software or did a lot of updates since the last backup, an incremental backup usually takes only a few minutes.
On the down side, when using an incremental backup set to restore your system, you first have to restore the full backup, and then every incremental backup made since the last full backup, in order, up to the most recent one (or the one you want, if you want to restore to a point prior to the most recent backup). Because of this, it's a good idea to make full backups pretty often -- once a week is a popular option -- and make incremental backups in between. This reduces the number of incremental backups you'll have to restore in the event of a crash.
Differential backups only save the data that changed since the last full backup. This means that differential backups are bigger than incremental backups, take up more space on the backup device, and take longer to create. But on the positive side, when restoring from a differential backup, you only have to restore the last full backup and the most recent differential backup (or the one you want, if you're restoring to a point prior to the most recent backup).
Important: Some imaging programs can be configured to overwrite the previous incremental backup with the new one every time it runs, in order to save space on the backup drive or target. This may seem like a good idea, but it will make it impossible to restore to a point prior to the most recent backup if you do it this way. That reduces your option in the event of a crash, so unless you absolutely have to, I recommend that you not do it that way.
Hard Drive Cloning is the process of copying a drive exactly how it is, including the boot sector, so that a bootable copy of the source drive is created on the target drive. The idea here is that if the system drive crashes or becomes unbootable or unusable, you just take the clone and pop it in the machine, and you're back in business. (Of course, the clone will only be as current as the most recent time it was created or updated.)
To make cloning work, the target drive has to have the same kind of interface as the source drive (for example, SATA), should be the same form factor as the source drive (that is, a 3.5 inch desktop drive should be copied to another 3.5 inch desktop drive), and should have at least as much capacity as the source drive. If you decide to clone to an external drive, the drive that's inside the enclosure should meet these requirements, so if you need to use it you can just pop it out and swap it into your machine.
Cloning has some advantages over imaging. The biggest advantage is that there's nothing to decompress. You just pop the clone drive into the machine, boot up, and that's that. It reduces downtime to the time it takes you to physically swap the drive, which usually is only a few minutes for skilled geeks like us.
Cloning also has a few disadvantages, however. One is that it's impossible to create a differential or incremental backup using a clone, so you lose the option of restoring to a previous point before the backup was made. Another disadvantage is that certain kinds of hardware failures could cause both the source and the destination drives to crash, especially if they're both internal drives.
Data backups back up your data, which usually includes your documents, the stuff you stash on your desktop, your email, your favorites, certain system settings, and other stuff that's unique to you. On Windows machines, this usually includes most of the stuff in your profile under C:\Users; on Linux machines, it usually includes most of the stuff in your /home directory. In any case, it usually excludes temp files and other basically useless garbage, in order to save space. The stuff you choose to back up is referred to as the backup set.
Data backups can be sent to a wide variety of destinations or targets. Some of the more popular local destinations include external hard drives, a folder or directory on another computer in your local network, or optical drives like DVDs (although most users would have to use a whole bunch of DVDs because of their limited space), or tape drives (especially if you happen to be and old fart who bought a zillion tapes when they were on sale 13 years ago, and you're too cheap to throw them away).
You can also do data backups to a second internal hard drive on the same computer, but then you run a higher risk of the second drive becoming infected by a virus, or of a hardware failure causing both drives to crash at the same time. If you choose to back up to a second hard drive, you're better of using an external hard drive and disconnecting it between backups.
Local backups have several advantages, the biggest of which is that it's right there in your room or office when you need it. But there also are several disadvantages to local backups. For example, some crook can break into your crib and steal the backup drive; or God forbid, it could be destroyed in a fire. That's why I like the next backup destination we're going to talk about: online backup.
Now that most people have access to high-speed Internet, online backup is becoming a popular backup solution. It's mainly used for data backups. (Although it's also possible to use online backup to store drive images, the costs would be pretty high because of the size of the images.)
There are many online backup companies out there to choose from, but my personal favorite is Backblaze. They provide affordable, reliable, unlimited storage that's easy-to use. But aside from that, I really, truly like the company. The people who run it are geek heroes. Here's one example why.
In 20122, massive floods devastated Thailand and wiped out the world's biggest source of hard drives. As you might imagine, a company like Backblaze goes through a lot of hard drives; so the overnight unavailability of hard drives threatened their survival. Even when Backblaze could find hard drives at all, they were selling for as much as 600 percent of their normal prices. This obviously was a big problem for a company like Backblaze, which promises unlimited storage to its users.
Most companies would either have gone out of business or raised their prices. But nor Backblaze. What they did was a geek's dream solution: They enlisted an army of volunteers to buy 3TB external hard drives from retail outlets like Best Buy, Costco, and Fry's -- which for some reason, were still selling for their pre-flood prices. They then "shucked" the enclosures and used the drives that were inside of them. That's what I call thinking out of the box -- literally.
There's a lot more to the story, such as how Backblaze's army of buyers got banned from Costco, and the creative ways that they kept getting around the bans. You can read more about it here. But what it means to me is that Backblaze is run by creative thinkers who aren't afraid to do whatever it takes to keep their promises to their users.
But don't take my word for it. Because you're a visitor to this site, Backblaze will let you try their award-winning service for free. Just click here to sign up for your free trial of Backblaze online backup.
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