A Practical Backup Solution

Computer backups are one of those things that everyone knows they need but nobody actually bothers to do on a regular basis. They are time-consuming and expensive, right? But how often do you rely on your computer, and how much is your data worth to you? People grudgingly pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to recover lost data when they don’t have a working backup, if that’s any indication. They spend untold hours and days reinstalling and recovering what they can and taking a loss on the rest, due to lack of planning. Let me preface this by saying I am a huge proponent of regular backups and having a plan, there is nothing like the feeling of knowing, not just hoping, that you can recover in case of a disaster. It’s part of the Tao of Backup (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Maybe 15-20 years ago you could get away with not having a proper backup, when your digital presence fit on a couple of floppy disks or a CD. I remember those days. But now we have photos, videos, software, documents, endless settings and customizations, we are talking gigabytes and terabytes that we accumulate over years. And it’s worth a lot to us, in fact it may be priceless. Music collections, photos of your family and friends, vacations you’ve been on, the only videos you have to remember a now lost family member… You can store a lot of this on the internet, but do you really want to trust companies to be good stewards of your data? That they will always be there when you need them?

Backup Media

Incidentally, storage is getting cheaper and cheaper, you can find 1-2TB hard drives (external or internal) for less than $100. That is more than enough backup space for most people. If you read this post a year from now, maybe we’ll have 1-2TB SSDs for the same price, who knows? If you only have a little data that you care about, a few GBs for instance, you could possibly get away with backing up to a high-quality trusted brand of USB flash drive. If you have a decent high-speed internet connection and are particularly trusting, you could use a “cloud based” backup service. If you have a tiny bit of data and don’t mind juggling discs, you might get away with storing it on CDs or DVDs (does anybody actually do that anymore?) The following are what I’ve learned and my preferences when it comes to backup media. First, don’t keep it connected to your computer. Connect it to make a backup, then remove it and keep it somewhere safe. Why? Let’s say you acquire a nasty piece of malware like cryptolocker or any other for that matter. Suddenly, your files are being damaged without your knowledge, possibly locked away beyond your control, do you suppose that will stop when it gets to your backup drive? If you think your AV software will catch that before it happens, think again. There are other reasons: say your computer gets hit by a power surge or the power supply dies, and suddenly all the sensitive electronics connected to it are toast. I wouldn’t say this is likely, but if it can happen, why leave yourself with no lifeline? Or say your house burns down or your office is flooded — maybe your data isn’t the primary concern there, but while you pick up the pieces, do you also want to be faced with the loss of potentially irreplaceable data? These things happen, remember a backup isn’t for when everything is going well, it’s for when “disaster” strikes. You might consider having a fire- and water-resistant safe and keeping your backup drive in there. There’s a little cost associated with that, but you’ll sleep better at night. This basically rules out an internal hard drive as a valid backup solution, unless you like getting into your computer case all the time (some people do), and besides they aren’t very rugged or designed for constant handling. You can get creative to avoid the obvious here (some people do) or you can keep it simple, and use a universal interface that any modern computer has: USB.  A USB hard drive is going to work on just about any desktop or laptop computer, and even if it’s USB 3.0, it will be compatible with slower old USB ports. Second, not all backup media are created equal. Trust me, the last thing you want to have happen is your backup drive failing when you need it most. I wouldn’t count on the cheapest hard drives. This is one of those things where you pay a little extra for quality, reliability and frankly, piece of mind. I have found that external hard drives are especially prone to failure due to cheap USB and RAID controllers or overheating. I don’t count on RAID, I have seen and experienced too many horror stories, if you want to really complicate your system and introduce a huge weak point into a backup plan, by all means involve a RAID. But just know you are at the mercy of the RAID controller and its firmware when you depend on it. Read reviews on sites like Amazon and Newegg, if a lot of people are complaining about the drive failing, do you really want to entrust your data to it? I like Western Digital brand hard drives, Seagate is an option that tends to be cheaper, but I’ve never known anyone to be especially happy with them. Often with external drives, you won’t know who made the drive inside the branded enclosure, so it’s more of a risk, they may even change them over time. That’s why researching the (recent) experiences of others is so important. If it feels cheap, it probably is. My backup drive is a solid piece of polished metal that stays cool to the touch, not a piece of plastic that you could cook eggs on halfway through your backup. Third, like storage generally, your backup media will never be big enough or fast enough. This is one of those times where you get more space than you ever think to need, with the fastest interface your system supports. If it’s a 3TB hard drive, great, 5TB even better! I have never heard anyone, ever complain about having too much backup space. On the contrary, if you don’t have large enough backup media, what will you keep and what will you throw out? Do you only want a single backup at one point in time, or would you like backups from weeks and months past? What has worked extremely well for me is a 3TB USB 3.0 external hard drive. It cost about $250 when I bought it years ago, that’s a fortune right? For data that I have literally built up over decades and rely on every day? Some people will say you don’t need a USB 3.0 interface for a hard drive, they aren’t nearly as fast as SSDs and that is correct, but all I can say is mine’s the fastest external hard drive I’ve ever used by a long shot and I’m not going to tamper with a winning system. I have about 1.5TB to back up across 4 hard drives, and this works well enough with my approach. I would avoid multi-port drives that claim eSATA, USB, even Firewire support. Choose the one you need and get that instead of paying for a cheap device that claims to do everything.

Backup Software

The next problem you encounter when creating a backup solution, maybe even the biggest problem, is what backup software to use. Backing up a computer has been a thing for what, 60 years? Yet there are surprisingly few intuitive, powerful, affordable backup softwares. Not to say there is a lack of choices. You could spend days and weeks sifting through all the possibilities. Fortunately you don’t have to, because I already have, and here are my conclusions. First, backup software should be able to – wait for it – restore its backups! I mean properly restore them, so you system ends up in the same state it was in at the time of the backup. Anything less is just a pain and in the worst case, entirely useless. I have tried “backup” software that contained no restore functionality whatsoever. Really?! Useless, waste of time. And it should be able to validate successful backups; if it writes garbage or the drive’s data gets corrupted, guess what? You have no backup. Secondly, you need backup software that is more than copying files. Because it’s not going to work. You might think it works, but some files are difficult to copy, you won’t find out about this until you read the logs or attempt to restore your backup and it doesn’t actually work. The worst by far is software that literally just dumps the files on the backup media and leaves you to figure out what to do with them. How is that going to help you when Windows fails to load (very likely)? Or your system is infected with all kinds of nastyware, I guess you’ll want to reinstall Windows (do you have your install or restore disc?) and manually copy files one-by-one until you get your system approximately back to where it was. Another reason why that doesn’t work: it takes too darn long! If a backup takes 3 days to complete, how often are you going to run that backup? Once a month, once a year? What if it took 3 hours instead? Or 30 minutes? A good backup won’t disrupt your work and it won’t take excessively long. In my experience, one of the slowest ways to transfer files is with Windows explorer, look for a backup software that does something more clever. The third thing you need from your backup software is the option for incremental and differential backups. You may not use them, maybe you make only full backups because they are more reliable. But these options can be huge time savers if you want frequent backups. Incremental backups only store the changed files since the last incremental backup, so you end up with a sort of chain of backups over time. Differential backups are similar, but changed files since the last full backup. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach, but my experience is that people are more likely to do regular backups if they are quick. That has certainly been true for me, and that’s why I prefer incremental backups – with a caveat. Some software claims to offer incremental backup, but all it really does is copy modified files to a new folder on the backup drive. What happens if you deleted or renamed files and folders meanwhile? Good software will keep track of that too, it’s part of restoring your system to its former state. The fourth thing backup software should do is manage old backups. Windows’ own backup software is a good example of what you don’t want. You don’t want software that stupidly dumps backups somewhere until it runs out of space, then fails until YOU fix the problem. This problem is foreseeable, a natural consequence of the backup process, the software should be able to handle it, intelligently. At this point, we’ve really sorted the wheat from the chaff, because most “backup” software can’t even do half of those basic things competently, let alone what is also nice to have. I don’t care how much it costs, how famous the company is, or how many super smart programmers worked on it – they fail to meet those basic requirements in some way(s). It’s not a simple problem, but it has been solved rather well, actually. And what is nice to have? The ability to create a rescue CD/DVD, for when (not if) Windows fails to boot anymore. If it’s especially good, it will have an installer built in so you can do a new install with all your files from the backup. That’s painless. How about an easy-to-use interface? Do you want to be buried by dozens of obscure settings when configuring a backup? I mean, aren’t there a handful of choices that most people are going to make, why should it be more complicated? At the same time, it shouldn’t oversimplify the process. If the software has two buttons “backup” and “restore”, you might just find yourself wishing you had more control over the process. Let me add another, more obvious thing backup software should do: work with the backup media you’ve chosen. Some don’t, and that’s kind of a problem isn’t it? You know that shiny new multi-TB external hard drive you’ve chosen? Did you know it’s a 4k sector drive (probably), and thus not fully supported by Microsoft until Windows 8? If you’re using Windows 7 or earlier, and your backup software is relying on Windows for imaging… uh-oh, you’re out of luck. Clearly MS wants you to update to Windows 8, and you can always do that, if you prefer… Now I’ll cut to the chase, the best backup software I have ever used, free or paid, on any OS, is Macrium Reflect. It just works. It’s the fastest backup software I have seen, incredibly polished and contains all the above features. I like open source and free software as much as the next guy, but sometimes a commercial solution has everything you want, and if you’re on Windows, this is your solution. I have never had a single error from Reflect, not a single crash or failure in the software in years of use. Possibly the only software I have used where I can say that. It can back up my entire system, all 1.5TB of data, to an external 4k sector USB 3.0 hard drive in a matter of hours. Then it does daily incremental backups that typically take 15 minutes or less. Can you imagine having a backup of your entire system every day? So you can go back and get a file that was accidentally deleted or corrupted last week or last month? They update the software frequently, so you’re not stuck using a buggy old unsupported version. Their new version 6.0 includes the backup management feature, so you can choose exactly how long to keep old backups. I haven’t had it long enough to test that, but it was easy to set up. If it’s anything like v5.0, it will work great. Another thing that sets Reflect apart is how easy the backup images are to use. They are files you can double-click in Windows explorer and mount as a virtual drive. In seconds, all your files are there, exactly as they were when the backup was made. I have used this many times to recover a file that was corrupted or deleted without needing a full restore. It’s super convenient. Macrium offers a free edition that gives you a taste of the experience, it may even be enough for you needs. I was so pleased with that and the full trial, that I had absolutely no problem paying like $60 for the professional version to support them and get additional features. You can pay 10x that much and end up with worse software. You can spend days and weeks looking at the alternatives, hours trying to configure a backup software, or you can try this one and be ready in minutes. I haven’t tried Reflect for business/server use, only home use, but I would have no problem trying the server version. Windows Server Backup is pretty awful and limited (only lets you schedule a single backup through its UI, unreliable management of old backups, to name a few of its shortcomings), a lot like the consumer version of Windows backup.

Conclusion

There you have it, my thoughts on why backups are important and some suggestions of what you need to make them work. Backups are really not hard and they aren’t prohibitively expensive, if you know what to do. I’ve known people who over-complicate this with cleverness, but I really prefer to keep things simple and spend my time thinking about and working on things other than backups.

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