A Zillion Ways To Back Up Your Computer

A really, really big list of ways to back up your hard drive.

Ok, maybe not a zillion and I am not sure how many a zillion ways to back up your computer would be anyways.I’m not even sure zillion is a real number. This is a whole lot of different ways and I’ll let you know the advantages and disadvantages of each method of backing up your hard drive and computer. Some methods of backing up your hard drive are both practically neccesary for a buisiness and unpractical for most home computer users.

I’ve also got three videos to accompany this post.

Ok, here’s maybe not a zillion ways to back up your hard drive:

Flash drives and thumbdrives.

[mc src=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVK6paVDdxQ” type=”youtube”]A Zillion Ways to Backup Your Computer Part 1[/mc]

USB Flash Drives
USB Flash Drives

While a thumb drive can be used as a backup, they don’t hold the amount of memory that you are going to need to backup a lot of files. Although I have heard of people using digital camera memory cards like “digital film” , keeping the original photos on the card and continually buying new cards, this can be expensive. My guess is a person doing this is wondering why digital cameras are supposed to be better than film. There is a question of how long flash memory will retain information. My initial search did not turn up any studies showing how long data saved to flash memory will last. What I do know is that flash drives do wear out from use. If you write or save data repeatedly, it will eventually start to have errors. Light use won’t show this but heavy users have reported drives going bad over time. They are physically very durable though.

A new use of flash memory is Solid State Drives used to replace the hard drive in a computer.

While expensive, these drives are very fast. The lack of moving parts makes their use in laptops and notebooks an advantage in durability. While increased speed and durability are their advantage just like other forms of flash memory they are expensive and physically wear out from use. For these reasons, I don’t think solid state drives (SSD’s) are a good choice for backup use just like a regular flash drive. In time, that will change as eventually this may become the standard means of data storage for computers.

Burning to CD or DVD.

A blank DVD
DVD’s can keep important data safe for long periods of time

I’m going to just talk about burning to DVD since unless you plan to play music in a CD player or need to be compatable with a computer that still does not have a DVD player or burner, CD’s do not hold very much data by today’ s standards. Even DVD’s won’t hold much, especially with today’s ever increasing digital camera image sizes. And if you plan to back up an entire 500 Gb drive it could take you 100 DVD’s. That’s a lot of work and time. This makes trying to save large amounts of data impractical.

Where DVD’s have an advantage is in long term storage. Quality DVD’s can last 100 years and that makes it a great way to save your digital photos. You can either burn all the images from a memory card right to DVD or just save the important ones for long term safety. For extra safety, a second copy in case of disk failure or a scratch will give extra peace of mind for your most important memories. If you have important digital photos or some really important documents you want to keep around for nearly forever, burning copies of the digital files to DVD may be worth the time and DVD’s are cheap now.

Blueray DVD burners will have a larger capacity per disk. That will help with organizing the large number of disks you will have laying around. At this time, Blueray burners and recordable disks are expensive compared to the regular DVD process.

Adding a second internal hard drive to your computer.

[mc src=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rF5yBKnIjG8″ type=”youtube”]A Zillion Ways to Backup Your Computer Part 2[/mc]

An Internal Hard Drive
Adding a second internal harddrive to back up your computer

It is fairly simple to add at least one extra internal hardrive to most desktop computers. With hard drive prices falling, large capacity drives are becoming more inexpensive. As the price for larger and larger hard drives fall, our increase in the need for the extra space seems to increase even faster. Digital photos, videos, and all sorts of uses may have already filled up the original drive on your computer. Unfortunately, most laptops do not have any extra space inside for a second hard drive which would also increase the weight of a computer where light weight is often an important feature.

The biggest problem with adding a second internal hard drive to a computer is that it is usually added to make more space and not used as a proper backup. Not being a proper backup is something it shares with most external hard drive solutions (which we will discuss in a bit). If you are just going to move the only copy of a file to another hard drive, your not backing up the file.

Additionally, anything that might physically damage the computer your internal backup drive is in may also damage the backup. In particular, I am thinking of power fluctuations that often damage computer hardware. This could simply be a problem with the power company or a nearby lightning strike. Lightening striking your home or business or even a pole outside has a very good chance of damaging a computer and any drives in it as the huge power surges through circuits that are only designed to handle a few volts. Even if your computer at first shows no damage, errors may start to show weeks later, long after you have forgotten about the lightening strike.

A second internal drive may be an effective backup if you take the right precautions. Use a UPS (Uninterruptable Power Supply – also called a battery back-up) or high quality surge protector. Be wary of inexpensive surge protectors. Better ones come with a warranty to replace hardware that might be damaged by a surge. The warranty will not cover any loss of data, though.

Additionally, for your internal hard drive to be a true backup, the files you put on it can’t be the only copy. Remember, the point of a backup is to have a spare copy if something happens to the original. You may accomplish this by manually copying files from the main drive to the second or using software that automatically backs up files and archives them to another drive. Another way this is done is using RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drives). We will cover RAID briefly next.

RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drives)

Early hard drives were very expensive. Early on decisions were made between very reliable but expensive drives and less costly drives that were not so reliable. The choice was between a Single Large Expensive Drive (a SLED) and using cheaper drives. A method of redundency was created to take care of the problem of inexpensive drives failing. This Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drives (RAID) was the resulting technology and is the main hard drive system used in servers in any critical application.

An interesting point to be made from the RAID term is that all the hard drives currently on the market fall into the “inexpensive” category. In fact, I do not know any SLED on the market or what one would cost. It is not a matter of if, but when, any current harddrive will fail. You need some form of redundancy or backup system with all the current hard drives or you will eventually lose data.

Good thing, otherwise I would have spent the hours slaving over this post for nothing. 8-O

There are several forms of RAID which are referred to as the RAID level. The most common RAID levels are 0, 1, and 5. While there are many more types of RAID, these are the most common and practical. RAID 0 is not a form a backup at all and increases the chance of data loss so I won’t discuss it other than to say it is used to increase hard drive speed or the speed of access to hard drive data. RAID 0 means zero redundancy. RAID 1 and RAID 5 are both great methods of backing up and keeping data safe.

With RAID 1 , two or more drives are mirrored. This means they have the exact same data on each drive. If one drive fails (or when) the other drive is exactly the same and can take over right away. Pretty cool, huh?

So, why is this not used all the time? Well, it costs twice as much for hard drive space since you need two. It also slows down the time it takes a computer to write to the hard drive as it must write all the information twice. It does speed up reading from the hard drive as it can read the data from both drives at once (imagine having two engines in a car, it would take twice as much gas but you could go a lot faster-not quite the same but you get the idea).

RAID 5 is even fancier.

With RAID 5, the data is all split up between 3 or more drives. If you save a file to a RAID 5 drive, the file is witten across all the drives in the array. In addition, information about what is on each drive is also saved across all the drives. It’s called parity. So, when one drive fails, the remaining drives have enough information to reproduce the missing drive. It can run temporarily without the bad drive and when it is replaced the RAID 5 array will rebuild the data that was on the damaged drive. Now that is really cool, even if your not a geek like me.

RAID 5 also has the advantage of speeding up both writing and reading from the hard drive. This is because the computer can write and read to all the drives at once. Think of someone having 3 secretaries instead of 1 doing work for him or her. They could all type a separate page of a report and a report would get typed faster. Kinda like that. RAID 5 also is a bit more economical in the use of drive space then RAID 1. RAID 1 uses half the raid as a backup effectively doubling the cost of space over one drive. RAID 5 only use 1/3 or less to create it’s redundancy.

RAID 5 is complex to set up. Even RAID 1 can be a little complicated itself. While RAID is probably the best system for a business to use as it can provide nearly %100 uptime for data availablity, it is probably a bit much for an average computer user to figure out at home. Also, you will most likely need some special hardware in order to use RAID effectively. It can be done with software but performance is usually affected (it is slower). Also, RAID will have the same problem with a lightning strike or any other physical damage to your computer that any other internal hard drive would have. For complete safety, a RAID system is also backed up online, with tape, or with an external drive that is safely stored elsewhere. Again, RAID can keep you data available despite hard drive failures, but can’t protect against phsyical damage to the system.

Magnetic Tape Drives.

Way back before there was an internet there were still computers. The first computers did not even have hard drives and had very little memory in the computer itself. Any data or programs had to be loaded from a long roll of magnetic tape. It was slow and cumbersome. With current technology, magnetic tape is still practical as a backup system in some cases and in use in many business and corporate environments.

Current magnetic backup tape systems are capable of backing up large amounts of data very quickly. The ability to change a tape allows a backup tape to taken off the location in case of some type of disaster. This is really important for a business that might be able to rebuild the physical business but where the loss of customer records might be even more devastating. To a business, often customer files are more important then the physical assets.

Cost and complexity are the disadvantages of tape drive back-up systems. Many current tape drive systems run in the thousands of dollars for a drive. This limits this form of backup to the corporate world. Most often, tape drives are used to back up an entire RAID array for a server so if something should happen to the server and it’s RAID, a business can still rebuild all those important records.

The Cloud or Online Backup Services

[mc src=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fa6EdXn7J6U” type=”youtube”]A Zillion Ways to Backup Your Computer Part 3[/mc]

Save your memories on a cloud? It does not sound very safe. It actually can be a very safe way to back up your data and very reliable. Cloud computing is simply a fancy new name for saving information online or using computers through the internet. Online backup services are becoming very popular even with the potential disadvantages.

What is cloud computing
What does backing up to the “cloud” mean?

Having your backup online at a remote location means that if anything happens to your computer you can retrieve the data. You can usually get your data and files anywhere you can get internet access, you may even be able to retrieve it on your phone. Great if you have fogotten some important notes you made for an out of town meeting. If you have them backed up online you can get them anywhere. If you suffer the tragedy of a flood, fire, or tornado where all you have is lost, all your digital photos and memories are safe hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Away from home and have your laptop crash? Once you get it back up and running you can retrieve all those files wherever you are.

Additionally, good online backup services back themselves up with servers in more than one geographic location having the same data saved on them. For instance, if you have a Gmail account, Google has servers all over the world that copy themselves to each other in case something happens to one location. This failsafe system makes an online backup perhaps the most reliable way to backup your data of any available.

In some ways this site uses an online backup service. The host makes regular backups of the server this site is on as well as having backups in several geographic locations. If something goes wrong in one location, it should be available from another withing a reasonably short time (it would take some time for the internet to know where it was though).

Is an online backup service a safe solution? Online backup providers use encription to keep prying eyes out of your data. Encription is really a fancy word for secret code. They use very good encription but secret codes are made to be broken. Also, realize that when you sign in to use these services, if you are not using a secure network (many free wi-fi locations may not be) it may be possible for some hacker in the area to pick up your password and gain access to your account (just like any other account). For the most part, these online backup services are very safe and you should not worry about using them as long as you only access them from a secure network. They are probably just as safe as your own computer as far as privacy goes.

Speed is a disadvantage of online backup solutions.

If you plan on backing up a large amount of data, it could take days (I have even heard weeks). Nearly all internet connections are much slower when you upload data than when you download it (for example, it will take you much longer to put a video on YouTube than it takes to download one to view). Even a fast connection on your side may be limited by the connection at the back-up providers end. This is fine if your just looking to back up a few files but a whole hard drive is going to take a lot of time. Also, in some cases your own internet service provider may have a cap on how much you can upload and download on your internet connection. They could charge you for additional data over a certain amount or may just stop your internet access altogether. Something to think about before you decide to use this form of backup. No matter what, it would not be anywhere near as fast as copying the contents of a drive to an external hard drive.

Cost is the other disadvantage of a cloud-based backup solution. You are going to be making a monthly or annual payment to keep your account. What happens to your data if you forget or fail to pay? Also, at $10 a month you could buy a new external hard drive every year.

I will be doing some testing of some online backup services in the future and hope to give you a better idea how well they work and what the advantages and disadvantages are as well as some comparison of different services. They do have some great advantages and many large corporations back up their own data over the internet to differnet locations using similar methods, just like I mentioned Google above. If the idea of being able to retrieve your files, no matter what may happen to your computer, home, or business, sounds like something that would matter to you, you may want to use a cloud backup service.

Using an external drive.

External USB Hard Drive
An External USB Hard Drive For Back Up

An external drive or USB drive is a popular method of adding extra hard drive space to computers. They are relatively inexpensive, you can connect them to another computer to move large files, and they are very portable. By USB drive, I am refering to an external hard drive in this case, not the small USB flash thumdrives or digital camera memory cards.

Used as a proper backup an external hard drive can be very effective and fast. You can copy files yourself, or use software just like with an internal harddrive. In fact, some external hard drives come with software included for backing up data. What makes an external drive an even better option for backup is that the drive can be disconnected from the computer and unplugged so it is safe from power problems and lightning that would damage an internal hard drive. You could even put the drive in a fireproof safe to protect your data in case of fire. With the ever increasing speed of USB (USB 3.0 which is coming out on new computers and devices promises an extreme speed increase) this may be a very time efficient way to protect your memories. Some external drives use eSata or Firewire instead of USB so make sure your computer has the appropriate port if you buy one of these. In most cases, an external drive using USB will be the simplest to use for most people.

You have a couple choices with external drives too.

You can buy a complete external drive solution with a hard drive already inside and everything ready to go. All you need to do start using them is plug them in. Most that I have seen use an additional power adapter. Just plug the power cord into a wall and plug the USB cable into your computer. Your computer will recognize it as an additional drive and you can start to copy files to it.

You can also buy and external drive enclosure that you place an internal harddrive in. You can buy an extra drive or use an old drive that is no longer in use. You can decide what size drive you wish to use and the compare prices of different size drives as well as manufacturers. You have a bit more choice in size than you do with a complete external USB solution. You may not save much money this way over a USB harddrive that already includes a drive and usually you will not get any software for doing backups. Of course, you can get software elsewhere to do automatic backups. You can use an external drive enclosure for more than one drive if you are careful as you switch the drive inside.

I have noticed that failures of external USB drives seem to be a bit more common than internal hard drives. With no scientific basis whatsoever, I think this may be due to external drives getting moved and knocked around more often. Harddrives are fragile mechanical devices that don’t like being moved while in use or bumped at anytime. Just like an internal drive, you need to make a proper backup as a copy. Don’t transfer your only copy of a file to an external drive and consider it backed up and safe.

I think the external hard drive is probably the ulimate backup solution for most people. It is fast and simple to use. I would recommend buying two external drives and making duplicate copies of your files on both drives. This way you can actually use the drives as extended storage if your current drive is too small. Once files are saved to both drives, disconnect one drive and put it away where it is safe (or at least unplug it). Every week or so, copy any new files to the drive you disconnect. This way if anything happens to one drive, you still have all your data and memories safe. This method is good for both a home user and a small business that cannot afford a more elaborate system.

So, what’s the best way to backup your computer?

My recommendation is an external USB drive that is unplugged from the computer after the backup is done and stored safely. The next step would be a second external drive. A 500GB hard is only about $60 at Newegg although I would spend a little more and get a Seagate or Western Digital drive rather than the cheapest (about $80) . If you want to make your own external drives you can get a USB external enclosure for about $10 and use your own drive or buy an new internal drive (A Western Digital 500GB internal drive is about $55 at NewEgg).

The USB external drive is perhaps the easiest way to provide a backup and it is simple enough for anyone to do.

Keep in mind that all the ways of backing up your data that I’ve described here only really back up your data, not the operating system.

Make sure that you keep the operating system disks in a safe place so you can rebuild the computer. If you lose the system disks, you will need to purchase a new operating system. It is a lot more expensive to purchase new operating disks than it is when it comes with your computer. Keep them safe where you can find them. Keep them organized so you know which disks belong to which computer (important because of licensing).

There are way to include the system files of your computer in a backup but this can complicate things. You can clone your drive when you back up to an external drive but this can take a very long time. This is a good idea if you think your drive is about to fail as you can copy it all to a new drive and then swap the drive. Sometimes the system files can be mirrored in a RAID array but this can be difficult to work and recover from if there are any problems. On the whole, you may be better off rebuilding the operating system and system files and programs and keeping your data.

Whatever you do, make sure that you do backup your most important memories some way.

That way, you can concentrate on creating new wonderful memories instead of worrying about the old ones disappearing.

A special thanks to reader Joanne. This post was an answer to a question asked by her. I’ll be working on another post to finish answering her question. If you have a computer or blogging question, please click here and post it as a comment. Of course, if you have a question or comment related to this post, please just comment here. Thanks again Joanne.

**Update – You’re not going to believe what happened the day I posted this**

The very evening I put this post up, we had a power failure. I still don’t know what caused it. It seemed to take out the power in an even larger part of the neighborhood than usual.

Unfortunately, when the power came back on an hour later, my wife’s computer would no longer boot. The power failure had damaged the hard drive. This happened even though the computer was plugged into a surge protector. Unfortunately, it was not backed up. I am still checking to see what I’ll be able to recover from the drive (I can often get stuff off a dead drive).

Time to get that RAID server up and running!

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