Tue 24th Jul 2012 at 06:50

Making sure your backup is a backup

It's been a very busy July for me, so the articles I have planned to put up and not yet been completed. What with the Christening of my little one and some heavy development, I have simply not had the time to doing anything for this website. I know I stated the excuse on the front page of this site, but it never makes me feel better. If I commit to something, I like to see it through.


One thing I have been meaning to write about for a while now is, the importance of "backups" and just what this actually means. However, as fate may have it, I've not had time to post the article due to a friend contacting me in desperation, as their external backup disk had "just stopped working". So I spent a few days trying to resurrect it and another day or so extracting / scraping deleted images from their laptop. All the while with a smile smile on my face, as they were a perfect example of backing things up incorrectly.


The problem

A couple of years ago, they came to me with their laptop that was dead. It had been resting on the arm of the and been knocked off. I ended up recovering their data for them after a cowboy IT firm had not managed to recover any data and when I look had main it worse by semi wiping the drive. However, that is another story. Back then, the first thing I ask was "I don't suppose you've backed up any of it", to which I got the usual answer of "No". I explained to them, they needed to get an external hard disk drive and that they should regularly copy their important files off their laptop onto this disk for safe keeping. I also suggested that they use a secondary partition to store their documents, pictures etc. This is something I have recommend for years, as it means that if the main OS (mostly Windows) gets corrupted for what ever reason, you can reinstall safely without the risk of the primary partition being wiped along with your precious data.

So away they went, immensely grateful and determined to adhere to my advice. So why, a year or 2 on, did they end up in the same position?

Well the answer is that they ignored the fundamental rule of backups, and that is that backups are just that, a backup. Not an archive, but a keep safe, a recovery place and thus a very valuable place that should be kept safe.

I have seen it over and over again, people thinking that they are backing up their files, when really they are just creating a live archive. Their external disk is permanently switched on with their computer and documents are save directly to the external disk. In my friends case, quite a number of photos where lost due to them moving them straight from the camera onto their "backup" disk. I have had people joke that maybe they should backup their backups, each time I have pointed out that yes they should, as what they believe to be a backup isn't. A backup disk, is a location that is hardly used, hardly powered and kept in a safe place where it can't get damaged.


So what is a good backup solution for the common man?

I should state that is is no where near what should be classed as a how-to, but just some simple guidlines about good practices.

All good system administrators will have a multi-tier backup solution. Backup to external drives, with rotation and preferably off-site, but this is obviously over-kill for the average home user.

The first thing you should do, make sure your computer has a secondary partition (preferably a secondary disk). You should use this as your main storage for document, photos etc. If you don't and you feel brave enough, you can re-partition your disk using something like EaseUS Partition Manager. Make sure it's big enough to hold everything and more. The ideal is to install a secondary disk that is equal if not double the size of your primary. If you can't fit a new disk into your computer, or don't fancy re-partitioning you computer, then invest in an external diak, but remember this should not be treated as a back up disk. Use this secondary drive as your primary location for things like "My Documents", "My Music" and "My Pictures" etc. This will mean that if you Windows installation (or any other OS) fails, once you've re-installed, you'll have your files sitting there patiently waiting for you.

Next comes the backup disk, this should most certainly be an external drive. This should be atleast twice the size of the storage in the computer you are backing up, as no doubt you will want to eventually free up some space on you primary storage. But it is important to remember that this disk is for backup purposes only.

I don't use software or scheduled backups at home, as I find it an additional hassle that I don't really need, especially if I need the same software to restore my files. I simply connect my backup disk once a month and copy everything from my computer to my USB drive (my personal files don't change that much and my work is backed up on servers elsewhere). To speed things up, I select not to overwrite if files already exist. I then remove my backup disk and it gets placed back in the draw.

How you actually perform your backups is up to you, as like I've said, this article is not a how-to on backing up. The important thing to remember, is that you should really aim to have copies of your important data in at least 2 separate locations.

Every now and then I will check the backup drive's integrity by running checkdisk, but that is a rarity as this disk should be used as an absolute minimum.


You don't have to use an external hard disk, some backup software support DVD backups, but like I've said, I'm not keen on using backup software. However, if your looking to backup your photo's, then burning them to DVD is a perfect way to back them up. The same rule applies though, once your DVD has been burnt, put it somewhere safe nd only use t should you need to recover your photos.

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