We all store more and more of our lives in digital form; spreadsheets, résumés, wedding speeches, novels, tax information, schedules, and of course digital photographs and video. All of this data is easy to store, transmit, copy, and share, but how easy is it to get back?

All of this data can be a harsh reminder that computers are not without fault. For years, storage costs have been dropping while at the same time the amount of storage in any one computer has been increasing almost exponentially. We are at a point where a single hard drive can contain multiple terabytes of information, and with a single mishap, lose it all forever. Everyone knows someone who has had the misfortune of having a computer stop working and wanting their information back.

It’s always been possible to safeguard your data, but now it’s not only necessary thanks to the explosion of personal data, it’s also more affordable than ever. When you think of the costs of backing up your data, just remember what it would cost you if you were to ever lose it all. This guide will walk you through saving your data in multiple ways, with the end goal being to have a backup system that is simple, effective, and affordable. In this day and age, you really can have it all.

It’s prudent at this point to define what a backup is, because there are a lot of misconceptions out there which can cause much consternation when the unthinkable happens, and people who thought they were protected find out they were not.

Backups are simply duplicates of data which are archived, and which can be restored to a previous point in time. The key is the data must be duplicated, and you have to be able to go back to an earlier time. Anything that doesn’t meet both of those requirements is not a backup.

As an example, many people trust their data to network storage devices with RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks). Without going into the intricacies of various forms of RAID, none of these Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices are any sort of a backup on their own. RAID is designed to protect a system from a hard disk failure and nothing more. Depending on the RAID level, it either duplicates disks, or uses a calculation to create a parity of the data which can be used to calculate the original value of the data if any part of the data is missing from a failed disk. While RAID is an excellent mechanism to keep a system operational in the event of a disk failure, it is not a backup because if a file is changed or deleted, it is instantly updated or removed on all disks, and therefore there is no way to roll back that change. RAID is excellent for use as a file share, and can even be effectively utilized as the target for backups, but it still requires a file backup system if important data is kept on the array.

Another similar example is cloud storage. Properly configured, cloud storage can be a backup target, and different services can even properly perform backups, but the average person with the average Google Drive or OneDrive account can’t copy their files there and hope they are protected. As with RAID, it is a more robust file storage than any single hard drive, but if you delete a file, or copy over another, it can be difficult or impossible to go back to a previous version.

Both RAID and cloud storage suffer from the same problem – you can’t go back to an earlier time, and therefore are not a true backup. True backups will allow you to recover from practically any scenario – fire, flood, theft, equipment failure, or the inevitable user error. This guide will walk you through several methods of performing backups starting at simple and moving up to elaborate systems that will truly protect your data. These methods work for home and business alike, just the type of equipment will likely differ.

There is some common terminology used in backups that should be defined before we start discussing the intricacies of backups:

  • Archive Flag: A bit setting on all files which states whether or not the file has been modified since the last time the flag was cleared.
  • Full Backup: A backup of all files which resets the archive flag.
  • Differential Backup: A backup of all files with the archive flag set, but it does not clear the archive flag.
  • Incremental Backup: A backup of all files with the archive flag set which resets the archive flag.
  • Image or System Based Backup: A complete disk level backup which would allow you to image a machine back to a previous state.
  • Deduplication: A software algorithm which removes all duplicate file parts to reduce the amount of storage required.
  • Source Deduplication: removing duplicate file information from files on the client end. This requires more CPU and memory usage on the client, but allows for a much smaller file size to be transferred to the backup target.
  • Target Deduplication: removing duplicate file information from files on the target end. This saves client CPU and memory usage, and is used to reduce the amount of storage space required on the backup target.
  • Block Level: A backup or system process which accesses a sequence of bytes of data directly on the disk.
  • File Level: A backup or system process which accesses files by querying the Operating System for the entire file.
  • Versioning: A list of previous versions of a file or folder.
  • Recovery Point Objective (RPO): The amount of time since the last backup deemed safe to lose in a disaster scenario. For example, if you perform backups nightly, your RPO would be the previous night’s backups. Anything created in between backups is assumed to be recoverable through other methods, or an acceptable loss.
  • Recovery Time Objective (RTO): The amount of time deemed acceptable between the loss of data and the recovery of data. For home use, there’s really no RTO but many commercial companies will have this defined either with in-house IT or with a Service Level Agreement (SLA) to a support company.
Plan Your Backups
Comments Locked


View All Comments

  • Samus - Thursday, May 22, 2014 - link

    +1 for Acronis True Image. Amazing product, I've purchased the newer editions every time a major Windows OS is released (TrueImage 2008, TrueImage 2010, TrueImage 2013, now TrueImage 2014)

    I purchased TrueImage 2014 because it introduced integrated cloud backup which works extremely well, and they give you 250GB for the first year free (and $50/year after that.) Since I upgraded from 2013, it only cost $20 for the upgrade to 2014. You can also sneakily use the Intel SSD Migration software as your "upgrade" edition if you happen to have an Intel SSD, essentially getting you the full software and a year of cloud storage for $20 bucks.

    The downside is additional storage is expensive, where as Crashplan and Carbonite have what are virtually unlimited plans starting at $100, some plans even covering "unlimited" users making it perfect for small business.

    Either way, great article. We need to spread the backup knowledge so everyone does it, because I think the reason most people don't backup is because they don't know how.
  • bsd228 - Thursday, May 22, 2014 - link

    Brett- the primary con of cloud services that I think must always be kept in mind is the consequence of your provider going out of business. We've seen this before, and so long as we see newcomers offering unlimited storage cheap as an initial lure to get customers, we'll continue to see it. If it's just your backup, then the cost is the effort required to identify another and get the first full dump done. If we're in the 100s of gigs and beyond, that is significant. So my philosophy is to pick a stable vendor who is making a profit on me, not finding the one offering terms I can exploit. Generally this means pricing based on data size, and a preference to very stable firms like Amazon or Google.
  • toyotabedzrock - Thursday, May 22, 2014 - link

    I wish they would provide a way for families to store each others data encrypted so they could provide for their own disaster recovery.
  • RoboKaren - Tuesday, June 10, 2014 - link

    It's called Crashplan. Backing up to another person's (friend's, family, etc.) drive is a free option.
  • easp - Thursday, May 22, 2014 - link

    Notebook users should really, really, have a networked backup target as part of their mix.

    External HDDs don't really cut it for Notebook users, unless they regularly "dock" with a monitor or USB hub connected to the drive. Some people do, but I know many many that don't, and while they may have the best of intentions, they will not remember to hook up the external drive on a regular basis.

    A network target on their LAN will ensure that automatic backups happen in the course of regular use. A publicly accessable network target, like Crashplan Cloud, or AWS Glacier, or even Crashplan's PTP with portmapping or UPnP enabled, allow automatic backups to happen whenever they have an internet connection. Anything less is a disaster waiting to happen.
  • Z15CAM - Thursday, May 22, 2014 - link

    So a 1.32MB DOS app named GHOST.EXE writing to FAT32 is no longer applicable - As if.
  • Z15CAM - Thursday, May 22, 2014 - link

    You can't migrate BackUp's over Networks thru GUI using Symantec's Ghost Counsel.
  • Rogatti - Thursday, May 22, 2014 - link

    Already in the linux world:
    ISO for DVD
    $ dd if=/dev/sr0 of=imagem.iso bs=2048 ##(if=dvd unit - of= name.iso)##
  • Z15CAM - Thursday, May 22, 2014 - link

    Already in the Linux world:

    NO the DOS World
  • SeanFL - Friday, May 23, 2014 - link

    One issue I had with dropbox, box, or copy is they all wanted to setup their own directory and do the backup from there. If I have a well organized set of drives with various folders and subfolders, I'd like to be able to choose what to backup and skip (as I can do in Crashplan). Have any of the cloud ones mentioned above made it so you can choose your own directories to backup?

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now