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
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  • mrweir - Friday, May 23, 2014 - link

    If you purchase the OS X Server app ($20) for one of your macs, you can enable networked Time Machine backups for the other macs on your network. I have an external drive connected to my iMac that my wife's Macbook Pro backs up to wirelessly.
    While it's not technically "built-in" and does come at a cost, it's not "third party" either.
  • metayoshi - Friday, May 23, 2014 - link

    I have been using Acronis for years to backup my main OS drive into my data drive and then do a copy of the whole data drive onto an external hard drive.

    I switched to Windows 7's built-in backup tool once to replace Acronis to see if I could just have a free tool. Well, I corrupted my Windows 7 OS once, and after I restored the image, a ton of programs didn't work, including Microsoft Office. I tried uninstalling an reinstalling some programs, but for some reason, there were still some things messed up. I had to do a clean install of Windows 7, and I vowed to never use the Windows 7 built in backup ever again. Since my Acroins version was old at the 2009 version, I went ahead and got the 2013 version, and now that's what I have for backups. I have had to restore images from Acronis before (the 2009 version), so I know I can at least trust them.

    I'm not too fond of using the cloud to backup files. I used to put some non-private files on megaupload, and we all know how that went - goodbye megaupload. Now I just fear any sort of cloud storage as a backup - I simply use it for syncing, and then I back up my cloud data locally.

    I also tried a NAS once to backup both mine and my girlfriend's computer, but that WD MyBook Live (before they went to this whole MyCloud thing) ended up dying after a random power outtage we had. Granted, it was a single drive nas box, but I thought I could live with it. Nope, my external drive has been my main backup source ever since. It sure isn't any sort of advanced backup solution, but it does the job for me.
  • KPNuts - Saturday, May 24, 2014 - link

    Great article learnt a lot as I just copy my documents onto USB two hard drives on a weekly basis one kept in my computer bag the other in the office. I have a MacBook Pro and an iMac with files shared between so its a bit of a nightmare to keep track of the most up to date ones.

    A question; would things be easier if I invested in a TimeCapsule and used it with TimeMachine? would TImeMachine work with both computers on the one TimeCapsule or would I have to have one for each machine? if I need two then it starts to get expensive

    Look forward to getting so useful feedback to decide which way I should go
  • Brett Howse - Saturday, May 24, 2014 - link

    You can backup multiple machines to a single Time Capsule so that won't be an issue.
  • KPNuts - Saturday, May 24, 2014 - link

    thanks Brett Hoswe think thats the way i'll go then as its personal stuff and i have no real need for cloud storage My off site hard drive will be there and if I get broken into or theres a flood or fire
  • titanmiller - Saturday, May 24, 2014 - link

    Just putting in a plug for Backblaze. Great service. I store about 1.5TB on it for $3.96/month.
  • Kvanh - Saturday, May 24, 2014 - link

    If you use full disk encryption on your computer make sure your NAS/local drive backups are encrypted as well!

    I turned off Time Machine and switched to using CrashPlan for both local & cloud backups. I get the the same every 15 minute snapshot as Time Machine but I found crashplan more reliable.

    I also use Super-Duper! to make a boot drive clone nightly.

    While my main storage is RAID-5, the external drive I use for backups is RAID-0. With the redundancy of the RAID-5 and offsite of crashplan I figure the risk of losing the local backup is acceptable. I'm not in dire need of an infinite timeline of files, the important ones are in the offsite backup anyway. So losing a year of backups and starting over with new drives is no biggie.
  • nytopcat98367 - Monday, May 26, 2014 - link

    great article Brett Hoswe. i've been using shadow protect software to backup my desktop pc, the C: drive to a 2nd internal drive for about 6 years. it never fails. i have 23 GB on my main drive which takes 12 minutes to backup. OS windows 7.
  • Stylex - Monday, May 26, 2014 - link

    I use windows8.1 and DriveBender to pool my drives, ala WHS as my NAS. Awesome thing about Drive Bender is that it stores the data in NTFS so if something craters I can still grab the data off the drives without worrying about RAID. Also, selective folder duplication across drives is awesome. Some stuff needs backup, some stuff does not.
  • Conficio - Monday, May 26, 2014 - link

    I'm less looking for a backup tech, more for an archive tech. I want to put my data (photos/documents/PDFs) onto a server that can index them for meta data and full text search and ultimately off load the files onto DVD/bluRay disks for long term storage.

    I'd expect the meta data index to be fully backed up onto the cloud and the files being kept safe on media.

    Any pointers?

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