Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

Not a day goes by that I don't get a question from someone in trouble; trouble that could have been completely avoided by having a simple backup.

If there's only one copy, it's not backed up.

It's something that I say and say and say because every day, I see the disasters that result from not understanding that simple concept.

It hurts me every time I have to tell someone "Sure, here's how to resolve the problem you're having. But your data? That's gone forever."

I say it more frequently than I want to and what's frustrating is that I know deep down that I say it more frequently than I should have to.

I'm not saying backups are trivial, although even just backing up the basics can be a lot easier than most people think. And I do recognize that there are obstacles, not the least of which is that people often think they're backing up when they're not.

An external drive alone is not a backup

I frequently get comments from readers such as this:

"My data's on an external backup drive."

OK, good. Maybe.

Maybe not.

If your data is only on that backup drive, then it's not backed up. It doesn't matter that you call it a backup drive, if your data is in only one location, it's not backed up.

If that external drive fails someday, then it could take all your data with it. I've seen it happen.

"Backing up in any form is all about making one or more copies of your valuable data."

Your camera's probably not backed up

Do you take lots of photos with your digital camera or with your phone? Perhaps you take videos, too.

How long do you leave them on your camera and only on your camera?

If there's only one copy, it's not backed up.

Think for a second just how easy it is to lose a small digital camera or phone. Heck, I've done it!1

And those cameras and phones can fail too, taking everything stored with 'em.

It's another story I hear all too frequently: photographs kept only on the device on which they were taken - camera or phone - are lost and gone forever due to some failure or mishap.

The word to remember: Copy

The fundamental word and concept to remember is "copy."

Backing up in any form is all about making one or more copies of your valuable data.

That means moving your data to a "backup" drive is not a backup, but copying it would be.

You start with a single original and end up with that original and a backup.

Repeat for everything you care about.

At its most basic level, it doesn't even matter where you copy it to, as long as you make a copy. Everything else is organizational administrivia and optimization.

Any copy is better than no copy

Many people find backing up too intimidating. All the talk of backup programs and images and incrementals and scheduling things to happen when you're not around results in a virtual paralysis.

As a result, nothing gets backed up.

And all too often, everything is lost as a result.

So, start simple. At a bare minimum, copy your important data somewhere. Copy those pictures soon after taking them. Save that important email somewhere other than your email account. Copy your thesis2 to a flash drive and then burn it to CD.

No, it's not perfect. In fact, far from it. But don't let perfection become the enemy of the good. Any kind of copying that you can do is better, almost infinitely better, than doing nothing at all.

Then, you refine and improve over time.

Making it better

Once you're in the habit of making copies of your important files, how do you improve?

There are so many options (which admittedly is one of the reasons why many fail to act):

  • Get a utility like DropBox and set things up so that your work, your photos, and whatever else you might want are automatically copied any time you make a change to it.

  • While you're setting up DropBox, set it up on your smartphone as well so that every picture you take is automatically copied into your DropBox folder.

  • Sign up for one of the automated backup services that will automatically back up your files online.

  • Use a backup program to backup your files (or ideally your entire PC) to an external hard disk.

To be honest, I love services like DropBox (and there are several), because while they make it easy to share files between computers, access your files online, or share files with others, the side effect is that they're making copies transparently and automatically. If you set things up so that your important data is always somewhere in your Dropbox folder, you've achieved a level of protection that most people simply never think of.

Redundancy should be proportional to value

Another way of characterizing copies of your data is as a form of redundancy. You only need one copy to work from, everything else is redundant.

Until of course something happens to your one copy.

Another "rule of thumb" is simply this: the more important your data is, the more costly it is to replace or recreate, then the more important your backups are and the more redundancy you probably want to invest in.

Don't have installation media for your system? Then, you probably want a redundant copy (known as an image backup) that you can revert to should something ever happen.

Have precious baby pictures? You probably want more than one backup. Backups themselves can go bad and the cost of failure for valuable items that simply cannot be reproduced is immense. Back it up, and then back it up again, somewhere else.

Remember, even if you do nothing else, all "back it up" has to mean is "make a copy."

The important thing here is simply to realize just how important your digital data has become to you, and what might happen if you were to lose it.

Then act accordingly and start backing up, start making copies.

Making copies is the start

If you can't do anything else, make copies of your important files, and make those copies elsewhere - such as an external drive, online storage service, or even a flash drive if that's all you can manage.

But it really is only a start.

I want to stress that backing up is nothing more than making copies, but a good backup is more than that.

That's where that "organizational administrivia and automation" and "organization" come in to play.

You want to make sure you're backing up everything you should be.

You want to make sure that you're backing up as often as you should be.

You want to make sure that you can find and use your backup copies of data when you need them.

That's all a refinement of the process. That's where things like automated backup tools and the like come into play.

And yes, that's absolutely something we should all be doing.

So ... start small. Start making copies of everything that's important. Store those copies somewhere other than on your computer or phone or camera or wherever the data was originally produced and in addition to those places. It's a start.

One way or another, make sure that you have at least two copies of anything important in two different places.

Why?

You know why.

If there's only one copy it's not backed up.

And if it's not backed up, you could lose it all ... in an instant and without warning.

1: Somewhere in the "Revenge of the Mummy" ride at Universal Studios Florida I lost my Blackberry which flew out of my shirt pocket as the ride crested one of its roller coaster hills. Lost and gone forever. (But I was backed up. Smile)

2: Yes, thesis. Some years ago, I heard from a poor gentleman who had kept the only copy of his masters thesis as an attachment to an email in his Hotmail account. You can guess what happened; all was lost.

Article C5785 - September 12, 2012 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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18 Comments
Mark Shepherd
September 12, 2012 1:03 PM

I too have lost data over the years. The solution I use is to have all our computers automatically backed up to a Windows Home Server on our network.

It is image based backups, that are then Folder Synced to another Windows Home Server that is on our Wirless network, but is Physically located across the street at our neighbors. (She gets to join our Wifi Network, we get piece of mind knowing that our data is backed up off-site). I test back ups once a month, by re-installing onto the computers (It usually takes only twenty minutes or so per machine).

Ken B
September 12, 2012 1:04 PM

Speaking of digital cameras...

I've seen too many people who copy the pictures/videos from the camera to their computer, and then reformat the camera's memory card / drive / whatever, to make room for new pictures/videos. Even if you back up your computer regularly, there is still some period of time between when it's deleted from the camera and it's backed up from your computer, where you're back to the "if there's only one copy..." scenario. (I've seen it happen, where the pictures in question were the last ones of their recently-deceased pet. Fortunately, it was only the O/S itself that was lost, and the pictures were still recoverable.)

So, make sure you don't delete your camera's files until *after* they are backed up from your computer!

Mark J
September 13, 2012 8:08 PM

Speaking of a thesis, that reminds me of a movie i saw a while back "With Honors" with Brendan Fraser and Joe Pesci when Brendan Fraser's computer crashes, he runs out to Kinkos to copy his only paper copy and Breaks his leg and loses his original to Joe Pesci who holds the paper hostage. When I saw that movie way back 18 years ago I though he shoulda had a few backups on diskette.
I don't think enough can be said for the DropBox option. I would say that most people probably don't have more than 2GB of working files apart from photos and other Media files. I personally have my DropBox folder as my working directory. I also use Macrium Reflect on a rotation of 2 external drives and subscribe to BackBlaze on line backup (Carbonite is also good). I used to only back up my data, which worked fine for me and I never lost any data doing that. But due to Leo's recommendation of incremental backup, I got Macrium and it was well worth the investment in the time it saved me from having to install all of my programs from scratch.

Glen
September 14, 2012 8:39 AM

i took your advice to heart and went out and bought some cd`s. the clerk said cd-r would work for me. when i tried to download my PC said insert rw. cd-r didn`t work. so i went out and bought cd-rw which worked for downloading pictures but when i tried to make a copy of D-BAN they want DVD-R not cd-r not dvd-rw BUT DVD-R. if anyone else is like me we just get fed up and forget about it. is there one cd or one media that will work for all downloads?

DBan should work from CD. CD-R, CD-RW, DVD and so on are more a function of the size of your data (DVDs being larger, of course) and the capabilities of your CD/DVD burner (CD-only burners can't burn DVDs, but most DVD burners can burn CDs), and what you intend to do with your data. CD-R, CD-RW, DVD should all work just fine for DBAN - you're likely running into some other kind of limitation.
Leo
14-Sep-2012
Robert Steup
September 14, 2012 8:58 AM

My backup solution ( which is almost effortless ): I use a network hard drive ( a linksys WRT150N ) which has 2 - 500Gb configured as Raid 1. That way everything on it is stored twice on 2 separate physical drives. Next ensure that all users on my home network store EVERYTHING that is important on the network, not the individual PC. Then I have three 500Gb USB external drives which I use to make a copy of the network drive at least monthly, on a rotating basis. Since this takes some time I start the copy before I go to bed, and it's finished in the morning. As a further backup, every time I visit my safe deposit box box at the bank I take the latest backup , put in my safe deposit box, and bring home the one that was there.

The security advantage is that all my data is in MY physical possession and need not be encrypted

If my house burns down I still have (most) of my data at the bank.

All of the important documents on the network drive are stored scanned PDF files using Paperport software or PDF files downloaded from the internet - e.g. bank statements, utility, insurance , invoices etc.

I also keep on the network drive PDF copies of all the user guides for appliances, software etc. Most of these can be downloaded as PDF files from the manufacturers web site.

The key to setting up a file structure that is usabe to find things is to have folders within folders within folders ....... Top level is user, then year, the subject i.e. banking, medical, utilities to as many levels as necessary. This way I can access my electric bill for Feb. 2007 within seconds!

A separate high level folder labeled "permanent" contains contains things like deeds, wills, scans of all our wallet cards and IDs

All of this is made practical by the relatively low cost of hard drives.

kevin
September 14, 2012 9:02 AM

Kinda smiled when I read this. Reason is that after reading your articles for some time now I think I am suffering from "Backupitis". Not that I don't believe you as I follow as far as I can your rec's.
Problem is that when I try to pass on your wisdom to other people they seem to look at me like some kind of a moron.
Most people in my opinion seem to equate their comp to a tool/machine and believe that nothing is ever going to go wrong. When it does and if I can fix it they just want to finish straight away. Backup's etc are just not on the agenda.
As to your article may I point out that their are 2 points ya may have missed. One is the family unit, Many Foto's are shared and can be recovered. Two that on line E-mail services do normally have copies. While this might not be 100% it is a lot better than nothing.
Last thing I want to say is that when copying to a DVD et al, just take the long road as they can sometimes be unreliable.

bob D
September 14, 2012 9:04 AM

if you have a zillion in-line backup mechanisms and a hacker comes into any one of them and or into your mainframe or pc, does not the hacker's destructive stuff also go into all the backups????
and thus destroy all the zillion copies plus the original copy???????

2) i figure my backup is solely if my machine goes nutso or drops dead, thus i have a copy i can pull out and put into another pc, what is wrong with this?

3) a lot of wise guys advocate backup into the cloud or backup into some mega mainframe(but they can drop dead too by hacker or otherwise)
i can not think that is wise since then you are sharing all your stuff with a hacker who calls himself a cloud etc

4) a non-quesiton:: if i store on one of my pc
(and take a hard copy of all i want to preserve forever) and work on another that is hooked to everything via google and usgovt snoops, is that about as good protection as i can get, e.g. google and or the usgovt snoops will want to scan what i do forever because i am more important to them then lollypops, wont they have me hooked into their absolute safe system whereby no hacker, except them, can peek at my goodies? if not, what are they in business for other than to make themselves look good if they can not make perfect their protection of mine since they anyway scan it, read it, print it, all the time, i.e. if i am on their bad guy list.....
---- dont take me wrong, i long ago sent google security a email saying they google and their mate the usgovt snoop have my unlimited permission to peek and copy and use any all i do on the net or otherwise, after all :: google is best thing happen to us common man, and of course usgovt snoop works for us, me anyway, so i should help them by getting all blocks out of their way...... yes i know this takes all the fun out of their job but i want them to know i am on their side so we can some day work together as a team versus all common enemies .....


1) While a backup could contain a virus, that would not destroy the backup. You would still be able to recover your data from it, which can be critical.

2) Your backup is whatever you want it to be. Just think of everything disappearing, suddenly and without warning. If you could recovery from that (including, say, a house fire where everything in your home is lost), then you're in great shape.

3) There are ways to protect your cloud based backups, as I've discussed many times. Cloud based backups are often a great solution to the house fire scenario, above.

4) I'm afraid I don't understand point #4.

Bottom line is that most people don't appreciate the importance of backing up, and don't understand how easily and quickly important data can be lost forever. I see it almost every day.
Leo
14-Sep-2012

bob D
September 14, 2012 9:12 AM

#2 of 2 of today - read my #1 first for continuity

my #1 was getting too long so i ended it and now come here for one last item ::

i save a hard copy of all i think is important to me in that if my machine with the original drops dead or is hacked into oblivion, then i can take my hard copy, use my handy dandy laser printer and scan that copy back into my new machine which has not yet been hacked or destroyed and thus i can work that scanned copy into a new work of art, altho this is not swift it is final in that i still have my original in a hard copy and so long as i can scan that copy back into a new or another machine i wont have to re-create the world just use that copy and tinker with it to my heart's content....


Just remember that your hard copy can be lost as well. Fire, flood, missplacing it ... the opportunities there are endless as well.
Leo
14-Sep-2012

Dave Markley
September 14, 2012 10:05 AM

As a PC Repair Tech, I see customers loose data almost every week. And many don't appreciate hearing "your hard drive needs replaced. I can probably save your data, but that is an additional charge". That 10 minutes a week of time they couldn't spare to backup will now cost them a lot more as I now have to spend a half a day retrieving their data and burning it to DVD. I preach backing -up like Leo does, but people generally don't listen until it's too late! Not long ago I got a call from a regular small business customer stating his new (6 months old) $1000 HP laptop wouldn't turn on. The motherboard burnt up taking the hard drive and other devices with it. On this laptop was all the files and records for the attorney's office he owned. He lost ALL data from the time the firm first opened. I'd repeatedly preached security and backup to his firm, which had approximately 40 computers I took care of. Now it's way too late.

Robert
September 14, 2012 11:06 AM

Leo,

Excellent article on the importance of multiple backups. I would like to suggest a good secondary storage place for your backups and that is the glove box of your automobile. I backup my most valuable data to a 5GB free online account. 5GB is more than enough for my needs and free is hard to beat. I copy that valuable data and less important data to an external hard and and I write disc images to an additional external hard drive. I then copy those drives to 2 other external hard drives and then keep those hard drives in the glove box of my car.

Granted, there is hard drive cost with my scheme , but external hard drive prices have dropped considerably since hard drive manufacturing has recovered from the Far East flooding and it looks like hard drive prices continue to drop even more.

Besides, smaller size drives are priced reasonably and what is that cost compared to the cost of losing your data? Storing backups on flash memory might be considered also. That would not be as cost efficient or reliable as hard drive storage but that media is also worth considering if cost is a big factor.

Hughie
September 14, 2012 1:03 PM

I was told you need a total of 3 copies, the orig, a copy on sight (external backup drive), another one off site (on the cloud, in a detached garage, other?) A friend had a backup drive in his computer and his computer power supply failed and fried all the drives. SO make it external!
Also alternate media, like put some CDs or DVDs into the mix. A flood can kill a hard drive where a DVD might survive. Use archival rated DVD media.

Roy Nasstrom
September 14, 2012 2:27 PM

One way to get people to back up would be to give precise examples of how backing up works, describing the step by step procedure involved from beginning to end. Such an approach would not end the intimidation for some (i.e., those who are fearful even of putting material on CD or DVD now), but it might work for many who feel difficulties are too great..

There are many, many step by step tutorials out there. Not only in my Maintaining Windows 7 - Backing Up book, but also online with video series like this one. Not to mention a BUNCH of additional videos and tutorials by others out on YouTube. While I agree step by step instruction is important - that's one reason I provide it - I honestly don't think it's enough. Something it still stopping people and as a result they're putting their data at risk.
Leo
15-Sep-2012
L J Cooper
September 14, 2012 2:36 PM

Date: Sept 14, 2025
Place: A resort club in Antarctica
A group of friends are chatting over drinks about how far personal computing has advanced.
One woman comments about the olden days before automatic backup to a stand-alone drive had become common. She lost two-thirds of her unfinished novel when a hard drive suddenly went belly up.
Everyone laughs.

paleolith
September 14, 2012 3:08 PM

I have two external USB hard drives which are used to store my image backups.

I have variously used Macrium free, Paragon free, and Easeus free for the images. I am currently using Easeus because Macrium , for some reason, cannot recognize my USB hard drive when booting from the Linux CD emergency bare metal boot disk.

I use FreeFileSync to copy one USB drive to the other after the image backup is done. FreeFileSync is a no brainer and has worked flawlessly for me. I sleep better knowing that I have two backups in my possession, not in cyberspace.

Werner Zuercher
September 14, 2012 6:32 PM

I am using Carbonite and it was very helpful when my computer failed as well as when changing computer.

Cyndy B
September 15, 2012 3:55 AM

Leo, I finally convinced hubby to get an external hard drive to back up his Toshiba lap top. I purchased a FreeAgent GoFlex USB 3.0 Plug and Play 500GB by Seagate. So he tells me, "Go for it..." only, now I'm not exactly sure what to do next. Do I just connect it to the USB port and hit "go"... don't want to do this wrong.

Thorrun
September 15, 2012 4:34 AM

Where can I find a reasonably easy to use backup facility, everything tried so far including Win7 built in always comes back with a problem that offers pages of Googled resolutions which never seem to fit the obstacle encountered. One attempt with Auslogics failed when required some considerable time later because the programme had been updated and could not recover earlier saved data.

Mark J
September 15, 2012 6:28 PM

@Cyndy
The article How do I back up my computer? Under the "You may also be interested in:" section in this article gives advice on how to back up.

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