Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.
Backing up your computer's data is critical. What program should you use? There are many, but the best is whichever one that you'll actually use.
What backup program should I use?
Doing backups is kind of like eating healthier; everyone agrees that we should and yet very few of us actually do. Much like the heart attack victim who no longer visits McDonald's, the most religious users of backup procedures are those who've been bitten hard by a failure in their past.
Asking what backup program to use is very much like asking, "What's the best exercise program?" The best program for exercise or backup is whatever one that you'll actually do.
So, let me ask you this: do you know how you'd recover your data should everything on your computer suddenly disappear?
In order to choose what's going to work best for you, there are several questions that you need to ask yourself.
Do I want to put a lot of thought into this? If not - and most don't - then prepare to spend a little more money for some additional disk space and get one of the stock backup programs. I'm currently quite pleased with my external USB/Firewire Maxtor drive.
In addition to a drive, you'll need backup software. Many external drives will actually come with backup software of some sort so that's often a good place to start. If you elect to purchase backup software, there are many good choices - I personally use and recommend Macrium Reflect for most home users. Starting with Windows 7, the backup program included with the operating system appears also worthy of consideration.
Am I comfortable re-installing my system if something goes wrong or do I want the backup to take care of that? This is one of those comfort versus space tradeoffs. If you're okay with re-installing your system - which means your operating system as well as applications and customizations and you can clearly identify what does and doesn't need to be saved - then you can save a lot of disk space by backing up only your data. This requires a great deal of diligence on your part because anything that you don't specify that needs to be backed up will be lost in the case of a catastrophic failure.
Is there another machine nearby? Quite often, you don't even have to go out of your way to get additional hardware for backup purposes. Hard disks are so large these days that quite often simply having another machine on your local network with sufficient free space can be a quick and easy solution. Many backup packages will allow you to backup across a network. Having two machines each back up to the other is a quick way to ensure that if either has a problem, your data is safe on the other.
How valuable is what you're doing? As much as we hate to think of it, we should: what if your building, including your machines and all of their backups, were lost in a fire? If the potential data loss just sent a shiver down your spine, then you should be considering off-site data storage for your backups. That could mean burning a CD or DVD periodically and leaving it at some other location or if the sizes are small enough, backing up across the network to some server not in your home.
Might online backup be an option? If the amount of data that you're backing up is manageable and your internet connection is relatively fast, then an online backup system, such as Carbonite, Mozy, JungleDisk, or others may well be worth considering. These systems install software on your machine that backs up your critical files to secure servers "somewhere" on the internet, thus getting you both data backup as well as off-site backup at the same time. In addition, some services then allow you to access your backed-up files from any machine connected to the internet. For large backups, such as full image or system backups, this approach is typically impractical due to upload speed and storage size limitations.
How important is incremental access? By incremental access I mean how important is it that you be able to recover a file from a specific day and not a day before or after? If you simply back up all your files on top of previous versions, you'll only have the most recent version. In many, many cases, that's enough. In some cases, it's not; one example might be needing to recover an older version of a file that became corrupt at some point.
What resources should I backup? Have you thought of all of your computers? All the drives therein? How about external hard drives that you're not using for backup? Do you have a website? Do you have a backup of it? What would happen if your ISP "lost" it? (It's happened.) If you're a small business, do you have databases that need backing up? Office machines that belong to everyone but no one?
Let's use myself as an example for those questions:
I've put a lot of thought into this. And I should; it's my profession to do so and my business relies on it. In my case, I use my own scripts written in Perl and a tool I wrote many years ago called SyncFile, in addition to using Macrium Reflect.
I'm very comfortable re-installing everything, so with the exception of only one machine (my primary desktop), I backup only my data. My desktop machine gets a monthly, full backup and a daily incremental using Macrium.
I have several machines on my LAN and in the middle of the night, there's a flurry of activity as data gets copied from one machine to another and another, each using at least one other as a backup.
What I do for my business is definitely valuable and worthy of offsite backup. Because I have servers at a data center half-way across the country, once a week, I upload snapshots of my data as encrypted packages. In the past, I've had computers at two different physical locations and used two external drives: each location backed up to an external drive and roughly once a week, the drives would be swapped.
As I mentioned, I do have external servers and websites as well. I've been careful to ensure that the servers as well as the files that comprise the web sites are all backed up in some appropriate way.
The bottom line for backup is simple: just do it. Understand what you have and what you're willing to invest in but do something.
Before it's too late.
(This is an update to an article originally published February, 2004.)