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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:  As this definition has grown, I realize that it contains unnecessary detail for most home computer users.  It’s more for businesses, for which the discussion is essential.  So, if you are a home computer user, simply know this:  If you create anything that you store on your computer (that includes photos, downloaded songs or videos, text documents or the like), YOU MUST BACK THEM UP, quite easily to a USB flash drive, or they will probably be irretrievably lost WHEN (not IF) your computer eventually fails.  Just do this on a periodic basis and you’ll save a lot of anguish. 

BACKUP

WHAT IS BACKUP?:   “Backing up” your computer means to take some or all of the information stored on your computer’s hard disk drive and copying it somewhere outside of the computer in case it’s lost due to hardware failure, virus or user error.  Since the main drive on your computer is a mechanical device (see Hard Disk Drives), it is not a question of whether it will eventually fail, but when it will fail.  Therefore it is absolutely essential that you back up any data that you have created and stored on the computer, as it will be permanently lost if  the hard drive fails and you haven’t done so.  If you never create, download or install anything on your computer, i.e. you only read e-mails and surf the net and don’t care if any of your e-mail or web history is saved, you can forget about backing up, it’s far less important since you probably won’t want to restore anything you may have lost.  Otherwise, you definitely should consider some form of backup, as discussed here.  What you back up, how you back up and how often you back up will vary, depending on what you do with your computer, as discussed in further detail below.  Of course, that’s only half the process.  The sole purpose of backing up the drive is to be able to restore it if you need to.

WHAT DEVICES YOU CAN BACK UP TO:  Backups can be made onto lots of different types of
media, they key being how much data you are looking to back up.  In ascending order, they are: Floppy disks (1.44 Mb), CDs (650 Mb) or DVDs (4/7 Gb), magnetic tape (250Mb - 250 Gb), flash drives (from 8 to over 128 Gb) or secondary hard disk drives (250 Gb - 1Tb or more, SATA or SSID, which can be external, internal,
NAS/SAN, cloud or even satellite).  You could also back up to a virtual hard drive on your computer and copy the file elsewhere. Finally, you could create an ISO file to save or send as an external drive, which can be accessed or copied. Click HERE for photos of the various backup media.  The size and speed of the backup media will depend on the amount of information (just data, the operating system, the programs, a clone, etc.) to be backed up, where it is located (network, same computer, external drive, etc.) and its importance.  Generally, the relative order of speed for backing up a 15Gb hard drive would be as follows:  Internal hard drive (.5hr); external USB 3.0 drive (.5hr); 100Mbps ethernet networked drive (.7hr); Networked drive @ 802.11g Wi-Fi (.9hr); Google Drive (3.7hr); Microsoft (cloud) SkyDrive or OneDrive (3.1hr); 16x DVD (1.6hr).   At some point, residential users will at least want to back up to an external hard drive or CD/DVD, since floppy disks can quickly degrade and flash drives have a finite life (as few as 10,000 write cycles, which sounds like a lot but really isn’t; even if you use them in a “series of threes,” alternating each time overwriting the oldest, they can still fail quite quickly).  And, if you use external drives, don’t leave them plugged in unless you are using them, because (1) they’ll be prone to the same power surges or viruses as the main hard drive, (2) because they aren’t intended to be plugged in continuously (see Tip #18) and (3) because they can be infected by the same viruses that infect the hard drive.  If you’re just backing up data, it’s better to opt for a second internal drive (rather than an external drive), as it’s connected by cable directly to the motherboard, not a USB cable.  Use the flash drives and floppies just for quick data transfer and then removal, but other methods for more long-term storage (see archive definition). 


HOW MUCH TO YOU WANT TO BACKUP:  As with many of the explanations on this site, what you do will depend on what you want.  Usually, it is not necessary to back up the entire hard disk drive itself but only the data that you have created and stored on the hard drive, because it can normally be restored with an operating system if you have the product sticker.  That is, unless you don’t have the original installation media to reinstall the programs associated with that data - then you should back up the entire drive by cloning (see below), as you won’t be able to reinstall those programs again.  You can “copy and paste” the data produced by a program from one computer to another, but you can’t copy the program itself, it must be installed on the computer’s operating system (i.e. creating .dll and .vxd files to link the two) in order to be operable.

A full backup or a clone would probably be overkill for most home computers, although lately home users, students and even small businesses tend to buy computers which not only store operating systems and data in the cloud, but lease software from the cloud as well, so a full backup/clone would make sense, because if a computer crashes, the user only need purchase a new one, connect to the cloud and restore the system.  For more, read below

For businesses, which often have to comply with time and regulatory constraints, the process may be more complex.  See Disaster Recovery Plans and NAS, which specifically relate to enterprises.  Of course, if you are an individual or business that can’t afford to be without your data or computer for even a short time, you should follow the most secure path for data backup and recovery:  Once you complete the initial set up your computer (the O/S, installed programs, add-ons and features and personal data exactly the way you want it), you should (1) create a full backup of your computer’s data as of that moment. Then (2) create a bootable clone drive which you can insert in the computer if the first-line hard drive fails.  Finally, (3) create a periodic plan to update the data backup, so that you will have the backup current to at least, say, a weekly (perhaps every Friday) or daily (if you’re serious about your data) snapshot point.  Then, if your computer fails, you will be able to get it back up and running using the backup or clone drive, then updating the backup data to the last point it was done, and you’ll have very little, if any,  down time.  Lots less cost than buying a new drive, loading the operating system and its updates and drivers, then installing all of the programs and copying whatever data you have saved.  It takes a little work, but it’s well worth it, unless you are one of those users who does nothing more than surf the web and retrieve your e-mail (most of which won’t be lost as it probably resides in the cloud of your e-mail provider anyway). 

For less than a full backup, click HERE for a discussion of the differences between archival, backup and cached storage and the uses for each.

HOW ITS DONE:  You will need software to make a backup and restore it.  Many operating systems (Windows, Apple) have their own software included  , some don’t.  Windows internal backup software could sometimes be pretty undependable in XP and Vista, but starting with Win7, it has the ability to make “shadow” copies of data, “ghost” system images, system restore points and full data backups rather easily and dependably.   As well as restoring “previous versions” of many types of files, if it’s set up first, to do this.  Windows 8, 8.1 and 10 use a different backup system requiring external drives, click HERE for more discussion, and HERE if you are a Windows 10 user.  [Some have suggested that you could simply use Microsoft’s OneDrive folder as a backup, then transfer to a flash drive.  But this procedure will only contain a single copy of each of your files, while a full backup would save all multiple versions of your files (if that feature was enabled), eliminating the possibility that the one copy you saved wasn’t the one you’re looking for.]  It’s pretty similar to Mac’s “Time Machine” backup features.  Win8 has a feature for you to create a “recovery drive” which is quite impressive.  Of course, if you have an office or large network, it’s probably better to get third party software to manage the data. 

Then there are third-party software programs which you can purchase for backup and restore, most of which have additional features which may be desirable for your needs (e.g. retrieving only specific archived files, restoring to a new machine, automatic scheduling, etc.)  Try Carbonite, Acronis or Easus ToDo.  Some versions are free or trial.  Check and compare features.

In addition, increasingly, many popular cloud providers (e.g. iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, Carbonite, CloudFuze, Otixo, Cobian, BackUp Maker) offer storage backups over the Internet, as well as specific software providers which are not associated with large corporations like Google, Amazon or Microsoft.  But for any serious amount of business data, this may be slow and even quite expensive.  And remember - If your computer crashes, you can’t get on the internet to restore the cloud copy.  You may be able to access your cloud data, but it can be a circuitous route to get it back on the crashed machine.

Things to watch for if you use cloud backups:  Automatic scheduled backups, purging of old backups, file compression, common file format so you can restore it easily (say from .zip) without specialized software, and the option to define your target folder so you can backup multiple computers to the same folder if necessary.

But wait - -  you still have other choices to make - - I know I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating:  If you are concerned about cryptoviruses, which can encrypt your data and hold it ransom until you purchase a key to release it, you’ll have to detach your external drive when you’re done saving files, or else make an additional snapshot backup, otherwise the virus will likely infect and render useless any attached internal or external drives, including cloud servers.  Is this something you should be worried about? Sure, cryptoviruses are on the rise, even for home users.  We don’t know the odds, but we do know that the odds are greater for businesses, particularly in the health care sector.

Whatever you decide to use, it’s a good idea to (1) set up a “backup routine” for making proper backups on a schedule and (2) test the backup to see if it actually works and was done correctly, at least the first time.  A survey by Gartner and Storage Magazine reported that 34% of companies never test restoring a tape backup.  If you don’t, how will you know that you got it right?  Trust me, it’s not as automatic and simple as “they” claim.

CLONES

CLONES vs. BACKUPS:  Also, it’s important to consider at the outset how you want to back up your system or files, so a few definitions are in order:  A “clone” (sometimes called an image) of the entire hard drive creates a bootable duplicate drive that can be immediately substituted (“swapped out” on the same computer) if the main hard drive crashes, necessarily primarily for businesses which can’t lose a second of production.  Remember, if your hard drive crashes or becomes infected, your data (letters, accounting data, photos and the like) may be lost forever if you haven’t made a backup.  Often, we can professionally recover lost data on a hard drive if it hasn’t been overwritten, but this is a very expensive and time consuming process, one which you could have easily avoided.  It involves disassembly of the failed drive in a “clean room,” assembly of the disk into a new drive exactly like the old one and a one-time retrieval of some or all of the data on the original disk, if it hasn’t been scratched of otherwise damaged, which could make recovery  virtually impossible.  

By definition, In business applications “Backup” generally refers to the ability to store and then restore lost files when data is destroyed or lost; “Archiving” pertains to long-term bulk storage for later retrieval.

SYSTEM RECOVERY DISKS

SYSTEM RECOVERY DISKS:  Separate and apart from file or disk backups are system recovery disks.  These are necessary if your computer cannot be booted  (i.e. started) due perhaps to a corruption in the operating system (possibly caused by a failed operating system update) or a software driver.  The system recovery CD/DVD or flash drive will allow you to boot the machine from a stripped-down operating system or a Linux system, allow the necessary repairs and get the machine up and going again.  For more about this, see TIP #72.  This isn’t the same thing as restoring lost or corrupt files, as the files remain on the hard drive, but they just aren’t accessible because Windows can’t boot.  And remember -- Windows 10 is machine-centric, not a one-size-fits-all solution as with all previous versions of Windows, so you must create a separate Windows Recovery Drive for every computer.  No matter what, you should do this as soon as you set up your computer!!

RESTORE


RESTORING YOUR BACKUP:  Keep in mind that backup is only half the issue.  You have to restore your files from the backup if they are lost or damaged.  Therefore, especially if you are a business, you have to determine not only how, where and how frequently the backups are made, but also whether they contain “rollbacks” for various points in time, or just one current total backup and whether you can restore individual files or folders or only perform a complete system restore.  These are determinations that must be made when installing the backup software, not after catastrophe strikes.  Moreover, as much of a pain as it seems, it is necessary to test a backup once it is made in order to be certain that it will restore properly when needed.   Better to find out that you didn’t back up what you intended and were left with only orphaned files and desktop shortcuts now when you can do something about it rather than later when you can’t.

Whether you can restore individual files instead of your entire hard drive will depend upon exactly how the backup is made.  If the clone drive is mirrored (a simple file-by-file duplicate of the original drive), you can probably open the backup drive file in Windows Explorer and drop and drag individual files onto your current drive.  But if the clone drive is created by specialized vendor software that makes it own “.bak” or other image, you’ll probably have to install that same software onto your new drive, after formatting the drive and installing the operating system, then use that software to open the contents of the old drive and then copy and past individual folders if that’s a software option.

You should be aware that Windows and Apple operating systems both have features to locate and restore older versions of files you may have created, even if they are erased.  So you might not have to rely on a full backup or  clone for that purpose.   But you must enable these features (except for Windows 7) and have a continuously connected external drive (I know, I said it’s not a great idea) or a second internal hard drive if you expect to find your files.  You’ve got to set this up if you think you’ll need this capability.  Click HERE for more about this.

RESTORING TO ANOTHER COMPUTER:  Of course, if more than your hard drive fails (e.g. the motherboard is blown), you may need to restore a working drive onto a completely new replacement computer with its own new hard drive and motherboard and other hardware and devices.  However, you can’t just take the drive from your old computer and plug it into your new one.  This is because the operating system on your old computer is configured to work with the hardware (motherboard, video, sound, network and other cards, RAM, devices, etc.) in your old computer.  It won’t recognize the different hardware in your new computer.  The concept of “stateful information” is designed to lock the operating system to the specific hardware on which it was installed; your current operating system likes to think that it “owns” that software.  And it’s even worse with Windows 10, because each version of that O/S only works with that one computer, and you can’t re-install it onto subsequent computers in any easy manner, as there aren’t any disks for that purpose.

Luckily, many of the newer backup software programs  (Acronis or Easus, for example) include a “restore to dissimilar hardware” feature specifically to solve this problem.  But you should know that this isn’t always as easy as the manufacturers imply.  First, you can’t restore a cloned drive to dissimilar hardware.  This feature only works if you’ve backed up the files or partition.  Also, in order to restore to a new computer, you’ll have to create a WinPE (“emergency”) or ISO utility on a bootable CD/DVD or USB drive.  There are utilities for this.  And, again, this is best done when the file backup is created, so you’re not learning it when you’re under the gun because your computer has crashed.  You’ll have enough to deal with if that happens.

THE VIRTUAL MACHINE OPTION:  Another option if the hard drive has not failed (say a power surge has damaged the motherboard and other hardware, but not the hard drive), is to create a “virtual machine” from your old PC (See Tip #58) such that the new machine will convert your old machine’s drive into a machine which you can access via the new computer hardware (much like one network computer connecting to another) so that you may not have to worry about possible incompatibilities with newer operating systems and most drivers, as well as reinstalling programs which may not be compatible with the newer O/S or where you don’t have the installation software.  Programs like VMware vCenter Converter (free, for Windows and Linux) or Oracle’s Virtual Box (free and paid). should do the trick.  Of course, it’s best to have a newer, more powerful computer to run these multiple operating systems on the same computer, as it does consume more system resources and slow down system operation.

And see FAQ #29 about how to “wipe” your drive if necessary.

Nerd Alert: And, of course, WHO is the greatest backup and restore of all time?  DR. WHO, naturally.  The famous sci-fi time-traveling Time Lord, who has undergone about a dozen complete transformations since 1963, can backup and then restore himself into a completely new body at will.  Technology isn’t quite there yet, so he holds the record.

If you need more explanation or help with backup and restore, we furnish and install a full line of backup media and easy-to-use programs and services- please call us for advice and information...
 

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