How to quickly and easily backup your important data
Posted by Aaron Klein on 19 September 2013 01:30 PM

If someone thinks about backing up their data it is often a thought that is met with confusion and fear as to not knowing where to start or how to do it properly.  The purpose of this article is to debunk some common backup misconceptions and outline a successful backup strategy that will leave the user with the knowledge that their most important information is safe and secure.

Common misconceptions about backing up your data

  1. To difficult/don't know how
  2. To expensive
  3. It takes too long
  4. I have nothing of importance
  5. Never had the need

Debunking the misconceptions

  1. Backing up your files is too difficult.  This statement couldn’t be further from the truth.  There are several backup options out there that take all the work out of backing up your files to the point that you do not even have to think about it because the files are backed up automatically.
  2. There are several options out there that are zero cost or pennies to just a few dollars a month.  These would be for online backup services or for a one time purchase of less than $100 or more likely less than $60 an external hard drive could be purchased that could be just as cheap after factoring the price of the purchase out over the lifetime of the drive.
  3. If you chose one of the automatic backup methods then backing up your files takes no extra time at all.  Just save your file into a folder that is configured to backup and the software on your system will detect the new file and begin to back it up automatically.  If you’re using a manual method and back up regularly then it should take no more than 5-10 minutes a week.
  4. For the users that say they have nothing that they really care about I ask do you have digital music on your computer.  What about digital photo's?  What would you think if one day you woke up and the music or photos on your computer where no longer there?  Have you purchased programs off the internet that you have downloaded?  Do you have a copy of these applications someplace else?  What if you needed to reinstall these applications?  You may be forced to purchase them again if you do not have the installers backed up.
  5. Computers and hard drives fail.  If you haven’t had a hard drive fail on you then you should count yourself lucky as the odds are against you.  Nearly every computer user will at some point in their life have their computer's hard drive fail on them.  In most cases these failures come with no warning and once they fail there is near zero chance of recovering the information off the drive without sending the drive off to a data recovery expert which can be rather expensive.  Far more expensive than having a good backup plan in place.

The basics of backing up

At the heart of it a backup is simply a copy of a file in a separate location.  Let’s say you download a song off the internet.  You place the song on your computer under the My Music folder.  At some point you have a drive issue that causes you to no longer have access to the file.  Without having a second copy of this file you will need to download the file again off the internet and if you cannot prove you purchased it before you may have to purchase it a second time.

To back up this song all you need to do is copy the file that is in your My Music folder to another location, this could be a USB thumb drive, an external hard drive or a cloud based account.  Should you then lose access to the original file on your computer all you need to do is copy the file from your backup location back to your computer.  I have heard some people saying that after they backup their files to another drive they delete them from their computer to save space.  If you do this your backup instantly becomes your original as you no longer have two copies of the file but again only one copy and in the event your 'backup' fails you once again lose the file as you have no other copy of it.

For a file to truly be backed up there must be at least two copies of the file on two separate forms of storage.  This can be your computer’s hard drive and a USB flash drive.  Ideally these two forms of storage are also not kept together.  For example if you store your backups on a flash drive that you keep in your laptop bag and the laptop bag becomes misplaced then you have lost the original and the backup.  At a minimum the backup device should be kept in your room but totally separate from your computer itself.  Ideally the backup would be kept outside your room in the event that something should occur to everything that is in your room.

This is where online backup services come into play.  They have many benefits but the biggest one of them is the physical distance between your backup copies of the files and the originals on your computer.  Another benefit to the online providers is that you have access to the backup files from anywhere as long as you have internet access.

Methods of backing up your data

  • Free cloud services like Google's Google Drive or Microsoft's OneDrive for Business.  All students have 30GB of cloud storage on Google's Google Drive service and 1TB of storage with Microsoft OneDrive for Business.  This space can be used at no cost to the student and is as simple as saving the file you want backed up into the Google Drive folder.  The following article outlines the benifits of using Google Drive and links to the article walking you through installing Google Drive on your PC or Mac.  
  • Purchasing a large USB thumb drive or USB hard drive.  While this method is very manual the time it takes is rather small per week.  I would suggest setting up a calendar reminder on your phone or computer to remind you to once a week copy your My Documents, My Music, My Video, My Pictures folders from your PC to the external device.  In theory you only need to copy new or changed files but it may be just as easy to copy everything and tell the computer to overwrite if the file already exists.  Be sure to purchase a drive large enough to backup all of your files.
  • Subscribe to an online backup service.  There are several companies offering online backup services.  The price for these services range from FREE to $100 per year.  In addition these services may limit or have different pricing structures around how much data you have backed up to the service where others state the amount you can store is unlimited.  Here are two resources for more information about different online backup providers.  PC Magazine article Disaster-Proof your Data with Online Backup and Wikipedia has a huge table with a comparison of online backup services.

What files should I backup? 

Think about what files you would rather not lose.  They will likely include items you have saved in your Documents, Music, Videos and Photos libraries.  There may be programs you have purchased off the internet and downloaded.  For applications you have purchased you should backup the installer files and any activation or unlock codes that may be needed.  You do not need to backup installed applications or operating system files.  In the event of a hard drive failure the base operating system can be reinstalled from your backup of Windows and applications you may own can be reinstalled from backup installers.  One down side to the Windows Backup utility is that you have to have a working install of Windows before you can use the backup utility to restore your files.

Securing your backups 

Once you being to back up your important files you should think about securing your backup.  In general you should store your backup in a separate physical location than your main computer.  In the event something occurs to your main computer having the backup stored separate will assure that your backup is safe.  Consider storing your backup in a lock box that is water and fire resistant.  If you are storing your files online does the online provider encrypt your information?  If they do not you may want to consider encrypting your files before you upload them to the online backup provider.  This will likely make an automatic backup ineffective so we would suggest using an online provider only if they encrypt your files during the backup process.

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