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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Data Backups - Why Bother?

For many people, computers have become a daily necessity. We use them for work, for correspondence and for entertainment. Many of the files are important documents and losing them would cost us time and money. Backups are the best way to prevent their permanent loss.

Don't make the mistake of believing that backups are only for computer geeks or large corporations, or a task that can be performed 'when I get around to it'. On the contrary, backups are a necessity for everyone. Even if your computer has been running reliably for years, it will fail one day - either through virus attack, user error or just age.

On that day, one of two things will happen. You'll either suffer the grief that comes with losing financial information, passwords, music collections, personal photographs and all the software you've purchased. Or, you can repair or replace the computer and restore from the backups you've been making regularly. The latter is an annoyance, the first a disaster.

There are, unfortunately, an infinite variety of ways to lose data. Besides hardware failure, computers can be destroyed in fires or floods. Hard drives can be damaged by power surges caused by lightning strikes or data lost by a child randomly hitting the keyboard. Viruses can infect systems and erase hard drives.

But there's only one way to get it back - by having it available to be restored.

What to Backup?

For the average user, it's usually not necessary to backup every file on the computer, which would require large storage space. But at bare minimum home users should backup personal files and irreplaceable software. Spreadsheets with financial records not easily available from other sources, legal documents, work-in-progress... the list is large.

But backups needn't be.

The easiest way to do backups is to use the backup software that comes with the operating system. Windows has a free, usable backup program while similar ones are available for Mac, Linux and others. The software is easy to use and backing up is a simple matter of selecting which folders to backup. It even has a scheduler so backups can be automated to occur at convenient times.

For a modest sum backup software can be purchased that will only backup files changed since a certain date, or since the last backup. Alternatively, new files could be copied daily to a backup folder where they can be backed-up by your backup program. To ease the task of identifying which, use the Search option to list files 'newer than X'. Once the list is complete, copy them into the backup folder and run the program for just that folder.

Some data, such as e-mails are only slightly more difficult to protect. Some e-mail clients can be configured to keep copies of received and sent e-mails on the e-mail server. When that's not an option, most can export messages to a file, which can then be backed up.

Backups can be done to any kind of removable media - writeable CD's/DVD's, removable hard drives or even the newer 'keychain' devices that plug into a USB port. Even floppy disks can still be used in many cases. Documents often take a small amount of space. Just set aside 7 disks and rotate them from week to week.

Daily backups are one more thing to do in a busy schedule. But the day you lose that file you need and can't restore, you're going to be a whole lot busier.