Looks like I hit a sore spot a few weeks ago with my column about how home users are unprepared for disaster.
I focused on a favorite subject of mine, the use of cheap external hard drives as a backup medium. I ignored or gave short shrift to some other means of backup and heard from readers about it. I thought Id take this opportunity to fill in some of the gaps. And since that column PCMag came out with a great roundup on backup products and approaches.
I used to be a bigger fan of online backup than I am now, and for the same reasons I soured on a lot of backup mechanisms: the amount of data has outstripped the capacity of the backup device. Its actually a little different with online; its not that there isnt enough space, since you could get many gigabytes of storage online, but even if you had the capacity you dont have the bandwidth to do a real system backup.
Its conceivable that people could use online backup as a practical solution to data backup, although even that is not as clear as it used to be. But the point I was trying to make before, and what I will continue to harp on, is that backing up your data is not enough. If you have a complete online backup of your data and you have a disaster then you could certainly be in worse shape, but you still have a big problem: Online is not big and fast enough to store your programs and other system settings that only come with a complete system backup.
That said, the messages I got from readers and vendors makes it clear to me that online backup is a good secondary backup method, and brings me to another subject I didnt really cover: off-site backup. Online backup is one form of off-site backup, meaning keeping your backup in another location in case, for example, Hurricane Zelda comes through and immerses your computers in flood waters (note to self: keep off-site backups on high ground).
The problems with off-site backups are similar to those with online backups; doing a complete off-site backup requires a backup medium capable of holding a complete system backup, and these days thats hard to find. Even writable DVDs only hold a few gigabytes, and my complete system images are larger than that. A colleague suggested a potential answer a few paragraphs hence, but Im more inclined, as one reader was, to wait for dual-sided Blu-ray disks which will have a capacity of 50GB. By the time they are available and affordable that may still be a reasonable amount of data.
Off-site and online backup might one day be married into a perfect solution though, as I discussed with one vendor. Imagine buying a backup program/service combo: you run their backup program which uses writable DVDs (obviously youd need a burner) to make a one-time complete system backup, or perhaps it would do this periodically. In between it did backup online. Id need to see some modeling to know if it would be practical. I could see it working out.
Continuing on About Backing
One colleague makes a suggestion youll also find in the PCMag story: separate your code and data. I sort of do this already in the sense that I use the Windows My Documents folder as a root for all my data that I consciously save. I could go further and allocate a separate disk partition for data and back up that partition. This is, by the way, basically the Linux/UNIX way to do things.
But in Windows there is other data, and you cant easily stick it on another partition. For instance, a lot of configuration information and data, like your Mozilla bookmarks, are stored in the users profile folder off the Documents and Settings folder. Its possible to change the location for this folder but its easy not to. And its still possible (although a bad idea) for programs to store data in other fixed locations, like the Windows directory. Yes, doing all this makes it easier to do a complete data backup, but its still not a complete system backup since it lacks applications, not to mention Windows itself.
Other readers recommended what are essentially mirroring systems: two hard disks, keeping mirror images of each other, so if one fails the other can take right over. But this is only useful for hard disk failure; if you accidentally delete a file, it gets deleted on both disks. You still need a real backup system.
I have also learned that NAS systems are even cheaper than I thought, and there are NAS enclosures for well under $100. This seems like the future of the low-end to me. The price of these enclosures will certainly drop even further, and then no home network should be without them.
Unlike the mixed online-offline and separating code and data, I like the idea of backup being something that happens automatically and mindlessly, and I only have to think about it when a disaster strikes, and then its there for me. Thats when I know Ill do it right.
For me the really big open question is testing: You can never really be confident of a disaster recovery plan unless you test it, and that means testing a restore of your backup. Its one thing to test a restore of your data, and you can do that to a test location, but testing a full system restore is a risky and time-consuming thing to do. Heres one way you can do it: Buy yourself that new, larger hard disk you know you need anyway. Test your backup by restoring to it, as if your current hard disk crashed. When youre done you can put your old hard disk in an enclosure and back up to it.
Its still a bit of a shell game; where had you been storing that backup you just restored? But the security from having a disaster recovery plan in which you have confidence is profound, the kind that really makes you feel better. Its worth going to some trouble and cost.
Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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