Backup Becomes a Standard PC Feature

We all knew it was critical to back up our PCs, but only now is it becoming easy and practical. OEMs are beginning to get involved.

PCs crash every now and then. We do what we can to prevent it, but we also have to prepare for when it happens. Any business that doesn't have an effective backup plan, one that has been tested and has at least some off-site component, is being irresponsible.

My favorite recent story of business backup is of a fired technology director of a Houston organ donation company who-it is alleged-hacked into the company's systems to wipe its database. Yes, she is accused of wiping, among other things, organ donation information. Pretty awful accusation. In any event, someone damaged the database, but according to the Houston Chronicle the data was all recovered from backups. (Wouldn't a technology director have understood that this would be the case? But I digress...)

Thank goodness this company had backups. A company could be literally ruined if it had no effective backup after a disaster like that. For individuals and their consumer PCs we have lower standards. But losing your PC with all your e-mail and your Quicken file and such things is still really bad, even if you can piece your life back together over time.

Now it looks like the PC industry is starting to do something about this problem. Starting now, every Packard Bell PC sold in Europe will come with Carbonite, an online backup service, installed and active. I know I shouldn't generalize this into an industrywide trend, but I have to think this is appealing, much more than the usual "crapware" bundled on PCs. For online backup of data to become a standard feature of new PCs would be a totally good thing, one of the few really good things the industry could do for users.

Carbonite seems like a pretty impressive service. For $49.95 per year it backs up your PC online with no capacity limits. By default it backs up the Documents and Settings folders (in XP), but you can add other files if you want. Carbonite has a lot on older backup approaches. It doesn't run as a scheduled task, but continuously, in idle moments. You don't have to have your computer on at 3 a.m. in order to have it backed up. It's a set-it-and-forget-it service.

There are other services that offer online backup, and there have been for a long time. I believe I reviewed a group of consumer online backup services around seven years ago. And it's not just services like this. Products like Symantec's Norton 360 come with online backup space as part of the subscription. (Norton 360 comes with only 2GB of space, although you can buy more space.) Microsoft includes Carbonite with its Money product. And Apple's .Mac service includes 20GB of storage.

Because hard drives are immense these days and bandwidth is, by comparison, limited, these backup services focus on backing up your data, what Carbonite calls "the irreplaceable contents of your computer." Clearly this is accurate, as far as it goes. If your hard drive were to crash irreparably and you were able to get your data back, well, things could be worse. But you'd still have to reinstall Windows on the new hard drive, along with your applications and possibly some more, depending on where those applications store things. That's a lot of work, probably a good day or so lost.

Much better would be a backup system that backed up the entire hard drive. But where to? I have always looked for such solutions for my own systems, and in the past I've used image backup products like Symantec's Ghost and stored them on an external hard drive.

Now I use the ultimate home backup system, Windows Home Server. WHS is generally sold on appliance computers into which you can place extra storage. The software easily and automatically backs up the entire contents of each PC's hard drive to the server. To restore, just boot off of a CD included with Windows Home Server and follow the prompts.

This still leaves an unaddressed problem: how to back up the server itself. What if the house burns down? What if it's broken into and the server stolen? Alas, I think I'm one of the few who thinks so far ahead for home PCs. It would be nice if there were an affordable solution, but it's a small market for now and backup might end up being expensive. My own WHS server backup folder is 272GB. Clearly most people don't need something this fancy.

What they need is something like Carbonite. They need a backup solution that's set-and-forget, and that doesn't get in their way. Making it a standard feature for a PC is good for the user and good for the PC company.

Security CenterEditor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer's blog Cheap Hack.