Computer Backup Options

The Complete Guide to Computer Backup.

Manual Backups:
The Original File Backup System

Have you ever been working on a file and thought to yourself:
"This file is really important, I’m going to email myself a copy just in case something happens."

Or this:
"I have to make some changes to this, but I want to be able to refer back to this version exactly the way it is right now, so I’m going to save it again with a different name."€

If so then you’re already familiar with one kind of backup system: manual backups. These are backups, which you make by hand whenever you think of it. Maybe you have a reminder that goes off every day or every week telling you to make a backup, and then you do a certain set of steps. Or maybe you just use “Save As” to make a new copy of a file with a new name. If you have ever found yourself working on a file named something like “Proposal_Draft_Final_3.doc” then manual backups are already part of your daily life.


PROS

Manual backups are good because you are more likely to know when and why they were made. For example - This is what the report looked like last week when I gave it to the boss for comments. Manual backups often mark a specific point in time or stage of development in a project.


CONS

Relying solely on manual backups is like only wearing a seatbelt when you expect to get into a car accident. Most of the time you won’t know when you will need a backup until you need it. When you are in the middle of an important project, you have many things on your mind, and making a manual backup probably won’t be one of them. Nor should it be, because you can easily automate the process so that it runs all the time without you thinking about it.

Making a manual backup by saving a copy of a file with a new name might be a helpful reference point, but it’s not a good backup system.

What Options Do You Have to Backup Your Computer?

Years ago the only way to do backups was to manually create a new file or to save your files to tape drives which were usually slow and expensive. Most people never even knew about tape drives, and few people could afford them. Tape drives were primarily used by corporations for large data backups.

Fortunately today there are more backup options than ever before. You can backup your computer (or just selected files) to:

Which Backup Solution is Right for You?

Before you can decide which backup system is right for you, it’s important to think about what you are trying to accomplish with your backups:

Do you want to protect yourself against losing all of your files, applications, and settings? Would you like to be able to see your previous versions of files? Are you worried about turning on your computer one day and finding out that the hard drive has failed? Is it important to minimize the "down time" of your computer, so you can get back to work quickly? Are you worried about losing your files in a robbery or a disaster? Maybe you’d like to have access to all your files wherever you go?

With those questions in mind let’s take a closer look at each of your options.

Let’s get started.

Backing Up to CDs, DVDs,
or Blu-ray Disks

For many years making a backup to a CD was a very popular way of protecting your files because nearly every computer had a CD burner, and CDs were easy to find and were inexpensive. Unfortunately CDs can only store up to around 700 MB per disk. When DVDs came along they were more expensive but had greater capacity (4 or 8 GB). Then came Blu-ray disks, which can hold an impressive 25-50 GB. However Blu-ray burners have never really caught on, and the blank discs are still very expensive.


PROS

Known as optical disks, CDs and DVDs are light and easily portable. They can easily be labeled and stored without taking up much space. If you accidentally knock it onto a hard floor, it will probably still work.


CONS

Relying solely on manual backups is like only wearing a seatbelt when you They are slow and nearly impossible to automate. They are also hard to manage if you are trying to backup more data than will fit on to one disk. Large backups spread across multiple disks require specialized software, which could complicate the process of restoring the backups in the future. The more data you save the more disks you will have to buy and store, adding complexity and cost.

What Is the Best Use of CD/DVD/Blu-ray Backups?

Although you probably will not be able to get all of your files onto one of these disks, they can be used for keeping a specific type or group of files together.

If you are required to keep some digital files (such as financial records) for a specific number of years, making a backup at the end of the year, labeling it (When was the disk made? What is on it? For example: “2012-2013 Financial Documents as of Jan 31, 2014”), and putting it on a shelf or in a drawer is an easy way to make sure that you are in compliance.

If you have a large collection of family pictures (perhaps including some pictures which have been scanned and did not exist as digital images), making copies on disk and mailing them out to family members is an easy way to distribute them. This is especially true after large family gatherings at the holidays. Although some pictures might get posted to social networks or emailed, most of the time those will not be the full-sized images and are not as easy to find later on.

Making a Clone of Your Hard Drive

A hard drive clone is also sometimes referred to as a bootable backup or a system restore drive but the idea is the same: it is a complete backup of your entire hard drive taken at a specific point in time. Ideally these kinds of backups can be used to reboot your computer in case its hard drive dies, although some systems are designed only to restore a copy onto a new drive.


PROS

A clone can be a lifesaver if you try to turn on your computer one day and the hard drive simply will not work. Best case scenario you could be up and running in a few minutes from your clone backup, and you might be able to diagnose or repair your primary drive from the backup. If the primary drive needs to be replaced, you can use the clone backup until the replacement drive arrives and is installed.

Hard drive clones can usually be updated automatically, for example: every day at a time when the computer is normally not in use.


CONS

Relying solely on manual backups is like only wearing a seatbelt when you To be most useful in case of a hard drive failure, you would want the clone to have been updated as close as possible to the time before the failure happened; however, if you make a change to your computer and do not immediately realize that it caused a problem, you might update the clone before discovering the issue and then the clone would be affected as well. For example, imagine that you updated an important piece of software and use it for a few days before realizing that a feature you rely on does not work. If your clone is updated every night, it will not help in that type of emergency. That might lead you to decide that instead of updating the clone every night, you will update it every week. However, having a clone which only updates weekly, means that you might lose 6 days worth of work if your hard drive dies suddenly.

A cloned drive does not have any history of file changes or deletions. It is purely a snapshot in time. If you accidentally deleted a file today you might be able to get back a fairly recent copy from the clone, but it obviously won’t have any of the changes that you made since the clone was updated. If you suddenly realize that you accidentally deleted a file a week ago, an up-to-date clone will not help.

(It is also important to note that a clone backup won't help revive your computer if it dies for some other reason than a failed hard drive.)

What is the Best Use of a Cloned Drive?

A clone drive that is updated nightly is a good safety net. The best use of a clone drive is as an emergency replacement when your primary hard drive fails. It can help minimize downtime and keep you productive even when a hard drive disaster strikes.

Backing Up to an External Hard Drive

When you back up your files to an external hard drive you are (usually) not backing up the entire drive; instead, you are backing up your most important files. Unlike a cloned drive, an archive is **not** tied to a specific moment in time, instead it is meant to show you a history of your files including changes and even deleted files.

An archive can help you recover files which have been damaged or which have had changes made to them that you want to undo. If you have ever opened a file and realized that it was missing information that had been there before (either because it was overwritten or accidentally removed), then you know how helpful an archive can be. Or if you resize a picture and then accidentally save the smaller version over the original, you could get the original back if it was archived on an external hard drive.


PROS

An archive can allow you to reach into the past and go back to a time before you made a change that you later realized was a mistake. Apple calls their archive software Time Machine, which is a good way of thinking about an external hard drive archive: it allows you to go back in time. As long as the archive drive is available, and has enough space on it, the backups can be automated.


CONS

Most archive software does not update in real time because constantly running backups can slow down your computer. Instead most external drive backups run every X number of minutes, e.g. Time Machine only runs hourly. Any changes made in-between when the archive has been updated will not be available.

Another issue is if a file is moved or renamed from on your primary drive it can be difficult to find older versions in the archive unless you remember the previous name of the file.

The biggest con is the fact that external hard drives are susceptible to local disasters, e.g. a fire or a robbery. If you lose your computer to theft or disaster it is very likely that you will lose the external hard drive as well, leaving you without your data.

What is the Best Use of an External Hard Drive?

Maintaining an archive of your most important files gives you a greater chance of fixing a mistake, while not wasting space by backing up system files or software. Having an archive is the fastest way of fixing a mistake, which went unnoticed for a certain number of days or even weeks.

Backing Up to a Remote Hard Drive

If you have more than one computer, you can backup files from one computer to another using specialized software. You can even backup to a friend’s computer or to a backup device on your network.

This is similar to the archive method described above, except that it does not require another hard drive connected to your computer. Instead you use your Internet (or local area network) connection to backup the files. This is especially convenient for portable computers, which might not be plugged in to a backup hard drive.


PROS

Backing up to a different computer or local network device can be more convenient than backing up to a hard drive that you have physically connected to your computer. The backups can run any time you are connected to the network, without having to attach cables to your computer. This is particularly helpful if you use a laptop. Backup software can also be set to schedule backups during times of the day when you are not using your computer.


CONS

Because all of the data has to be backed up over your network connection, it will be a lot slower than backing up to a hard drive physically connected to your computer. Generally this is only a problem for the first backup, as subsequent backups will only need to send what has changed.

The initial setup and configuration can also be complex, especially if you need to maneuver through different firewalls. Also your Internet Service Provider might specifically prohibit this type of network traffic. Backing up to a friend’s computer might be free, but it also requires that s/he has a fast enough Internet connection and a computer which is always on to receive the backups that you send. Lastly you will need to manage the limited space available by eventually deleting old backups, or make sure that you configure the software to delete them for you.

That backup drive will also need to be checked regularly to make sure that it is still working, and when it does die, you will have to start over from scratch.

What is the Best Use of Remote Hard Drive Backups?

Backing up to another computer can be a no-cost solution, but with the trade-off of added complexity to setup and maintain. If you backup to a friend’s computer and your drive dies, you might be able to quickly restore your computer by accessing the remote backup drive. If you’re looking for a low cost solution with a potential quick restore then backing up to a remote hard drive can be a good solution, as long as the remote drive is online.

Backing Up Your Data To
An Online Storage Service

Another option is to backup to an online storage service such as, such as Amazon S3, Amazon Glacier, Rackspace, or Microsoft’s Azure. Services like iCloud Drive, Dropbox, Google Drive, and others can seem like a good backup solution, because they are providing multiple copies of the same file in different places. However, these services are primarily designed for syncing files and are not a true backup solution. One of the primary reasons that synchronizing files is not a good backup system is that when you delete a file in one place, it will be deleted at all of them. If that deletion was an accident, you have just multiplied a mistake! Additionally, most syncing and sharing services go back to the “manual” approach of backup, and put the onus on users to copy their important files in to the syncing service.


PROS

Online storage services are always available whenever you are connected to the Internet, and you never have to worry about running out of storage space (although you will pay more for additional space as your archives grow).


CONS

If you are backing up to an online storage provider it can be very expensive, depending on how much data you are backing up. Although most online storage services offer a free tier where you can store a few gigabytes of files, once you use up that space the costs of these services are generally much more expensive than a cloud backup service. Additionally, some of the services will charge you also charge you for uploads and downloads in addition to the storage costs. These types of services are also typically slower than physical backups as they rely on your internet speed and connection to upload all your data.

What is the Best Use of Online Storage Backup?

Rather than trying to make a continual backup of your computer to an online storage provider, it might be best to use them for specific groups of information. For example, at the end of the year you might want to make a backup set of all the pictures you took in the previous year. Or you might want to backup a folder of pictures after a family vacation, etc.

If you want to keep a continual online backup, you would be better off looking at a cloud backup service.

Backing Up Your Data To
An Online Storage Service

If you took the convenience of archive backups and removed the complexity of data backups to online storage services, what you would come up with is an online cloud backup service. All that is required is to create an account, download and install a small piece of software, and set it to run in the background on your computer. (More advanced settings are available if you want them, such as including or excluding certain folders or types of files.)


PROS

Online backups can be run anytime you are connected to the Internet, and restored from any computer connected to the Internet. The software is typically also designed to optimize what you send, to avoid duplication.

If your cloud backup provider offers unlimited storage you do not need to worry about managing your backups or running out of space like you would with a regular hard drive.

Because these backups are not stored locally they also protect against theft or disaster (fire, flood, etc). Some cloud backup providers can even send you a hard drive with your backup data as an alternative to restoring your files via an Internet connection.

The biggest advantage of cloud backup services is that they do not store your backups on one drive (which could fail at any moment). Instead your information is backed up on many drives, in many places. You never have to worry about a drive dying and losing your archive history, because when one drive dies, the information on it is stored elsewhere and will be automatically replicated to other drives.


CONS

The initial upload of your files to cloud backup storage can take days or even weeks, depending on how much you are backing up. (Once uploaded, only changed files will need to be uploaded.) If you are on a metered connection, you will have to severely limit what you back up (or, if there are unmetered hours of the day, set the backup software to only run during that time).

Some providers may limit the amount of online storage that you are given, so you will have to manage what you back up. Also be aware of what their retention policies are for deleted files (A week? A month? A year? Forever?) Also, be sure that you understand how your data is protected.

For maximum security, your files should be encrypted locally before they are uploaded. (Most cloud backup providers will automatically encrypt your files before they are uploaded, but you can opt to add a private security key for added security.)

What Is the Best Use for Online Cloud Storage Services?

Online backup may be the most convenient option for keeping backups current without ever having to think about them. This is as close to set it and forget it as you can get. If you have slow upload speeds, use the software settings to backup your most important files first, excluding easily replaced audio and video files (which will take the longest to upload). Then if you wish to backup more files add them after the crucial files are protected.

What is the Best Backup Solution for You?

A good backup system will use two or more of the above solutions, including at least one “off-site” backup. If you do not have any backups at all, the easiest starting point is to sign up for a cloud backup service -- you can do it today, right from your computer, without buying any additional hardware. Your computer will back itself up any time it has an Internet connection.

In addition, a local archive will give you the opportunity to restore accidentally deleted files easily and give you added peace of mind.

The last piece of a complete backup system is a clone backup, which will make sure that you can immediately get back to work even if your hard drive dies completely.