Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Windows PC Backup Strategy

It is good to have a strategy and it is especially true when it comes to backing up your photos, documents and other precious data. Who knows what might happen, maybe your computer will die, you'll be flooded, a plague of locust will descend or worse still your computer is taken over by ransomeware! Whatever ill might befall your computer, make backups, it is your best insurance policy against any disaster.

There is a concept that I think is very important as a minimum, it is the 321 backup rule:
  • Have at least three backup copies of your data
  • Store the backup copies on two different media
  • Keep one backup copy off-site
But how do we put that into practice and what tools can we use? In this article we'll explore all of these questions and answer a few more too!

For a Windows PC there are three types of backup, they provide three different layers of insurance against different disasters. I recommend you use all three. The frequency you run them is up to you but I'll explain more below:

1) System Image Backup and System Repair Disc
What happens if there is a total disaster such as your computer hard disk drive dies? If that happens how do you restore your system?

Windows contains a free program called System Image Backup. You can use this to create a snapshot of everything that is on your computer. It will also prompt you to create a rescue disc called the System Repair Disc. Here's an easy to follow article on this:

It's important to create the System Repair Disc because it will enable you to start your computer in the event that Windows is corrupt or you are installing a brand new replacement hard disk (if your old one failed).

The System Image Backup has a downside though. You cannot use it to restore individual files. This means it is only useful in the event of a complete disaster. If you just accidentally deleted a file, there's no way you could easily get it back using the System Image Backup.

2) Full System Backup
Backs up all system and data files. This backup can be used to restore all files or individual files. Run this periodically, once a month for example.

Windows 10, 8.0 and 7 (but not 8.1) come with a free Backup and Restore utility:
I recommend you use it with a large capacity external USB hard disk drive as it can store multiple backups.

3) File Backup
Backs up only data files or only those files you are using often. Run this daily or better still, use a tool like File History (included free with Windows 10, 8.1 and 8) to backup any file immediately it has been changed. This is the best because, depending on the amount of storage you have, multiple versions (history) of the files will be stored. You must configure File History to use a USB drive, I recommend having a small USB flash drive permanently plugged into your computer for this purpose. 

An even better alternative is use a Cloud backup solution such as Carbonite - it's not free but it does have some advantages. It works in a similar way to Windows File History. Files are backed up as you change them, multiple versions of files are stored in the backup. The big difference is that if the worst happened and your house burns down, your USB drive would be toast but your Cloud backup would be safe. Apart from having to pay for it, there's another downside to Cloud backup; security. Who is taking care of your files? How secure are they? Serious companies like Carbonite encrypt your files and of course you should make sure you have a strong password. But it is true to say that using Cloud backup does introduce this extra dimension for you to be concerned about.

Of course there's also cloud storage drives like DropBox, OneDrive, GoogleDrive, etc. But these are not backup solutions, they are designed to be used for working and sharing files. Even so, you could copy important files to such storage as a kind of backup solution.

More points to consider:

Multiple Backups
I recommend you have at least one System Image Backup and at least two backups of your data files at any one time. The backups should be on separate media (two different drives) and in different physical locations. These precautions are in case one backup drive fails, at least there is another backup to cover you while you go to the shop to buy a new drive.

Different Locations
Store backups in different physical locations. Imagine your house burnt down, do you have a backup of your data somewhere safe? Maybe take a backup drive to work or use a Cloud backup service.

At least one of your backups should be disconnected/unplugged from your computer. In other words, don't backup and leave the drive connected all the time. If a virus hits your computer it might infect your connected devices including your backup. 

Imagine you delete a file today. Then later you run your backup, that deleted file is also deleted from your backup. The next day you decide deleting that file was a mistake, you want to recover it. You can't because it isn't in your backup as your backup reflects what's on your computer! OK, what to do? If you had a backup at every stage or that were made on a daily basis, you could go back to the point in the backup where the file exists and restore it. The downside is that your backup could be very large when storing multiple versions of files or multiple backups over time. In other words, you'll need plenty of spare disk space.

How often should you backup? This depends on you and your data. If you update your data files every day I would recommend backing up every day. If you only update files once in a few days perhaps a once or twice a week backup is enough. Also think about the data you are backing up, do you really need to back all of it up each time. For example, if you are storing photos from five years ago and you are not changing them now, they are static, they do not need to be backed up every day. You could make a backup once and store that somewhere. Your more frequent backup could then be used to backup only the latest data, saving time and storage space needed.

As mentioned above, often you have data files you don't use often or that don't change or perhaps there are software programs (setup.exe) you have downloaded and you want to keep. In this case you can archive these files. Archive means to put aside in a safe place but they don't need to be so accessible as a backup would be. For example, do you have photos from five years ago on your computer? Maybe you just need to keep a copy somewhere but you don't need to back them up every day because they don't change. Archiving can be useful if you don't have a lot of storage space on your computer. After archiving you could delete the original files from your computer. I recommend making at least two copies of any data, especially archived files. Store your archived backups in a very safe place away from humidity or extreme heat (don't leave them on a shelf that is hit by sunlight for example).

As you will not be accessing archived data often you could store the files on DVD-R discs. DVD-Rs are cheap and durable but there are some drawbacks to using them. Typically they can only contain 4.7GB per disc. They are being used less and less - think about the future, in years to come, to read your DVD archives you should keep an external USB DVD drive in a safe place. For the same reason, have at least two copies, one on DVD and one on another media.

USB flash drives have had a reputation for failing so you may think they are not the best for archives. However, the real problem with USB flash drives is that the more you write to them (save data on them), the higher the possibility of failure. If you buy a USB flash drive, save data to it and store it a dry cool place, then it should last many years. Of course, as I've said before, always keep at least one more copy of your data on other media to be safe.

File Format
What format are the files you back up stored in? This is very important for archives because if you backup using a commercial software tool that uses a preparatory file format, in five or ten years from now will you still have that software, if not can you restore the files? In this case consider storing at least your archived files just as files or perhaps in a common format. For example, if you use zip or even 7z, because they are commonly used, you should have no trouble in accessing those files in years to come.

If you are interested in writing your own backup solution I have a few articles on this subject, mostly using the Robocopy and 7za command line tools.

External USB hard disk drives are relatively cheap these days. I recommend the ones that are powered by USB (the ones you do not have to plug into the mains electricity). They are a little more expensive than 'desktop' external drives but they are smaller and only have one cable (USB), that's one less thing to go wrong. I use Western Digital Elements Basic Storage but other manufacturers are selling similar products at reasonable prices. Buy two drives and use them alternately, that will give you a good level of protection. Hard disk drives do have moving parts and therefore they can fail, take care of them.

USB flash drives are cheap, less storage capacity but even so they can form part of your strategy, for daily file backups they are ideal as they are convenient. For the best speed use USB 3, not USB 2 flash drives. But of course when you plug it into your computer make sure you plug it into the USB 3 port (sometimes computers come with a mixture of USB 2 and 3 ports, plugging a USB 3 device into a USB 2 port will mean it will run at USB 2 speed).

Don't buy the cheapest as they may not last long but on the other hand there's no need to spend a lot of money. Many brands such as SanDisk make high quality products for a reasonable price. In the past there was much told of USB flash drives wearing out after thousands of writes (the number of time files are saved to the drive). At the time of writing, April 2017, this is much less of a concern than it was, the quality of the USB drives is much better. However, don't put all your eggs in one basket! Use multiple USB flash drives and have multiple backups. 

Network Attached Storage (NAS) drives are a great idea but they are more expensive, especially if you only want to use it for backup. 

Test it!

I've seen many people have a very nice backup solution but they have never tested it, never actually restored files from it. When disaster does strike they are very surprised to learn that their backup is useless. It is important that you check your backup did really work, check the log file and most importantly, from time to time restore some sample files. That's the best way to be sure.

I've had a hard disk drive failure, it is hell. Once you've realise what a mess you are in, you reach for your backups. In my case at that time I had a problem with one of my backups, I couldn't restore everything. I had to use a data recovery program to pull the files off the crashed hard disk drive! It took hours and hours. Don't put yourself through this pain, follow at least the 321 backup rule and keep three backup copies, you will not regret it if that fateful day comes knocking. Be organised, think ahead and imagine the worst, then when you are hit with something just shy of 'the worst' you'll have a very nice smug feeling that you do everything possible.


A very good article explaining all of the Windows backup tools:

Carbonite Cloud Backup Service

Western Digital Hard Disk Drives

The images used in this article are from Public Domain Vectors

My advice is purely given as-is with no warranty or guarantee. I take no responsibility for any data loss.
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