The Best Data Backup Strategy for YouMary O. Foley
Shep Bostin has heard so many computer backup horror stories that he’s lost count. A Maryland-based “managing geek” for 1-800-905-GEEK, Bostin recalls clients who have lost tax returns, a master’s thesis, a half-written novel -- all because they neglected to store their data in a secure way.
“One of our clients had to send his computer to a forensic recovery lab, and it cost him $1,800,” says Bostin. “Backing up on a 25-cent CD would have saved him this headache.”
With today’s computers functioning as personal treasure troves of customized photos, videos, music and documents, having a proper backup method is more important than ever. Contrary to popular belief, computer data isn’t always lost due to a virus or a blitzed hard drive. It could just as easily be a power outage or a corrupt computer program. Sharing computers is another common cause. “Everyone knows the story of the 14-year-old downloading too much junk and deleting the family genealogy project,” says Doug Jacobson, professor of computer engineering with Iowa State University.
The answer is to devise a reliable routine for regular backups. Here are some smart strategies to follow:
Backup Basics 1: Back up on a regular basis
It’s important to get into a regular routine of backing up. The frequency of your routine depends on how often you use your computer. If you are on the computer daily, back up each night. But if you're on the computer only a few times per week, try backing up on a weekly basis. Figure out what works for you and follow through.
Backup Basics 2: Choose your files wisely
The whole point of backing up is to create a copy of important files that can't be replaced. You don’t necessarily need to back up your operating system or other software; if you bought them new, you should have those files on a CD and can reinstall them if necessary. One approach is to start with files that are one-of-a-kind: that half-written novel, the thesis, or the digital video of your son's first baby steps. Once you have those files secure, you can tackle the digital photos, school work, or emails that have some value to you.
Backup Basics 3: Combine backup technologies
Fortunately, there are a number of methods for backing up computer data. Your best back up routine will likely include a combination of technologies. Here is an overview of your options:
CDs or DVDs are the simplest and cheapest way for individual users to back up. They are also the easiest way to safeguard a small amount of critical data. “CDs are very inexpensive, and will hold a lot of data -- up to 500 megabytes of data. DVDs can hold up to four gigabytes,” Jacobson says. Just how much storage is that? According to Jacobson, Shakespeare’s complete works could take up five megabytes. One DVD could hold the Bard’s works 1,000 times over.
Flash drives, also known as thumb drives or universal serial bus (UBS) drives, are also an option for backing up data, particularly from a laptop. These are thumb-sized, removable, memory storage devices that you stick into the UBS port on your laptop and onto which you copy files. While these drives are widely used to transport files from work to home or while traveling, they can also be used for backup. Flash drives are pricier than CDs, running anywhere from $20 to $150 depending on the storage they offer. These tiny devices can be carried in a purse or pocket, and can easily misplace, but when using them for backup make sure to put them in a safe place. “You may want to put them in a safety deposit box with your other valuables,” Jacobson advises.
A stationary external hard drive is another option for backup and helps protect your data in case your computer is disabled by a virus, Trojan horse, or other problem. The external drive (between $60 and $150 retail, depending on storage capacity and other features) is similar to your computer's internal hard drive, in that it can hold important data, such as files and computer programs. But it sits outside your main computer and files are transferred back and forth via a cable. The external drive allows you to store important information off of your computer's main drive and it would remain unaffected if the computer's primary hard drive were corrupted.
A portable external hard drive is another possibility for those wanting a take-it-anywhere option. As small as 2-6 inches across and often weighing less than 8 ounces, they can fit in your pocket or handbag. These can be a good option for backing up laptops or handheld devices. Like CDs and DVDs, they could be used for off-site storage. But, as with CDs and DVDs, you must remember to back up regularly. Portable hard drives can cost between $79 and $300, depending on storage and other features.
Software programs are available that will automatically back up your computer to a stationary external drive and notify you each time. These programs can easily back up entire operating systems, user settings, and applications. With an external drive that’s always in place, this method is automatic, backing up your taxes or email even if you forget. It also may be better for backing up large files that would require several CDs. While this option cannot prevent your computer from crashing, most software can ensure that the last backed-up version of your computer’s content will survive. Often, a computer’s operating system and software could be restored
Off-site backup services are offered through telecommunications providers or virtual storage specialists. These companies will back up your files periodically and store them in cyberspace. This might be a good option for people who keep a large amount of valuable data on their home computers, such as vital family records or data from a home-based business, or who live in areas prone to frequent natural disasters, such as hurricanes or wildfires. Moreover, off-site backup protects your data if your computer or laptop is stolen. Off-site backup can cost as little as $5.95/month for 2 gigabytes of storage, or run as high as $620/year for those with large storage needs.
Backup Basics 4: Test drive your backup routine
Once you have created a backup routine, be sure to test it periodically to make sure it’s operating properly, Bostin advises. And whether you choose to back up your data yourself, rely on software, use a backup service, or some combination of all, the most important step is to make sure the backup gets done.
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