Backing up Before you get the Blues


All computers will typically develop problems over time, with some inevitably failing at the worst possible moment. We know that backing up the data held on our computer is important, but all too frequently it ends up in the ‘too hard basket’ – or, we may assume that because we are performing backups that things are OK.

As an IT technician, I have had several occasions when I have had to tell a client that I cannot retrieve their data. In this situation my next question is always, ‘When was your last backup?’ If you are one of those rare individuals who can confidently say ‘We backup regularly and we checked it last week/month’, you have our admiration and envy. However, the reality for many when asked this question is that a blank look crosses their face, followed by panic. While a computer failure might not be the worst event that can happen, many are devastated at the loss of important information held on their computer.

Some also assume that if they are doing backups they can relax. But if they have not checked whether they can retrieve their data, they may ultimately be in the same position as someone who has no backup at all. A customer of mine was performing backups every day, confident that in a worst case scenario all was well. A failure with their system led to an examination of the backups, only to discover that for over a year they had not completed properly. The customer was facing a total loss of critical data. Over a week later, and at cost of over $3,000 for an external specialised data recovery service, they were able to retrieve their data – an expensive resolution to a problem that a regular maintenance check of their system would have detected and rectified.

Following are some of the key considerations to ensure that you are backing up what you need to. If you are already performing backups, the information below can assist in making sure that your approach to backing up is still suitable for your requirements. Don’t forget to check that your backup is working and that you can retrieve your information on a regular basis.

What is a backup?

A backup is a copy of your information saved somewhere else. It can be as simple as copying a file to a USB stick, or as complex as running a tape and internet storage system in a large organisation.

What do you want to save?

While you may want to save everything, the reality is that your budget will limit what you can save and how often. Also, different types of data require different backup solutions.

  • Data – This includes pictures and documents – generally, anything that is saved in an individual file or folder. Simply copying the information to another location (for example, to a USB stick or another hard drive) is quick, relatively inexpensive, and often sufficient, although a highly manual process.
  • Content – This includes e-mail, MYOB and other databases that usually rely on a specific program to run. Backing up needs to factor in having access to a copy of the relevant program and usually the settings (for example, logins, locations, associated files). You also need to consider whether the backup can be completed while using the program – or whether it must be done outside of normal use.
  • Environment – This refers to things that make up your computer or system, such as shortcuts, favourites, programs and printers – generally, the entire system as a package. This backup solution needs to factor in replacing the system exactly – this includes both hardware and software. This type of backup may take a long time and must be done when it is not being used.

What can you afford to lose?

All backup solutions have a price, as well as requiring effort on your part to implement and maintain. It is possible to have real-time backup solutions, so that you do not lose a single transaction or document – but they do come at a high price. The reality is that you will need to balance how often your backups are performed against the cost of losing your data. Some people say that they cannot afford to lose more than 2 hours’ worth of data. Yet others say that they could cope with losing a day, a week or even a month’s worth of data before it would be a problem for them. Only you know how much you can afford to lose – or not! If you only need to copy files, a $20 USB stick and less than ½ hour of time on a regular basis is all that is needed. More robust solutions using external drives and associated backup software typically cost from $250 – $750, including setup.

Types of backups

Just as there are many different types of insurance to meet different needs, your backup should suit you. Each approach to backing up has its pros and cons. An experienced IT technician can help you determine suitable backup solutions that will meet your needs. A key question I often ask is – ‘Will you need to restore information regularly – or are you only backing up for an emergency?’ When assessing your backup strategy, understanding the types of backups helps in determining an appropriate approach to saving and restoring your information.

  • Full – This backup makes a complete copy of every file with every backup. They generally take up large amounts of storage space and require some time to run. Retrieving information is generally easy and quick with this method. It generally allows you to keep selected backups for several months or years.
  • Incremental – This means only making a backup copy of the files that have changed since the last backup. Incremental backups are generally quick and require less storage space. However, restoring data is more complicated than with a full backup. You will need to use several incremental backups to restore all data changes since the last full backup.

How long do you need to keep backups?

If you need to be able to go back six months, a year, or longer to retrieve a file, keeping only the most recent backup may not be sufficient. Keeping backups that cover longer periods of time may be necessary for legal or other reasons. This may increase the amount of storage space required and will also determine the type of backup solution that would be most appropriate.

Location, location, location

Let’s imagine that your backup drive is next to your computer, it’s working automatically and that you can retrieve last week’s file when it was accidentally deleted. Great! But what happens if there is a fire, flood or theft? In this situation you may lose your backup as well. So you need to consider where your backups are stored, both short and long-term. Some options are:

  • Local storage – Keeping a backup on another physical drive or another folder in your system is known as local storage. Backing up and restoring is convenient and easy. But any loss of the main system will likely mean loss of your backups as well.
  • Removable storage – Any device that you can plug in and remove from your system is known as removable storage. This type of storage allows for flexibility and ‘off-site’ storage capability, but does require a proactive commitment to maintain – you have to regularly remove it and plug it back in, storing it somewhere safe when it is not attached to the system.
  • Internet (the ‘Cloud’) – As accessing the internet becomes faster, performing a backup to ‘somewhere else’ is becoming increasingly viable. Issues to be considered in this scenario include the service providers’ availability; your internet capacity; where the data is physically stored; who has access to it; and what happens if …?

Last Thoughts

With the growth of the Internet and the global nature of some applications, it is possible that you can store information directly on the internet as you work – for example, via Google Docs. A discussion with a qualified IT technician about the current capabilities and potential pitfalls of these methods is necessary to see if they will meet your needs.

Like the creation of any good habit, backing up requires some commitment on your part. You may, for example, need to resolve to leave your system on at certain times; swap removable drives on a regular basis; regularly check that it is working and that you are able to retrieve your information. Having regular backups scheduled and performed by yourself or a technician will provide peace of mind – which is preferable to having ‘the blues’ if your computer happens to fail!

The staff of Four Quarters Computing are available to discuss your backup requirements and options with you, helping you to establish a solution that meets your needs. Please feel free to contact us.


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