I’ve my share of hard drive failures and software accidents, and more often than not I’ve been able to recover. Here are my current back-up provisions:
- Daily backups using Acronis
- Windows 7 “Previous Versions” feature
- Backup copies of important files on different drives
- Backup copies of important files on different machines at home
- Annual off-site backup of entire machine
- Important files stored using RAID-5
The technology of back-up media has changed over the years. Once upon a time I used a stack of 50–100 5¼″ floppy disks! I also remember when I went to DAT tape, which could hold a full backup and incremental backups every day for a month on one 400 MB cartridge. Eventually came recordable CDs, and later DVD-RAM. Along the way were 20MB “floptical” disks, Jaz drives, and Zip discs.
Today, the best backup medium is another hard drive. A cheap on-sale hard drive has a better price per gigabyte than optical media of reputable quality, and nothing else is even close. Desktop HDDs are also quite robust—I’ve heard of data recovery companies reading a hard drive after a house fire had destroyed the computer. Plastic optical media would be toast!
Partition vs File
There are two fundamentally different kinds of backup. For typical data applications, “documents” are files and can be easily copied elsewhere for safe keeping. Any manner of copying a file (and copying it back where it came from) will serve to back up a word processing or any kind of office document, photo, video, etc.
But the “system” is different. The operating system and the arrangement of installed programs has files you don’t understand, and even special things in special places on the hard drive. The way to back that up is to make an exact sector-by-sector image of the partition. This requires specialized software both to make and restore.
That is also one reason why I still keep my data separate from the system. My C: drive is for the operating system and installed programs, and my files are on a different partition (say, E: and G:). On Windows this means ignoring the prepared My Documents locations or taking steps to point that to another partition.
It has definite advantages, and I’ve made good use of it recently. When updating some program caused problems, I simply restored to the previous day’s system backup of the entire C: drive. My work, which was on E:, was not affected. Had my work been on C: also, this step would have erased my efforts that were performed since that backup point.
Besides using different tools for the System backup and your day-to-day work files, you can use a variety of different overlapping techniques all at the same time. You don’t have to use one tool or another. You can use a 3rd party backup suite and casually replicate your work to your spouse’s computer. Even with a single too, you can have automated daily incremental backups to another drive and make monthly full backups to Blu-ray to store off-site.
Automatically and Frequent
I used to boot the computer specially in order to do a complete partition back up of the normal C: drive. I would do so before making significant changes, and was supposed to do so once a month regardless. But it was a chore and a bother.
Now, Windows can reliably back up the running C: drive using an operating system called Volume Shadowing. Being able to perform the backup while running the regular system is liberating, because it can be done automatically on a timer, and it can be done in the background. So I have Acronis True Image perform daily backups of the C: drive.
Likewise, the same technology applies to data files. Even if I happened to be still working at the odd hour at which I scheduled the daily file backup, using the files would not conflict with the backing up.
Windows Previous Versions feature
Windows 7 has a feature called Previous Versions that can be handy. You can turn on System Protection and also enable it for your data drive. Use the System control panel applet, and there is a tab for System Protection.
Windows 8 File History
This is deprecated but still available on Windows 8. Windows 8 revamps the general idea with something that’s said to be more like Mac’s Time Machine. It backs up to an external drive or network location, and it is hourly (or customizable interval).
Search for file history on the Windows 8 Start screen to get to the applet. However, there seems no way to specify which files are being backed up! It only and always applies to places that are part of a Library. So I worked-around it by adding the directories of interest to a Library in File Explorer.
I tried (on Windows 7) using its supplied System Backup feature, and was less than trilled with it. It backs up to a hidden directory on the same drive, I don’t know what it does about having multiple versions stored there. And I can’t simply copy the backup file elsewhere. It’s actually the same feature that the Previous Versions uses, so I imagine it’s also better on Windows 8.
Drill! Be confidant
Make sure you know how to restore files, and that it actually works. When an urgent deadline coincides with a messed up file, that is not the time to be figuring out an unfamiliar system.
So, after you initiate your automated backup system for work files, also create one or more scratch files of the same kind you normally work with. A silly word processor document containing a stupid joke, perhaps. After a couple days, when the automated system has had time to do its thing, delete the file.
Now, get it back.
Make notes, and keep them on actual paper, to refer to when this is not a drill.
Then, you can be happy. Be smug even, especially when someone else has “an incident”.