The need to back up data
Like it or not, we are becoming more dependant on computers as time goes on. There’s a lot to like about that – when things are working correctly. But when things stop working, our dependence on technology becomes anything but a happy situation.
That is why it is essential to have a viable backup strategy for you computer. If a hard drive crashes (and the modern large drives are higher-strung than their predecessors), it can take days to set your machine back up the way it was – days of downloading and installing programs, changing settings, and transferring user data.
And that’s if you have the original hard drives and the product keys to your programs, and a safe copy of your user data. If you don’t, it’s going to cost you money to replace the programs. And your personal data – pictures, music, documents, contacts – will be lost.
Way back in grade school, one of the phrases we practiced penmanship on was “a stitch in time saves nine”. That adage stuck with me, and nowhere does it hold more true than with computers.
Imagine this scenario: Your hard drive crashes and burns. Without a backup, you panic. You are confronted with the decision of whether you want to plop down $1000 or more to try to reclaim your data off the bad drive. You’re going to lose either money or data, and you are sure to lose a lot of time.
But if you’re properly backed up, you simply buy another hard drive, place it in your machine, and then use your backup program to restore the original hard drive’s data. You then reboot, and voila, you’re looking at your familiar machine again, just the way you had it set up. That’s the power of having a proper backup of your hard drive.
And so I’ve been on the hunt for a good scheme for saving data. I could have shelled out some cash and bought one of many high-end programs, but my goal, as always, was to find a way to get the job done that was free, so that the technological needs of everyone can be satisfied. People who don’t have a bunch of money for programs should still be able to save their data. I’ve found that program now, so it’s time for this article.
Where to back up to
The first question to answer is where you want to back your data up to. You could choose a second hard drive within your desktop computer, but that’s the least safe alternative, and laptops don’t have that option at all. Better is to back up to an external hard drive. Prices on hard drives have come down very nicely. Or you can use a hard drive from an old machine, and buy an enclosure for it. Another possibility is to mutually back up computers to each other over your local network. That way if one machine goes down, the other will be its safety net, and you won’t need any additional hardware. One very nice solution is to buy a “network attached storage” (NAS) unit, which basically is a hard drive with a very lightweight operating system, than can both back up and function as a network file server (and sometimes as a printer server).
Lastly, you can back up directly to the online “cloud”. But that is going to a) be slow, and b) incur monthly charges. So most people will want to go with a local option.
The image backup
So let’s get down to it. The best way to secure your programs and your data is through a twofold strategy. You first begin by taking an full “image” of your hard drive. It’s called an image because not only is the data backed up, but where it resides on the original hard drive is recorded as well. That way, should you have a hardware failure, when you restore the data back to a replacement hard drive, the machine will boot up without a lot of messy (or expensive, if you have to pay for it) in-depth remedial work.
The file backup
But now imagine that the image you used was taken a month or two ago. Since then you created new files – pictures, documents, music, browser bookmarks, contacts, mail – that are not stored in that image. This is where the second layer of the strategy comes in: backing up user files.
With a user file backup, you select the folders and files that contain your personal data, you back them up frequently, and you keep several copies, or “versions”, of your backup job. “Stacking” frequent versions will give you an important safety edge. Let’s say a virus wipes out your current files. Without realizing it, you have been backing up corrupted files for two days. No problem if you keep several versions. You just go back through the versions until you find copies that are not corrupted.
The overall plan
So here’s the overall basic idea. You get your programs installed and the system running nicely, and then you do a full system image. After that, on occasion you do a “differential” image, which records only the changes since the last full image, especially either before or after major system changes. The differentials are relatively fast and take little additional space to store.
And then, separately, you back up your user files frequently, and stack several copies. I suggest you schedule the user file backup on a daily basis, at a time when you’re usually on the computer (9PM is the time I choose).
(You also can take this one more step – and I recommend you do so – and back your local files up to an encrypted folder, which then is automatically backed up to the Cloud. See this article for the simple details in setting that up.)
Running the software
The next question is what software to use to accomplish these tasks. I am happy to report that I have found a program for this that is very richly featured, and that also is free. That program is EaseUS Todo Backup.
To do the image backup, select Backup / Hard drive and Partition backup / New backup. Select your entire main drive as the source, and for the destination, whichever drive you settled on, above. Later, when you want to update your image, go through the same motions, but select Differential backup instead of New. (Note: you can schedule differential backups regularly in Todo, and that’s a good idea, but one limitation is that you’ll have to do it when initially creating the job.)
When that’s done, go back into Todo and choose Backup / File backup. There you create a new job, selecting the personal folders and files you want to back up. As you move through the backup wizard, you’ll come to a schedule page. Here you can select your desired backup frequency, such as Daily. If a Time box appears, take out the preloaded times that you don’t want, and put in the ones you do.
Note that to schedule a file backup job, you have to input the user name and password of a Windows administrative account. This usually is no problem, but if it isn’t working, you’ll need to go to Control Panel / User Accounts, and set up an Administrator account to work off of.
And that’s pretty much it. Just make sure the drive you’re backing up to is turned on before the backup time, and if you’re using scheduling, the rest is automatic.
Final disaster preparedness
Before we’re done, there are two more little things you should do, to make recovery from disaster as easy as possible. First, under Todo’s Tools tab, simply click on PreOS, and EaseUS will insert a line in the Windows boot menu, so that you can recover from right within your own machine if Windows won’t boot.
But if your hard drive is really wasted, even that is not going to work. That is why you should make a recovery CD. This function is found under Tools / Bootable media builder. Go through the steps to make a CD that you can boot from, and when your hard drive doesn’t work at all, you’ll still be able to perform the recovery without the original hard drive.
This method is easy – and worth it
All this may sound like a lot of effort, but if you just take it a step at a time, and take some time to accustom yourself to the Todo program, it all will fall into place rather easily. And then, no matter what befalls your machine, you can greatly limit your data losses.
Addendum: Here is a pictorial that describes the Todo backup process for files, over a network. It will give you an idea of what’s involved for various kinds of backups, including to attached drives.