Backups: a Guide for Beginners

Hardware failure, user mistakes, loss, theft and unforeseen destruction are the most common threats to digital information. No piece of electronic equipment lasts forever, even the best hard disk will inevitably fail one day. To protect valuable files everybody should have a secure backup strategy to make the recovery as easy as possible.

What to Backup

There are generally two kinds of data to be backed up:

  • Files that are never or very rarely changed, like the original pictures of a memorable event or scanned documents.
  • Files that are updated frequently and where it is desirable to have up-to-date backups at all times, like the novel you are currently writing or the wallet file of your preferred digital currency. For files like this even the loss of a few hours of work and data can be catastrophic.

The first step is to decide what you want to backup. Think about what you have been doing lately on your computer and browse through your personal folder. Usually the most important data will be what you have created yourself. You might find one or the other file you have not used in a while and still consider important.

Files to consider: Text documents, spreadsheets, databases, images, videos and that odd one-off file nobody else has.

Files you most likely want to exclude: System files from your operating system, the applications themselves, temporary files, anything you can easily replace from another source at low cost.

If you are in doubt err on the side of caution and include files you are not sure about. If you later discover, that you backed up too much you can still exclude some files from future backups.

If your target files are spread over a larger number of folders or if you want to very specific about your backup consider creating a list with the files and folders in question. Also gather some rough figures about the size of your files. While text documents only take a little space you family videos can easily add up to many gigabytes.

When you have done that check how large your backup is going to be by adding everything together. This will give you an idea about the backup medium you will require.

Where to Backup

Deciding where to backup your files depends largely on how important your files are to you, how safe you consider your immediate surroundings and how much you are willing to spend on backups.

Should you opt to use some kind of local storage, consider giving a backup set to a trustworthy friend if you have very important files. That way you are better protected from theft and destructive accidents.

Optical Media

Optical media like DVDs and Bluray discs are only a valid choice for data that rarely changes. Depending on your requirements one disc might even be enough to store all your data. Even then they are not very good choice because they are prone to errors and degradation, take a long time to create, are expansive compared to hard disks and realizing fully automated backups is very impractical. Furthermore the fire that might happen burn down your house and computer will not spare your disc collection either.

If you want to take this route for all or some of your files make at least sure you are using high quality media from renowned companies. They might be a little pricier but will save you a lot of trouble in the long run.

Hard Drives

Hard disks are relatively cheap for storing large amounts of data and anything on them can be easily updated. They are also one of the fastest options, especially when you want to backup a large amount of data. External hard drives also have the advantage, that you can easily move lots of data around in a relatively small package. Of course a locally kept drive is just as susceptible to theft and destruction as any other physical media.

USB Sticks / Flash Memory

Flash memory, often in the form of the ubiquitous USB stick, are great to transport data in a physically very compact form. The speed can be very good, but for large amounts of data hard disks are still considerably cheaper. Long term storage security can vary a lot between different manufacturers and the specific type of memory used. While flash memory can theoretically hold data for many years, corruption in faulty chips is not uncommon. It is advisable to be very careful when using this kind of storage for any sort of prolonged backup. A good practice is to treat it as a medium to short term in-between solution.

Online Backups

Everything is online and “in the cloud” these days and maybe you backups should be too. The major plus of storing your files online that fire and traditional thieves are no problem. Your house burns down or the burglars got everything? Log into your account from another computer and all your stored files are there waiting for you.

This convenience comes with some large drawbacks of its own though: depending on the amount of data you want to store online you probably have to pay recurring fees, uploads and downloads can take some time unless you have a really fast connection, you might want to think about encrypting your files before uploading them.

There are numerous online backup services, many offer a small amount of backup space for free. If such an offer suits you go for it, but don’t forget to encrypt sensitive data and do some research on the provider in question. If you find out a company has a bad track record of failures or is very new to the market you should exercise extreme caution. Generally you should invest some time to gather information on possible candidates.

Current backup and data synchronization services include Box, CrashPlan, Dropbox, Google Drive, SpiderOak, Wuala and many more. All have their special advantages and drawbacks. Online services usually come with their own clients, the program you install on your computer, and let you make detailed choices about what to backup and how often. Some are more suited to synchronizing files between devices while others are meant for long term storage.

Things to consider before you entrust your files to one of them:

  • How much storage space can you get for free and what are the costs for a larger quota
  • Availability of clients for different operating systems
  • File syncing (very handy when you want to work on the same files on different devices)
  • Integrated file encryption

How and How Often

The best kind of backup runs completely autonomous, without any user interaction required, is fast to backup newer version of files and preserves a number of previous file versions.

It is not always feasible or desirable to conform to this optimal strategy though. You might have to make some compromises, for example you might want to keep 20 older versions of any file but if your backup includes very large constantly changing files your storage space could fill up very quickly, preventing any further backup.

While services for online backups usually come with their own software you will need a decent backup program for your local preservation efforts. There are many free programs available, ranging from simplistic to fairly complex. As always do your research and carefully consider your requirements.

Final Thoughts

  • Loss of data will eventually happens to everyone, it is only a question of when and how, so be prepared.
  • Weigh your need for file security against the costs and the required effort.
  • Consider using different backup strategies and storage locations for different files. For example use a local external hard disk for your family pictures and an online service for the text documents you are currently working on.
  • Think about the worst case. If some of your files are the cornerstone of your business it is certainly worth investing some money to protect them properly.
  • Do not create your backups on the same media as the original data, this means asking for trouble as a technical failure would destroy both at once.


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