Plan Your Backups

No matter what kind of a backup system you end up using, you need to start with a plan. To be successful, there are a couple of things that need to be ironed out first:

  1. Where is your data now? Do you keep your data organized in your Documents, Photos, Music, and Videos folders? Is it on a NAS device? External hard drive? While not essential to performing backups, knowing where you keep your data is going to make the process easier. The more it is spread out, the more difficult it is to back it up – not impossible – but more difficult. Some of the built-in backup tools assume your files are in fact in your user folder, or at least your libraries, so take the time now to figure out where your important data is. Other backup programs will scour the entire computer for files, so if you have files everywhere, there are solutions for this as well.
  2. How important is your data? Is it all about equally important, or is there some data where you don’t want to lose it, and other data where it’s crucial you don’t lose it? It’s possible to do full backups to a local backup target, but also back up your most important data offsite.
  3. How much risk do you want to mitigate? The easiest backups will be to an internally or externally attached hard drive, which will protect against equipment failure, or user error. Moving up, you can back up to a NAS on your LAN, which will add a possibility of mitigating theft (but certainly not a guarantee) as well as giving you the option of backing up multiple machines. For ultimate protection, some sort of offsite backup is required. This is the only way to mitigate the risks of fire, flood, theft, and natural disaster. If the data is extremely important, you may even want to ensure the data is backed up to multiple geographic areas to ensure recovery from a natural disaster.
  4. How much space are you going to require for backups? If you are doing Image Level backups as well, factor in that you will need a backup target larger than the total amount of data you want to back up. The more space you have, the more versions of files and the farther back in time you can go to perform a restore. It would be prudent to start with a backup target that is at least twice as large as your total data to be backed up.
  5. What is your RPO? Are nightly backups good for you, or do you need to perform backups more often? Do you need continuous backups? It is essential to define an RPO that works for you.
  6. What is your RTO? Cloud based backups are wonderful because they are offsite, but the amount of bandwidth required to recovery multiple terabytes of information will be quite significant. If you aren’t worried about time, then it may be fine for you, but if time is a factor you may want to ensure you have some sort of local backup as well as offsite. RTO also factors in to the backup equipment decision. Optical media can be used as an offsite backup method, but recovering the data will be labor intensive and slow.
  7. What is your budget? For a single PC, you can configure a backup using just optical media, or an external hard drive, either of which will not be overly expensive. For multiple PCs, you may want to invest in a NAS or server to back up to. You can also expand the backups to the cloud for monthly or annual fees depending on the backup system you decide to go with. Just remember though that the cost of your backups may potentially save you from a much higher cost if disaster ever strikes.
  8. How much time are you willing to spend performing backups? Actually, this is a trick question. While it is possible to do a backup plan based on burning files to a DVD, and then storing these discs for later use, the fact is that unless a backup system is completely seamless, odds are that it’s not going to be used. In this day and age, there are many ways to perform backups without having to do anything but the initial set up, and for this reason there isn’t much point in doing anything manually.
Introduction Built-in Backup Tools - Windows 7
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  • jimhsu - Thursday, May 22, 2014 - link

    Availability, capacity, cost: pick two. Sounds like (for a business) that you need an enterprise-grade solution, and if you need next-day availability, crashplan won't be able to deliver that. Crashplan does offer initial drive seeding and backup-to-door: however those also take a week. If a single day of downtime is unacceptable, you probably need something in-house combined with professional services that offer overnight rush delivery -- and that's $$$.
  • dstarr3 - Wednesday, May 21, 2014 - link

    I took a much simpler approach. I have a hard drive which is just a clone of my entire computer, and I keep it in my desk at work. Once a week, I bring it home, run error checks, and do another clone onto the disk, take it back to work the next morning. I also have a local backup disk for files, a portable hard drive. The benefit is that one of my backups is off-site, and both of the backups are never plugged in during non-use, so there's no threat of power surges killing the drives. I'm only susceptible to fire or theft at this point, and that would have to happen to both my home and my work simultaneously to be a problem.
  • rooman - Wednesday, May 21, 2014 - link

    A drive at work is a good idea; an alternative (work isn't always an option) is to store the cloned drive in a safety deposit box which provides an extremely secure location. One probably wouldn't clone once a week, but once a quarter would protect against the worst case of total data loss.
  • dstarr3 - Wednesday, May 21, 2014 - link

    Yeah, I considered a safety deposit box, as well, but in some areas (like mine), it's bloody impossible to get one. haha
  • BeethovensCat - Saturday, May 24, 2014 - link

    I did the same - am using SyncToy between my internal data drives and FreeFileSync between my computer and two external HDDs. The external HDD is entirely encrypted with TrueCrypt. I have a couple of external HDDs that are copies of my data drives (leave Windows on C: alone). Then I just take a drive to work once a week or two. Daily syncs (why bother with a backup program, when one can use a sync program?) to an encrypted USB stick. Works well and with 2Tb of HDD costing around 100$ there is no excuse for not having a couple of those.
  • Kevin G - Wednesday, May 21, 2014 - link

    Overall an excellent article!

    Backups using Shadow Volumes should note some of its limitations: you'll need to have enough free disc space to store another copy of your largest file. For example, say you downloaded a 10 GB installed for a new game you'd need to have another 10 GB of free disk space for Window's Shadow volume to back it up. With the move to SSD's, this could be an issue in some cases.

    I do agree that RAID IS NOT A BACKUP but when backing up to a NAS, the NAS should be using RAID 1/5/6 etc. A paragraph on the introductory page does go into these points but I've always felt the need to discuss backup reliability in this context. It helps clear up potential questions like 'if RAID isn't a backup, why are you backing up to RAID storage?' The answer is in the same paragraph as RAID projects against disk failure. Just in my experience, I typically need to hammer in the idea of what 'what good is backing up to a hard drive if a hard drive dies?' as the case for RAID 1/5/6 on a NAS. This idea can be obtained from the context of the article but I've found this needs more emphasis in my experience.

    The issue of RAID disk failure leads into one topics that I've found missing: media reliability. The article mentions hard drives, USB sticks, optical and the cloud as targets for backup storage. (For consumer usage, I would say it is safe to omit tape but it still exists.) How long the media is stored and its ability to be retained over time does matter. This is more of a long term problem with USB and optical media as after several years, corruption can creep in. Hard drives of course can fail but typically they're in an active environment so that you'd know exactly when it failed. With RAID, it is possible to recover from failed media but once an optical disk rots or a USB flash stick is dead, the data on it is gone. This article does cover the media reliability of the cloud which is unique: you continually have to pay. Stop paying and you lose your backup data. There is one open question though with cloud backups as none have been around for a long time. Issues like outages are also possible with the cloud but so far many of the backup providers have been good in this regard.
  • ltcommanderdata - Wednesday, May 21, 2014 - link

    For the built-in backup options for Windows 7/8 and OS X is there a way to limit the size of the backup without having to partition such that multiple computers can backup to one drive without directly competing with each other for space?

    For Time Machine you mention that it'll automatically delay the scheduled backup if the backup location is unavailable. Does Windows 7/8 do the same? I'm thinking of laptops that are always out and about so hopefully they won't throw up distracting error prompts when the network store location is not available.
  • Brett Howse - Wednesday, May 21, 2014 - link

    I don't have any Windows 7 machines to test, so I can't answer that. Windows 8 has an offline cache though to which allows backups/restores when the device is disconnected:

    Advanced Settings in File History

    File History allows you to fine tune how it works including:
    Which target storage device is used
    How frequently files are checked and backed up
    How much space is used locally to cache backup versions of your files when the target backup device is disconnected
    How long backup files are retained
    Which folders in your libraries are excluded from backup
  • sepffuzzball - Wednesday, May 21, 2014 - link

    Have to say...I've been running Windows Server Essentials 2012 since I was sad about WHS going by the wayside, and I love it.

    I'm running it in a VM on my ESXi server, it backs up all my clients with no issues. Then the WSE backs that up to a different storage pool (Solaris/ZFS), and then that gets kicked off-site.

    Now I just need to find out a cheap solution to backup off-site the ~40TB worth of stuff on the file server (and then the upload speeds to actually back it up!).
  • coburn_c - Wednesday, May 21, 2014 - link

    I just lost 6TB to a failed RAID 5 array. Thank you Seagate/China. The RMA drives are malaysian, so maybe that gives hope. Anyway, you can talk backups all you want but backing up 6TB is neither time nor cost economical.

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