Why should you backup your data at all?
Hard Drive Failure
The number one reason to backup your data regularly is hard drive failure. A recent report released by BackBlaze, a cloud backup provider who uses about 30,000 hard drives in their data centers, showed that average failure rates can be as high as 25% depending on how you use your hard drive.
That means if you have 4 computers that each have a single hard drive, 1 catastrophic crash per year wouldn’t be out of the norm. Every single hard drive in existence will eventually fail if run long enough and it’s impossible to know beforehand when a specific one will bite the dust.
In medium and large sized businesses, it’s common to perform lifecycle replacement on an enterprise’s computers every 3-4 years and they still see quite a few cases of hard drive failure.
To compensate for this reality, companies employ multiple layers of backup technologies to prevent or at least mitigate the severity of data loss when there’s a failure. Home users typically go much longer than 3-4 years between computer purchases and in 2014 only 33% of them backed up their data more than once a year.
Unfortunately, home users and small businesses have limited options for data recovery that are actually affordable. Depending on the severity of the internal damage to the hard drive, it could be as simple as plugging the drive into a different PC or as complex have disassembling the drive in a dust-free room and using special equipment to read data directly from the exposed platters.
In many cases, people have to send their hard drives to recovery companies with those facilities and pay thousands of dollars with no guarantee of any data being recovered. So with all that being said, truly your best defense against hard drive failure is to perform regular backups of your data.
You Accidentally Erased Something
The most common reason that you might need to restore a file from backup, is because you’ve altered it and now wish to revert back to a previous copy. This happens in businesses all the time where a worker erroneously deletes a file or accidentally saves over a working copy.
Anyone who has worked on an IT help desk can tell you how common it is for an employee to wipe out a complex formula or a line that contains a critical piece of data and then hit the save button without realizing their mistake. With hourly or nightly backups, the previous copy can be easily restored and help mitigate the loss of work.
Your Computer Has a Virus
Hard drive failure and user error aren’t the only threat to your data. Viruses and other types of malware can wreak havoc on the integrity of your computer to the point that you have to reinstall your operating systems and just restore clean versions of your file from a recent backup.
Over the last few years, a type of malicious software known as ‘ransomware’ has been used by countless dark web entities to make life miserable for many home computer users and businesses. Ransomware programs run a script in the background that encrypts your files using a decryption key that you can only get by paying the people who wrote it.
The payments asked are usually anywhere from $300-$1500 and typically the user has to make the purchase using an anonymous payment with digital currency such as BitCoin. There’s no other way to say it: these things are nasty. It’s the digital version of a mob shakedown.
Because ransomware is normally distributed by unknown organizations that operate behind a veil of anonymity, there’s nothing that local law enforcement can do to assist. Your best bet is just to restore everything that’s been encrypted from a recent backup
The Basics of a Good Backup Strategy
The Backup Rule of Three
In short, you want 3 copies of everything you care about being able to keep forever. At the very minimum this should include your working copy, a backup of that, and another backup of that that’s not stored in the same location as the first two.
The backups should all be separated so for example, if you keep your photos on your computer and make a copy on a flash drive that you keep in the computer all the time, then that doesn’t count because if the computer gets stolen or lost – you have nothing to restore from because it’s all gone.
Timing of Backups
The best backups are the ones where you can restore from a very specific point in time. Hourly backups are better than daily backups, which are better than weekly backups, etc… Depending on your needs, hourly or daily backups might be overdoing it and you can get by with weekly or monthly backups.
Some of the backup options you might choose will take care of this for you and even give home users the option to go hourly without costing a lot more money. Ultimately, the more frequently you modify your data or add new data, the more frequently you should be running backups.
Method 1: Windows 7 Backup and Restore (also included in Windows 10)
Price: free with your Windows 7/10 installation (requires external hard drive or network storage location)
The Backup and Restore feature included with Windows 7 and Windows 10 is a great place to start for your first copy and maybe even your second copy. It does require an external hard drive or a network storage location so there is an expense there (home users likely won’t have network storage but businesses typically do).
Luckily, external storage is pretty cheap these days and given that the software is already on your computer if you have Windows 7 or Windows 10, it’s really a great inexpensive place to start for storage for your backups. Just keep in mind that an external hard drive is STILL a hard drive that’s just as at risk to failure as any other drive.
You can head over to YouTube for instructions on how to use it effectively. There are plenty of videos out there and tutorials on the different types of backups you can do. You can pick which files and folders you want backed up and also set an automatic backup schedule. If you’re a Windows user and you’re looking for a free backup solution, it’s not a bad way to go.
Method 2: Time Machine (MAC Users)
Price: free with your Mac (requires external hard drive or network storage location)
Time Machine is, for the most part, the same as Windows 7 Backup and Restore but just for Mac systems. Most Mac users already know that Time Machine backup is readily available on their computers because any time you plug in a new external hard drive to your Mac, it will immediately ask you if you want to use it for Time Machine backups.
It takes automatic hourly backups for the past 24 hours, daily backups for the past month, and weekly backups for all previous months. Once the external disk becomes full, it overwrites the very oldest backups to make space.
Recovering older versions of files is a breeze and, like most Apple features, highly intuitive. The interface is also much more polished than what you get with built-in backup for Windows systems.
Method 3: Backup Software From a 3rd Party Provider
Microsoft and Apple aren’t the only companies that make backup software. StorageCraft and Acronis are just a couple of some of the best options out there. Most of these still work like the previous 2 methods – you’ll need an external drive or a network storage location to save the backups to.
Third party backup programs can be really nice because they’re not tied to a specific operating system like Windows or Mac OS. This also means that they sometimes don’t work as planned. Many commenters at PCMag.com complained that Acronis didn’t work well with Windows 10 for example.
Method 4: External hard drives with built-in backup software
There are a large variety of external hard drives available today. Many of them come with their own pre-installed backup software.
Because of the number of different types, we can’t go over all of them here. There are however good options offered by Seagate and Western Digital. Many of them like the Western Digital MyBook come with a single push-button backup. These options work are they’re better than nothing (so we include them here) but even for the most basic home users, they have very limited options and if you’re already buying the external hard drive anyway, there’s no point in not using method 1 or 2 assuming you either have a Windows or Mac computer.
Method 5: RAID Network Attached Storage (NAS) Enclosure
Price: Varies – typically the most expensive in-home option
Network Attached Storage, more commonly referred to as NAS, has been around for quite a while and so has RAID. We’ll skip the details about how RAID works because that would be an entirely different article but the basic idea is that you use a enclosure containing multiple hard drives that connects to your network via Wi-Fi or a network cable.
The hard drives are configured in a way that if one of them stops working, all of your data is still safe because it’s stored on more than one drive. All of the devices on your network can access it, and depending on the options that come with it, you can connect to it from the Internet and access your files on the go wherever you have an Internet connection.
NAS gives you control over your own data; you’re not trusting your data to the cloud or one single computer. You can buy a low-level RAID NAS for a few hundred dollars and high-quality ones can run into the thousands.
NAS enclosures usually come with their own backup software included however, just like an external hard drive, it sometimes makes more sense if you’re a Windows or Mac user to use method 1 or 2. The NAS enclosure becomes the network storage location that your point your backup jobs to.
Method 5: Dropbox (online storage)
Price: free for 2 GB of storage, paid versions starting at $9.99/mo.
Although Dropbox is really classified as online storage as opposed to a true backup service, many of the benefits are the same so we’ve included it in the list of options. The main limitation with Dropbox is that you really only get to choose a single folder – it’s not a full data backup that grabs all files on your hard drive.
The nice thing about Dropbox is the ability to have your folder synced up between multiple computers in multiple locations which satisfies both the 2nd or 3rd physical copy plus the off-site requirement that home users typically lack.
Dropbox is a free download from dropbox.com and requires just an email address to register. Once you register, you can download the software client onto your computers (Windows, Mac, or Linux).
The software sets up a Dropbox folder in a location you choose. Anything you save in the Dropbox folder automatically syncs up to the Dropbox folders on your other computers and a copy is also kept in the cloud. You can access your files from the dropbox.com website on computers that don’t have the client installed and Dropbox also has mobile apps for Android and iOS that allow you to access & modify your files on the go.
Dropbox is a great option if you use multiple computers in multiple locations or if you use different operating systems between your computers. It’s especially nice for Linux users since there is a client specifically for Linux OS.
Dropbox also allows you to share out subfolders to other Dropbox users which makes it a great tool for collaboration. Another nice feature is that since all of your Dropbox files are locally stored on each of your computers, you still can use them even if the Internet goes down. Dropbox will upload the changes next time your Internet connection comes back up.
Method 6: Carbonite (cloud backup)
Price: Basic service starts at $59.99/yr for unlimited storage for 1 computer
Carbonite was one of the first cloud backup services that people really knew about. Most of us remember seeing their commercials on television probably before we even knew what online backup was. All those years of experience in the business have given Carbonite a good baseline for service and an understand of what customers want.
Carbonite’s client software will backup all of your data automatically. You can restore or access files remotely right from their website from any computer or smartphone. Carbonite is available for both PC and Mac so if you’re a Linux user, you’re out of luck.
Method 7: Backblaze (cloud backup)
Price: $50/yr billed annually for unlimited storage for 1 computer
Backblaze is a relatively new player in the backup industry for home users. They are known for providing innovative solutions at a great price mostly because their backbone of storage relies primarily on cheaper consumer quality hard drives instead of expensive enterprise hard drives.
Backblaze handles the limitation on quality drives by using a proprietary storage system that allows them to have enough redundancy to ensure that no data ever gets lost from failed drives in their arrays.
Backblaze has quickly become one of the best online backup services around. Their client software will backup all of your data automatically.
With Backblaze you can restore or access files remotely right from their website or their smartphone apps and they also offer some other useful options like sending your backup files to you on physical media in case you have a need for that sort of thing – it costs extra though. The Backblaze client is available for PC and for Mac so if you’re a Linux user, you might have to pass on this option.
Choose Your Method/s
The method (or methods) of backup that you choose for your system should be determined by your needs. There are many other companies that offer the same services we’ve presented and they might be worth looking up. If you’re a home user who just wants to have safe copies of your documents, photos, and videos then an online storage solution like Dropbox might be all you need.
However if you’re a power user or small business with very critical data, you may want to use Time Machine with an external hard drive and also subscribe to Backblaze for full backups into the cloud.
As far as the writers of this article, we use Time Machine on our primary Mac computer in conjunction with Dropbox which allows us to share files amongst a few other Linux machines that we run while keeping online copies of them easily available. We store all of our important data inside our Dropbox folder so that they’re on the cloud and captured in our Time Machine backups.
At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you have enough copies of your important data so that when failures occur, you don’t lose them. Whichever method you use, be sure you confirm regularly that it’s working and that you know how to restore your files in case of a failure.