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Catching Up with PC Backup in 2012

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What's the best backup regimen for your systems, now that online backup is dirt cheap, and disk drives even cheaper? What's the best way to keep on computing, even if your computer goes up in smoke, ends up under water, or gives up with a flash of bright light? Quick answer: Multiple backups. For the long answer, read this story by Ed Tittel.

As a full-time writer and technophile, I subscribe to all kinds of mailing lists and forums where like-minded professionals congregate to exchange news, tips, and information, and to commiserate about occasional system woes. I've made sure that my systems are well enough backed up to ensure that losing a drive—or a system—never knocks me out of business longer than it takes to get back up and running, and it never causes more data loss than since my most recent backup.

Because I back up my production system nightly, I'm pretty much guaranteed not to lose more than a day's worth of work. But this kind of coverage requires a little more thought and planning than might immediately meet the eye. Sure, cheap disk drives are easy to find and deploy for local backups (prices are generally under $0.06 per GB these days), but what happens if your stuff gets stolen, or your house burns down or gets flooded?

The real solution for continuing access to data, no matter what happens, comes from multiple backups, with at least one current backup residing somewhere else—the further away, the better. In this connection, the proliferation of affordable online cloud-based backup services—such as Carbonite, MozyHome, and MiMedia, among many others—can add an extra degree of comfort and protection for those who need to retain access to their systems and data, no matter what fiendish twists of fate or unhappy circumstances might occur. But the big problem with online backup is expense; even the cheapest offerings mount up as the amount of data you want to preserve increases.

Here's one more backup option you may want to consider (or even implement): I call it the "backup buddy system." Instead of watching each other's back in the pool or elsewhere in the great outdoors, this buddy system has you setting up a backup drive on your home network for your buddy, while he or she does the same for you. A reasonably fast 2TB eSATA drive enclosure costs about $150 these days, and it provides a huge volume of space in which to store your backups and modest media holdings (lots of music, but not too many movies). If you each agree to leave one of your PCs running 24/7 for this purpose, you can schedule regular backups (or file copies of your latest backups, which probably makes more sense) whenever you're unlikely to interfere with normal PC or network use, such as during the wee hours of the morning.

Backups: Local Versus Remote

It's always a good idea to have a current local backup at your disposal. You can rebuild a system drive from a current disk image to restore a system to operating condition, or you can replace lost or damaged files to bring back materials you might have deleted accidentally, or lost in the wake of drive problems or failures. Local access is fastest and cheapest, and should be the first line of any backup defense. You should be backing up (and capturing an image snapshot) of any production system drives on a daily or nightly basis, along with any data or application files that have been added or altered since the last backup. The image will let you put any damaged system back into action quickly, and the data and application files will protect you from data loss, damage, or drive failure.

Backup buddy systems are probably best for capturing entire drive contents at less frequent (but still regular) intervals. The further the distance from your buddy, the better protection that backup will provide. But distance often equates to slower backup/restore times, should you ever need to access your buddy's backup copy. Perhaps paranoia is my primary driver for this kind of backup, but I collaborate with another family member in Virginia to send and receive weekly backups as a "just in case" option. This approach works especially well for photo archives, my digital music collection, and certain prized videos that I'm too cheap to back up online, but not willing to lose to a house fire or theft. I keep images and full backups for all of my PCs on a buddy's storage server; whereas I sent my family member an older HP MediaSmart Server with 8TB of storage, splitting the storage with her family so that each of us can use up to 4TB of storage on that machine. I have another one at my house, which we share for the same purpose. The hardware cost each of us about $600 for used servers and disk drives to populate the two systems, but they've been more-or-less free (except for maintenance costs) since we made those initial outlays.

By contrast, online backups for 100GB of data for three PCs will cost $200–300 per year, depending on which service provider you choose. I protect three PCs, one for each family member in my household. I choose not to back up my test machines and notebook PCs online, which would add another five machines to the total, bringing costs to over $600 per year. That's simply more money than I'm willing to spend, so I've had to plan other ways to recover those machines should my in-home backup not be available.

Backup Data Requirements

My wife works on a nice little mini-ITX PC with a 160GB internal 2.5-inch notebook drive, and she uses another USB-attached 160GB external drive enclosure for nightly local backup. She has 40GB of holdings on the primary drive, of which about 8GB is for the operating system and related files, and another 20GB is her copy of our family photographs. My son works on a refurbished Acer 5552 notebook PC, which gets backed up weekly over our wireless network. He also has about 40GB on his primary drive, with about the same OS component, and a mix of games, educational software, and his Lego NZXT robot stuff.

I'm the big data hog, as you'd expect a working computing professional to be. My production machine consumes 80GB on the system drive, and I have almost 1.6TB of other files, of which half is devoted to local backups and inactive archives, and the other half to music (100GB), movies (300GB), photos and images (200GB), active projects (30GB), and active archives (170GB). That's a lot of stuff, but I suspect not as much as some other people have.

What Gets Backed Up Where?

Here's how I've structured my backups:

  • Everything (except backups and inactive archives) gets backed up locally every night to my MediaSmart server. This includes all PCs and notebooks. I also back up the MediaSmart Server itself to an external 2TB drive once a week. My wife's PC has an image captured on that machine every night, plus a copy of the system (and only) drive. I image my system disk nightly, and back up all active projects nightly as well. My son's machine is backed up weekly right now, but as soon as he starts doing real homework and school projects on that machine (he's entering third grade soon), that system will also switch to a nightly local backup. My desktop and my wife's PC start automatic backup at 11 p.m.; her backup usually finishes in 20–30 minutes; mine starts at the same time, but takes 60–75 minutes to complete. My son's machine takes under 30 minutes for its weekly snapshot.
  • All family members' PCs are backed up online to MiMedia every weeknight as well. The total backup size is 190GB, which costs me about $32 per month. All the backups begin at 12:30 a.m., taking less than an hour for the two smaller machines, and up to four hours for mine.
  • I run a file-copy job on the MediaSmart server weekly at 1 a.m. on Saturday night. It copies the latest backup for all three family members' PCs (image and files), and it copies the contents of folders for a subset of my test machines (notebook and desktop PCs) to shadow local copies remotely. To keep the timeframe manageable, I actually end up shadowing my local test backups remotely once every two weeks. It takes about three hours for this backup job to complete, so by the time I hit my desk at 7 a.m. any weekday morning, everything is usually finished.
  • Every Sunday night, I back up all of the test machines over the network to my MediaSmart server. Five machines are currently involved, and it takes about three hours for those backups—which involve a total of 200GB—to complete. (I have a MacBook Air, but I use a separate USB-attached drive with Time Machine to back up that unit hourly when the machine is in use.) The MediaSmart fires off the backup jobs; it doesn't wake the next machine in the sequence until it has finished backing up the current machine (or it times out, as has happened on a handful of occasions over the past two years).

How Far Should You Go with Your Backup Regimen?

The best answer is "That depends." I want to be able to restore a machine from bare metal in no more than half a day, even if I can't access any of my local machines. Consequently, I haven't lost more than one full day's work in the past two years when it has proven necessary to rebuild my production desktop. This has happened to me three times over that interval, and each time it's a real pain, but it has been relatively easy and straightforward to get back to work without losing data, applications, or services that I depend on for my writing and research work.

I've only had to use a remote backup once, when issues with my production machine were exacerbated by a network interface problem on the MediaSmart server, but it was a real lifesaver when it was needed. That's why I'm willing to spend the price of a nice lunch for my family every month to keep online backups at my disposal, in addition to local backup copies. Though some people may choose not to spend as much or back up as often, experience has taught me that remote backups are a valuable and important element of a comprehensive backup strategy. Please carefully consider their omission or use!

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