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Data Protection and Recovery Techniques Part 1 Basic Backup Philosophies, Methods, and Products

Data Protection and Recovery Techniques
Part 1 Basic Backup Philosophies, Methods, and Products

Have you ever...

Watched a virus destroy the contents of your hard drive...
Wiped out your data by using a system recovery CD packaged with your computer...
Run FDISK and removed the partition on the wrong drive...
Listened to a noisy hard disk die and take your data with it...
Replaced a new data file with an older, incomplete version during a Save...

Data-destroying events like these are traumatic, especially if you don’t have up-to-date backups of your computer’s most important information. Today’s huge hard drives (180GB and climbing) are encouraging more and more users to become data packrats and avoid making backups of their data. Unfortunately, the risks from viruses and user errors climb as hard drives get larger and larger. While today’s drives are much more reliable than the first PC hard drives of two decades ago, the amount of data even a once-in-a lifetime failure can wipe out should give any PC user pause.

I’ve spent many years teaching data recovery techniques and have even written a book about this topic (Que’s Guide to Data Recovery, now out of print), but it’s far better to avoid the need to pry data from the platters of a hard disk which is no longer working properly. If you know how to protect yourself against data loss by having reliable backups of the information you need, you still might not smile when your hard drive hiccups, but you can treat it as an inconvenience, not a tragedy.

How can you protect yourself against threats to your data (which, after all, is the most valuable part of any computer)? In part one of this series, you’ll learn how to find out which files are most important to back up, how to store them and how to back them up. In part two of this series, you’ll learn how to recover from the most common types of system crashes and potential data-loss problems.

Keys To Protecting Your System’s Information

In deciding what to back up on your system and how to do it, keep in mind the following:

  • Your computer contains both program and data files
  • Programs can be reloaded from the original media if your system crashes, but data can be reloaded only if you make backup copies
  • System Recovery discs have features that can be used to restore your system to a working state, but can also destroy your data
  • The better you organize your data, the easier it is to back up
  • You must choose from a variety of backup methods, many of which are included with Windows
  • Third-party backup programs offer more device and recovery options than Windows’ own backup tools
  • Your CD-RW drive is a terrific tool for backing up your information, if you know how to use it
  • The more often you back up your data, the easier it is to recover from a disaster

Let’s examine each of these in turn.

Your Computer Contains Both Program and Data Files

This might seem obvious, but until you understand the difference between these types of files, you may spend a lot of time backing up the wrong files and neglecting the files you can’t replace. Program files are the files that make programs run. From Windows to Microsoft Office, from Adobe Acrobat to CorelDraw, operating systems, office suites, graphics programs and utilities are all collections of program files with extensions such as .EXE, .DLL, .VBA and many others. Program files are typically stored in the \Program Files folder of your drive, the \Windows folder, or other folders created when the programs you use were installed.

Data files, on the other hand, are the files that contain the information you create: drawings, documents, budgets, databases, scanned photographs, digital music files, and so forth. While program files are installed into locations specified by the developer (unless you choose the Custom installation option available with some programs), data files can be stored anywhere you want to place them. Since some programs default to storing data in the program’s own folder and others use the \My Documents or \Documents and Settings folders created by recent versions of Windows, choosing the program’s own default location to store your files could scatter data files all over your drive. Obviously, this makes backing up data difficult. But why do you need to make backups in the first place?

Only Your Data Needs Backing Up

Since program files can be recreated by reinstalling the program (a process that takes only a few minutes with today’s high-speed CD-ROM and hard drives), backing up program files should be well down the list of your priorities.

On the other hand, you can’t buy replacement data like that contained in documents or spreadsheets at the store. The only way you can replace your data if it’s lost is if you create copies of it yourself. It can take minutes to scan a picture and retouch it, hours to build a household budget, days to do your taxes, and weeks to write a book. If you don’t take a couple of minutes to make backup copies of your work, you’re basically saying to yourself “I don’t mind spending those hours, days, and weeks again”. If you don’t want to take the time to recreate your work - keep it safe.

Remember that even if you’re willing to take the time to recreate your work, it still won't be exactly the same. You’re likely to forget names, places, facts, and figures that might have been a key part of the data you've lost. In case of an unforeseen disaster, it’s better to back it up so you can restore it - exactly the way you created it.

Risks and Benefits of Recovery CDs

Most pre-built computers today don’t ship with a normal Windows CD-ROM you can use for reinstalling the operating system in case of disaster. And, at the same time, many computers include some type of office suite or other software bundle. While most computers do come with some CD media, it is usually a System Recovery or Applications Recovery CD intended to roll back your system to its originally-shipped condition. If you use the System Recovery CD to restore your system in the event of a crash, you will normally wipe out all your data in the process. After all, there was no data on the computer when you received it; the hard disk contained only program files.

While some recovery CD’s give you the option to reinstall Windows without formatting your hard disk, others don’t. This “all or nothing” approach makes backups even more critical, since the price you may need to pay for a working system after a crash is the loss of all your information. But, if you have up-to-date backup copies of that information, you can run system restore without flinching.

Organizing Your Data

Fortunately, all but the simplest applications enable you to decide where to keep your files. I recommend you use the \My Documents folder in Windows 9x/Me, or the \Documents and Settings folder in Windows 2000 or Windows XP as the storage location for your files. To avoid mixing documents, graphics, and other types of files together, use Windows Explorer to create separate folders for each program’s data beneath the default data folder for your version of Windows. By using My Documents or Documents and Settings as the location for the data you create, you will make backups much easier than if you need to locate data stored in many different locations.

Once you’ve created a folder for each program’s data files, use your programs’ properties settings to specify the correct folder as the default location for your files. Depending upon the program, you might need to open the Tools, Files, or other menu to find the options menu which has the setting for default file locations. (Some programs may not allow you to change the directory where they keep data files.)

Since backup files your application may create can also be useful to have in case of a disaster, you should also set your applications’ backup folder to the data folder you create, or to a folder called, "Backup," which you can create as a subfolder within the data folder.

If you prefer to store your documents on a separate physical drive or logical drive than the default C:\My Documents or \Documents and Settings locations used by Windows 9x, you can create your own folder on any drive you prefer. To inform Windows of your preference, open the properties sheet for \My Documents or \Documents and settings and enter the new drive and folder location. Use the Move button to move files from your current folder to the new My Documents or Documents and Settings folder.

You may need to move data files from their current locations to new folders you create, but once you do, you’re ready to safeguard them with backups. How can you back them up safely and easily?

Choosing a Backup Method

There are several methods you can use to make backup copies of your work:

  • Copy the files you’ve created to removable media using drag and drop in Windows Explorer
  • Copy data files using command-line XCOPY program
  • Use a CD or DVD mastering program to create a copy of your files on an optical disc
  • Use Windows or 3rd party backup programs to create a backup to removable media

Which way is best? If you want to use your information immediately on any computer you have, regardless of the version of Windows you use, the first two ways are most appealing.

Using Drag and Drop

You can move files or entire folders with Windows Explorer by dragging them over to a removable-media drive and dropping them in. If you have a CD-RW drive you can use packet-writing software such as Adaptec’s DirectCD to turn your drive into a “big floppy” drive. Keep in mind, however, that you must format the CD-R or CD-RW media first. CD-R media can be formatted in less than thirty seconds, but it can take as long as 45 minutes to format CD-RW media so it can be erased later. Given the very low cost of CD-R media, a simple time versus money calculation makes CD-R media a better deal for most users.

A CD made with programs such as DirectCD uses the UDF (Universal Disk Format) file system. Note that some versions of DirectCD don’t work with Windows XP, but you can upgrade Easy CD Creator 5 Platinum to a Windows XP-friendly version. The Windows XP-compatible upgrade installs a Windows XP-compatible version of DirectCD, which can copy a Windows XP-compatible UDF reader to the packet-written CD-R or CD-RW media when you eject it. When the media is read by a Windows XP system which doesn’t have DirectCD already installed, Windows will install the UDF reader so you can read the media.


If you want to copy only files created on or after a specified date, you can use the command-line XCOPY program to copy files to your removable media or DirectCD optical media. For example, this command would copy files stored in the \My Documents folder created on or after March 15, 2002 to the specified drive and create folders along the way to match the original folder path:

XCOPY "\My Documents"\*.* /s/d:03-15-02 K:\

This command would copy all the files in the \Documents and Settings folder used by Windows 2000 and XP created on or after the same date in the same way:

XCOPY “\Documents and Settings”\*.* /s/d:03-15-02 K:\

As each removable-media disk or optical disc is filled, Windows will prompt you for another. Make sure you format the media before starting the backup. Note the quote marks around the folder name; these are needed with any long folder name in Windows.

Mastering a Data CD

If you don’t want to take time to format a CD-RW disc first and want to create a CD you can use on any system, you can use a CD/DVD mastering program such as Easy CD Creator, Nero Burning ROM, or NTI CD Maker 2000 to burn a copy of your files to a CD-R. These programs use a Windows Explorer-like interface to let you select the files you want to transfer. While this takes more steps than drag-and-drop copying to a CD-R or CD-RW disc, CD-R’s you create with a mastering program can be read by virtually any CD-ROM, CD-R, or CD-RW drive without the need to install a compatible UDF reader program first.

The Need for True Backup Software

One disadvantage of these methods, especially with Zip, LS-120 and LS-240 SuperDisk media (standard 1.44MB floppy disks are too small to back up much of anything these days) is that you can’t back up a file that’s bigger than the media (a process called media spanning). In those cases, you need to use a backup method that allows you to compress the media (to fit more onto the media) and lets you span a single file over two or more pieces of media. True backup programs become very useful if you face the need to compress your backup or span a backup across multiple pieces of media.

Backup programs differ from ordinary file copying or drag-and-drop methods in the following ways:

  • Backups can be compressed to save space
  • Backups store many files in a single special backup file which is proprietary to the backup program
  • Files inside a backup archive can’t be used until they are restored to either the same or Alternate drive/folder locations by a compatible program
  • Backups can be stored as files for transfer to media later or can be sent directly to CD-R/RW, tape, or removable-media drives (depending upon the backup software)
  • Backups can be made of the disk image (for disaster recovery), all files on a drive or in a folder, or new/changed folders and files only
  • Backups use the Archive file attribute to determine which files should be backed up if you ask for a backup of changed or new files only

A full backup backs up all the files in a specified drive or folder, regardless of creation date or whether they’ve been backed up before. A partial backup backs up only certain files. The most common type of partial backup is a differential backup, which backs up the files changed or created since the last full backup. All of these types of backups are restored with the restore feature of the backup software, which means that you must have the operating system and backup software installed before you can restore the backups. These types of backups are best suited for backing up data rather than program files.

A disaster recovery backup is a special type of backup which enables you to rebuild an entire drive letter or disk partition from bootable media (floppy disks or CDs), the backup drive and the backup media. In essence, a disaster recovery backup is similar to the Recovery CD feature supplied with many computers today, except that you make it yourself after you’ve customized your computer with the programs and settings you like. And, if you store your data on the same drive as your operating system (which most users do by default), a disaster recovery backup also backs up your data as of the date of the backup. If you combine a disaster recovery backup with a full backup followed by frequent differential backups of your default documents folder and other folders such as your email and Windows Favorites folders, you can restore your computer to working condition very quickly in the event of a disk failure.

While some removable-media and CD-RW drives come with backup software, many don’t. However, if you have Windows 98 or above, you can use the built-in backup software included with Windows to do a very commendable job with any removable-media drive, many tape backup drives or even with a CD-RW drive if you are creating backups to be restored to the same version of Windows.

Using Windows 98 and Windows Me Backup

The Windows 98 and Windows Me Backup programs (originally created by Seagate Software, now Veritas) are simple, but work very well with tape, floppy, and magnetic removable-media drives such as Zip, SuperDisk, and others. Since these programs are included free with Windows 98 and Windows Me, they can be the basis for a low-cost data backup strategy. You can also use them with CD-R and CD-RW media if you don’t back up more than 500MB or so at a time. Unfortunately, these backup programs were developed before the widespread availability of CD-RW drives, and can’t span a backup file over multiple CD-R or CD-RW media.

To start 98/Me Backup, click Start, Programs, Accessories, System Tools and select Backup, or right-click on a hard disk icon in Windows Explorer, select Tools, and select Backup. To backup the My Documents folder, select Create a New Backup Job, Backup Selected Files, and select the folder from the list of drives and folders. The first time you create a backup job, you should select All Selected Files. Select New and changed files only for subsequent backup jobs.

If you’re using a CD-RW drive, you should format a CD-R disc with DirectCD or compatible packet-writing software first (don’t enable compression during the format process) and select only the files which will fit on the media instead of selecting the entire folder. Then, select All Selected Files and specify a File on the CD-RW drive as the target for the backup.

The settings you select under Options have a lot to do with how quickly your backup can be completed. You can specify Never compress the data, Compress to save time or Maximize compression to save space. In the following examples, I turned off the verify option during the backup (verify compares the backed-up data to the contents of the hard disk, but this option doubles the backup time and doesn’t provide a measurable improvement to backup safety).

I used 74-minute CD-Rs and my drive is a 12X SCSI CD-RW drive attached to an Adaptec 1480 Cardbus card in my laptop. I'm using Windows 98SE, DirectCD 3.05 (which is part of Easy CD-Creator 4.05). Here were the results:

Job Name: Que Subdir - Packet Written

Backup Job Started - 2/16/02 7:07:06PM
Processed File Count: 1,163
Total Bytes Before Compression: 592,755,633
Operation Completed - Yes
Backup Job Ended - 2/16/02 7:20:57PM

Note: 13:51 elapsed time, selected "Never compress the data."


Job Name: Que Subdir - Packet Written

Backup Job Started - 2/16/02 6:39:00PM
Processed File Count: 1,163
Total Bytes Before Compression: 592,755,633
Total Bytes After Compression: 592,755,633
Operation Completed - Yes
Backup Job Ended - 2/16/02 6:52:52PM

Note: 13:52 elapsed, selected "Compress data to save time."


Job Name: Que Subdir - Packet Written

Backup Job Started - 2/16/02 7:48:28PM
Processed File Count: 1,163
Total Bytes After Compression: 416,266,438
Total Bytes Before Compression: 592,755,633
Operation Completed - Yes
Backup Job Ended - 2/16/02 7:58:53PM

Note: 10:25 elapsed, selected "Maximize compression to save space."

Note that using maximum compression also resulted in the shortest time for the backup, while specifying "Compress data to save time" resulted in no compression and no time savings!

The Windows XP backup uses a similar user interface to the Windows 98/Me backup program, but isn’t compatible with Windows 98/Me backup data.

Taking Your Windows 98/Me Backups to a Windows XP System

There are two potential drawbacks to using Windows 98/Me Backup. . The first is its inability to span a backup across multiple CD-R or CD-RW discs. . If you need to back up a large folder to CD-R or CD-RW media, you must create multiple backup jobs, one per disc, and be careful not to select more than the capacity of the media (650MB to 700MB). . The second problem will become all too apparent if you upgrade from Windows 98 or Windows Me to Windows XP, or want to move backed-up data to a system running Windows XP. While both Windows XP Home and Windows XP Professional include backup programs, they aren’t compatible with Windows 98 or Windows Me backup files.

Fortunately, since Windows 98 and Windows Me backup were developed by Veritas, you can use the Veritas Backup Exec series of software to restore your files to a Windows XP system. The latest version of Backup Exec sold for home and small office use is now called Back Up My PC, and it fully supports CD-R and CD-RW drives as well as removable-media and tape drives. Back Up My PC supports Windows NT 4 (with Service Pack 4), Windows 98 SE, Windows 2000 Workstation, Windows Me, and Windows XP. In the US and Canada, Back Up My PC is sold by Stomp www.stompinc.com/bump/bump-retail.phtml?stp, and by other OEM vendors in other world areas www.veritas.com/us/redirect/dmd-products/index.html. Many backup programs provided with various tape and CD-RW drives also qualify you for a reduced-cost upgrade to Back Up My PC; see www.stompinc.com/bump/upgrade/bump.phtml?stp for pricing and details. You can also download a fully-functional 30-day trial of Back Up My PC from www.stompinc.com/trial/index.phtml?stp.

Third-party Backup Programs

If you prefer not to use Windows’ own built-in backup tools, you will find many outstanding products from a variety of vendors are available as separate purchases, or might be included with your tape drive, CD-RW drive, or DVD+RW drive. Some products, such as NTI Backup NOW! Deluxe www.ntibackupnow.com are designed strictly for use with CD-RW drives and CD-R/CD-RW media, while others such as NovaStor’s NovaBACKUP www.novastor.com will work with CD-RW/CD-R drives and tape drives. Some vendors offer both removable-media/CD-RW-oriented and tape/removable media/CD-RW backup software. For example, Dantz www.dantz.com has a Retrospect Express Backup which lacks support for tape drives, but also sells the Restrospect Desktop Backup product which uses tape as well as removable media and CD-R/RW drives. If your computer is part of a workgroup that has only one computer with a tape drive, look for products which can back up all the computers in a workgroup from a single server or workstation.

Some of the features you should consider include:

  • Disaster recovery; if you don’t want to reinstall all your applications in the event of a hard disk crash, this feature enables you to rebuild your hard disk from bootable media and the backup drive. Some general-purpose backup programs which feature disaster recovery require you to choose between a file-type or disaster recovery image-type backup when you start the backup process. While PowerQuest’s DriveImage www.powerquest.com and Symantec’s Norton Ghost www.symantec.com are primarily designed for disaster recovery backups and disk imaging, they install Windows Explorer file extensions so you can extract selected files from a backup image for restoration.
  • Support for different versions of Windows; if you plan to move to Windows XP and want to be able to read backups you make with Windows 9x or Me, choose a backup program which is available for both your current and future Windows versions. Remember that the Backup Exec/Back Up My PC series from Veritas will read and restore Windows 98/Me Backup data.
  • Choice of media types; while CD-R/RW media is a very useful backup medium for data up to 3-5GB when maximum compression is used, very large backup jobs are best performed with tape drives. Today’s 20GB/40GB (2:1 compression) or larger tape backups provide faster backups with less chance for user error than if you’re juggling a bunch of CD-R media. If your backup software supports both tape and optical media, you can use it for both selective file and full-system backups.

You don’t need to buy backup software blindly. Most backup software vendors, including the ones cited in this article, offer fully-functional 30-day trial versions of their programs. Visit the Web sites, download the products and find out which ones work best for you.

Backup Early, Backup Often

If you make a full backup of your documents followed by backups of changed and new files every day, you will be no more than a day behind in the event of a system crash. However, if you make backup copies “only when you feel like it”, you may be looking at a time-consuming or very expensive data recovery task when a system crash takes place, assuming you have any data left to retrieve. In part 2 of this series, we’ll examine additional utilities you can use to guard against a system crash, and what to do when your system stops working because of a major disk problem.

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Last Update: November 17, 2020