Well, at the top of my "Why?" list is "Catastrophic Failure". What happens if your hard drive starts making a funny clicking noise, or worse, a high-pitch squeal with the sound like gravel pinging around inside? Neither of these physical hard drive crash scenarios is pleasant to contemplate, especially if this is your primary system at school or work. Even if a hard drive failure turns out to be only a logical error, such as a corrupt directory structure or lost clusters on the drive, if you cannot get to your important data, it makes no difference that the problem can be repaired by formatting.
Broke is broke
Hard drives used to have a mysterious rating called "MTBF" (Mean Time Between Failures), although now most use "ARR" (Annual Return Rate) or something similar. MTBF numbers are usually in hours and may be based on any one of numerous failure conditions that might occur with the device, including failure of the electronics, the motor, degradation of the media surface, or physical damage such as a read-write head crash. The MTBF time frame may include the average failure time from devices in constant operation, intermittent operation (power on / off), as well as unused or shelved product. Deterioration of electronics and media can occur just sitting in a box somewhere, and is therefore a valid "test" condition to include in the average, although I would bet it helped push many of the manufacturer numbers higher than what might be realistic. Keep in mind that with an average, for every drive that kept running for 99,999 hours, another failed in the first hour, giving us that nice round 50,000 hour number.
It's not as bad as it looks
Much more common than a physical failure of the drive is logical corruption to the directory or data. Drive corruption can occur from a variety of reasons, but two very common ones are some sort of power-related issue and bad memory. If your system is writing information to the drive and there is a loss of power, incomplete information could be recorded, or worse, data improperly placed on the surface of the drive. If the directory information is corrupted, the data might be recoverable using special programs that can search the drive and create new links to the information. If the data itself gets corrupted, all or part of it may no longer be accessible, depending on the type of file and how it is organized on the disk. Bad memory can corrupt your information before it gets saved, or during a copy or move operation. The first step to try to look for problems and attempt to repair this type of error is to run the CheckDisk tool (or ScanDisk on some earlier Windows versions.) Windows CHKDSK can detect "bad sectors" and may be able to move some or all of the data to another location, but it does not really "fix" the error; CHKDSK will mark unreadable drive clusters as "bad" so they will not be used again. And the good news? Corrupted data sectors or directory structure can be erased and rebuilt, although the data tends to go away permanently when you perform a low-level format of the drive.
Oops, I did it again...
How about those times when you just accidentally delete or overwrite a file or folder that you didn't mean to? These are probably the most common mistakes I make that result in lost data. Once, I deleted an entire network directory instead of my local one, and had to transfer my local file set back over again. Have you ever opened a document, intending to use it as a template for a new file, but then forgot to use "Save As" or change the name before saving your new information over the top of the original? How about dragging and dropping a group of files to a different location and clicking "Yes" to overwrite all without checking time, date, or file sizes?
Pop-ups, viruses, Trojans and worms (oh my!)
Yes, malware could result in data loss, but it is more likely to make your machine run really slow, or just get so annoying that you want to throw it out the window (and that could cause data loss). One quick solution to correcting a malware-infected system is to do a system restore. Running emergency recovery may get your computer back to the factory-shipped configuration, but now you have to reinstall all of your anti-virus, anti-spyware, and software applications, as well as all of the data files and settings. The last bit assumes that you have made a backup of the data files before doing the system restore. While having a backup may not solve this situation, if you make multiple copies or use synchronized folders and a flash drive to backup important files, it is less likely to be a frequent annoyance.
What to backup?
The next big question to ask is what do you want or need to backup? To help determine what is best for you, a practical list can be created by identifying: (1) which files cannot easily be replaced or reconstructed? (2) how important are these files, both in terms of "valuable" documents and files, and personal sentimentality? and (3) inconvenience (think about how long it takes not only to reinstall applications, but restore your settings, preferences, and organization). Most backup lists should include categories like "everyday" files, such as email, music, pictures and video. Then you can worry about "core files" such as programs, settings, preferences and the operating system itself. The operating system and applications can be restored or reinstalled without too much trouble, but the files that you created with them cannot.
When to backup?
This question is an easy one, and no matter how "flippant" the answer sounds, the bottom line is that you should backup before you need it. The best way to make sure this happens is to make time to backup at regular intervals, or if your program and backup media support it, configure them to perform regularly scheduled backups.
Where to backup?
The "where" question generates a list of possibilities all by itself. How you backup files definitely impacts this since some applications will only support certain types of backup media. However, if you use a method that cannot directly save files to an optical drive for example, you may still be able to save to another location first, and then use your burning software to archive the result. This approach will work as long as the backup files either do not exceed the capacity of the media or can at least be broken down into smaller chunks and saved across several disks. With this in mind, consider the following possible backup targets:
- RAID or second drive (internal or USB): If the amount of data has grown beyond a reasonable amount to store on CD-R or DVD media, consider implementing RAID to mirror your drive(s). If your system board does not support RAID, you can usually add an adapter that does or just install a second hard drive and copy or synchronize your important files to it at regular intervals. External USB or Firewire drives will be slower to copy to and from, but still work very well for archiving and have the advantage of being transportable to multiple systems.
- Network shares: If you don't have room inside the computer, or you want a solution for several systems that are located on a home network or business LAN, consider setting up a common computer with adequate drive capacity shared on the network. A popular alternative to configuring server-based storage is to use one of the Network Attached Storage (NAS) drives such as the Buffalo TeraStation or smaller LinkStation drives. Buffalo is not the only manufacturer of course, and some "kit" versions are available so you can use any old drive you might have around or, install what you can afford now and upgrade capacity again later.
- Flash drives: These are getting bigger, but other than for the casual transfer of information or backing up your everyday files, flash cards and USB flash drives probably are not a practical backup media for most people. While flash memory is non-volatile, you have a risk that problems could occur while removing or inserting the drive, and if the data structure gets damaged or corrupted, you could lose access to everything on the device. I would never rely solely on flash media to hold and secure the only copy of anything important.
- Optical drives (CD, DVD, HD-DVD, Blu-ray): Let's say that the average hard drive size is about 200GB and you have managed to fill half of that with programs and data. It would take more than 140 CDs, 20 single-layer DVDs (10 Dual-Layer), or only 4 BD-R (Blu-ray Disk-Recordable) disks to copy your 100GB of data in an uncompressed format. If you like the optical drive solution, but don't look forward to the tower of CD-R disks or slightly smaller stack of recordable DVDs, you can always pick up a Sony BWU100A Internal Blu-Ray Disc Drive and use some of the 25GB recordable disks to backup lots of files from your hard drives.
- Internet: I have never bothered to explore this option for a variety of reasons. Mostly it is because I am not inclined to leave my data integrity up to someone else and because if burning a DVD is slow, network backups are slower, and Internet upload speed is going to be so much slower than either of these options. Add to that a regular subscription fee for data storage capacity and maybe even bandwidth use and you see where I am coming from. On the plus side, Internet backups do mean having an off-site backup, and may also provide a means to access to your information from multiple locations.
How to backup?
No matter if you are doing a casual file copy or running a more systematic archive process, there are some things you can do to improve the reliability of the process, reduce the time it takes, and locate your content either to back it up or to restore it after the fact.
Doing disk maintenance and basic clean-up serves a dual purpose when it comes to backing up. First, CHKDSK can make sure you are free from simple data corruption errors that would cause the backup process to terminate if found. Second, taking time to run the Windows Disk Cleanup Wizard will remove temporary files that waste space in your backup archive. Going beyond the Wizard and manually removing temporary files that are created by installers and legacy programs may also make a huge difference in the size of your archive.
You may also receive a pleasant surprise as a result of these steps in terms of improved system performance. One thing I regularly check, especially if Windows or its applications seem to be slowing down, is the number of files and size of the contents of the user's temp directory. For whatever reason, if the file count grows too large, system performance will suffer, perhaps because of trying to create a unique file name, or more likely, because the temp directory has grown to the point where it has fragmented across the drive. A fragmented directory structure increases the process steps every time a file must be accessed, created, or removed in that folder. Defragmentation of the drive is not critical before doing a backup, but it also can sometimes improve system performance slightly.
Once the trash has been cleaned out, you should be ready to actually do something about backing up your files or system. What you copy and where it can be copied to will be controlled by the program or method you use. Most backup programs cannot make a copy of any file that is locked because it is currently open and in use by the OS or some background task. This is not an absolute limitation, as programs like Windows Backup can do what is called a "shadow copy," which copies the files that are locked, ignoring any warnings or errors that would normally appear. The shadow copy process captures the files as they currently appear on the disk at the start of the backup, which may not be the same as their current state during or after the backup is complete.
Under Windows XP, I can think of at least four different methods that you can use to backup your files. The most basic is a file-copy operation where you select individual files or folders and drag / copy them to another location. If a file is locked or you encounter some other transfer error, the copy process will abort, although you can work around this by using XCOPY with a /C option in a command line window. [see: Understanding Tech: Using XCopy] Using the Files and Settings Transfer Wizard works well for some people, and gives you the option to select additional files or folders to include in the archive or to manually select what gets copied. What the FAST Wizard does not do is give you a way to selectively restore a single file or group of files. The FAST Wizard restore process is limited to all or nothing. [see: Understanding Tech: Using FAST Wizard] Synchronizing files using Briefcase is supported when using removable media like flash, floppy, or external USB or Firewire drives. Briefcase can also work over network or cable connections, but requires you to tell it when to compare and synchronize files. (Check out the various methods under Windows Help and Support in your Start Menu) The program that provides the most features and good flexibility is the Windows Backup application. However, one big drawback is that it does not support recordable CD or DVD drives. You can still make an optical disk archive but will need to save your output to a file on a local, network, or attached drive, and then burn the program and files to the media afterwards. [see: Understanding Tech: Using NTBackup] Windows Backup will even support making a complete system file backup and a special recovery diskette which can be used from the Windows XP CD by running Setup and choosing the Recovery option. If you have a system that came with system restore media or a recovery partition, you already have the start of a backup, and could restore your system from the archive after restoring the core image.
A variety of retail backup and disk image products are available, and many will directly support archiving to recordable optical media.
- Disk image programs like Symantec Ghost (included with Norton Save and Restore and System Works), Backup Now, Drive Backup, or Acronis True Image can be used to make an exact copy of your operating system, programs, and data files and put it back in case of a catastrophic failure or severe data corruption. Some of these will help you build bootable CD or DVDs so that you don't have to do a partial reinstallation before doing a restore. The downside to full image backups is usually the resulting size. Even if you make a backup of your Windows OS and programs shortly after installation on a new computer, you can still end up with an archive that requires more than one DVD disk to hold the information. Other than for partial folder or file archiving, backing up to CD is no longer very practical for most people. However, if you have older computers with operating systems other than Windows XP, this might still be practical.
- Most of the same programs that can do image backup can also do selective file backups as well. But if all you really need is a program that will archive a regular set of files and folders, or you want more features than are supported by the built-in Windows programs, then consider something like JumpVault Total Backup, Roxio BackUp MyPC, or SummitSoft Rapid Backup
- Don't forget your built-in Windows XP CD burning feature, Insert a blank CD and drag and drop the folders to archive on your CD-R drive, and then follow the prompts.
- CD/DVD Burning software such as those from Nero, Roxio, Pinnacle and others also provide a method of archiving selective files and folders to blank media. The OEM version of Nero bundled with many CD-R and DVD-R drives includes a program called Nero BackItUp specifically for this task. Roxio Creator has a variety of full, partial, incremental backup options, and full image disaster recovery. Pinnacle is probably best known for their capture and editing applications, but the Pinnacle Studio MediaSuite includes an Instant Backup feature for your data as well.
No matter which approach you choose, the challenge is to make your backup before you ever need it. Stuff happens, and if you are not prepared for it, well, don't say I didn't warn you...