Basically, you need to answer three simple questions: when, what, and where?
When should I backup my stuff?
You will need to set a schedule for regular backups. Computer information is best measured as time, a “snap shot” of things past: precious memories, work performed, educational materials, or other data collected. How much time are you willing to lose? How should you measure this time? Obviously, these questions have different meaning for everyone. If you just spent all night working on a big project you may measure your computer’s information in hours or minutes. If you’re archiving family pictures on your computer’s hard drive, you may choose to measure in months or weeks. Some companies measure in fractions of a second and backup their data instantly with a technology called mirroring, where all information is simultaneously written on two physical locations, creating an instant backup. So, how do you measure your computer’s hard drive in time? What on your hard drive cannot be replaced? How often does this “stuff” change? How much “time” do you have invested since your last backup and what are you willing to lose? Answering these questions will help you determine how often you should backup your stuff. Backups are like an insurance policy; no policy is perfect, but an affective plan must include a set schedule. For most, performing a backup once a month will be sufficient for a “personal use” computer. If you are working on a big project it is a good idea to keep a second copy “just in case”.
What should I backup?
This question is more often about rationing the storage space you have available to store backup files. My advice, backup everything! True, you can always recover your operating system and application software by installing everything again. However, this is going to take time and what about all of those security updates? If you do backup the entire system, often referred to as a “System Image”, you can save valuable time restoring your computer’s hard drive in the event of a complete failure. At the very least, make sure you do backup all of your personal files, “my stuff”. You may even consider following two backup plans, this will save time when performing your scheduled backups: one plan for backing up the operating system and applications (this will usually take more time but typically require less frequent backups), and the second plan is for “my stuff” (this should be performed more often and will require far less time to complete when compared to backing up everything on the hard drive). At the very least, you should make regular copies of all your personal files, “my stuff”: documents, pictures, videos, music, and any other data that cannot be replaced easily.
Where should I put my backups? This is actually a three part question:
1) How much space will I need to backup my computer’s hard drive?
This is often underestimated; a 1:1 ratio is not enough, unless your intention is to only have a single copy. I suggest, at a minimum, purchase double the storage space you will need to backup everything once, even better, three times as much. Why? What if the backup is bad? What if the backup is destroyed or damaged? What if you overwrite a good backup with a bad backup? What if your backup media goes bad? Companies keep shelves of archived backups “just in case”. I recommend having at least two backup copies and media. I’m not saying make two backups each time you do your backups. Rotate two copies and physical media devices (don’t use just one backup drive). The easiest way to accomplish this is by having two sets of backup media, one for the even months (February, April, June, August, October, December), and one for the odd months (January, March, May, July, September, November). Yes, you may lose a full month of files if one backup completely fails, but it is better than losing everything.
2) What kind of media should I use for my backups?
This all depends on how much you plan on backing up. If you only have a few files, maybe a CDROM is sufficient, or a DVD if a little more space is needed. I suggest an external USB hard drive. Not only is this the most economical media for storage space, it provides sufficient space to backup your operating system and applications as well. If you are backing up several computers, consider an external hard drive with Ethernet support. This will give you the option of connecting the backup hard drive to your home network; if supported, this will give direct access to all the computers on your network without the need of moving the external drive from computer to computer.
3) Final question, where to keep the backups?
Once you take the time to make a backup, it is best to keep it in a safe place. What if you computer is lost in a fire, natural disaster, or stolen? Most companies keep backups in multiple geographic locations as part of their backup plan. I’m not suggesting you keep a backup of your computer in another time zone, although you could. You could just keep your backup(s) in your desk drawer. It’s just something to consider. If you have more than one backup, maybe just keep them in different locations inside your home or in a fire proof safe. When you store your backups keep in mind the sensitivity of some of the information you may have on the backup drive, especially financial and other personal records.
Now you have a few things to consider; it may seem complicated on the surface, but once you break it down its not all that bad. Once you establish a plan, the most important part is sticking to a set schedule and backing up your stuff. Hopefully you’ll never need to use your backups, but if your hard drive fails you will be very glad you have them.