Backup Strategy

I'll cop to a minor character flaw: I have very little sympathy when long-time computer users lose data to a system crash. If you've been around computers for any length of time, you should have learned to protect yourself from data loss. You should have a backup strategy.

Creating a Backup Strategy

Here's a four-step process for creating a backup strategy.

  1. Decide what you need to back up. Do you want to save everything? Only documents you've created? What about application settings? Things you've downloaded?

  2. Decide where to back up your data to. There are plenty of options: a network server, a USB keyring, a Zip disk, a (re)writable CD or DVD, a second hard drive, etc. I don't recommend the last option; a power surge could fry your data and backup simultaneously.

  3. Make it easy to back up your data. Set up your system so that you can back it up with one command. This will take a fair amount of work, but you'll realize its worth when your system crashes.

  4. Make daily backups a habit. The longer the period between backups, the more you have to lose.

Let's look at a concrete example.

My Backup Strategy

What I back up: I use a two-level approach of daily backups and full backups. Since re-installing the operating system and applications is easy, for daily backups I only back up my application settings and documents. A full backup includes all my user data, as well as all downloaded files. (I don't back up downloaded files as often as user data, since chances are good stuff I've downloaded is still out there on the 'net somewhere.)

Where I back up to: Daily backups are done to a 100MB Zip disk. Full backups (done every few months) go to CD.

Make it easy: I put all user data and application settings in one directory tree. For daily backups, I back up only what's changed in that tree since the last backup. The trick is dealing with applications that don't let you specify where to put their settings; you'll have to find a way to extract settings and copy them to your tree. I use a short Perl script combined with Cygwin to copy a few settings, extract a Windows registry key, find what's changed, and copy it to a Zip disk.

Full backups save all user data and application settings (not just what's changed), as well as a separate directory tree of things I've downloaded. I perform these every few months.

Make it a habit: I've set up my backup script as a main menu item. All it takes for me to back up is popping a disk in my Zip drive, typing two keystrokes, and waiting until it finishes in a minute or three. I always do this just before I shut down the computer.

To reinforce the habit, whenever I hesitate over taking the time to do a backup, I ask myself "Do I want to lose all the work I just did?".


  • A more thorough analysis would discuss backup strategies in terms of the cost/benefit tradeoff of balancing risks and benefits, and explore the issue in light of the question "what is your goal in backing up your data?".

  • If your computer is always on, set up backup as automated process.

  • Ideally, you should keep a copy of your data off-site, in case of catastrophe. I should do this, but haven't. Feel free to laugh at me when my apartment burns down.

  • I didn't back up my data regularly until I lost data to a system crash. Learn from my mistake.

Last updated 7 May 2005
All contents ©2004 Mark L. Irons

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