This is a column about a topic that most people think is dry, tedious, and flat: Backup. Yawn--know you should do it, but don't, yada yada yada.
But there's more to backup than just copying your files over to a tape drive somewhere. There are so many different ways to do it, some of them relatively painless, that it's getting interesting. Really. And when executed correctly, you can do a lot more with your backed-up files than just hope you never need them. I'll get to that in a minute.
First, a new backup warning--there's one group of people who probably think they don't need to worry about backup at all: those who work in big companies. If you work at a business with a serious IT department, your PC's data may be horribly exposed.
Here's why: The majority of businesses don't back up their users' desktops and laptops, but they back up their servers. If you remember to copy your work files to a network drive, your stuff probably is backed up. If you don't...pffft. Your hard drive goes out, and you'll get a nice new drive with all the apps your business thinks you need and maybe your e-mail in-box recovered. But your files will be toast.
With that in mind, as promised, here are the new backup basics.
Standard practice: removable media backup
This is what we all know we should be doing: Using a backup program to write our changed files to some kind of removable media (a tape, a portable or removable hard drive, a CD, or a DVD), then stashing that media in a separate location--another office, for example. Thus, if there's a catastrophe such as a fire or a theft, you can recover your work. We just reviewed three good small-network backup solutions. Get one, and use it.
Pain-reducer No. 1: live backup
A lot of people think a networked storage device such as a Mirra server is a good backup solution. It is--to a point. If networked storage is your complete backup strategy, you're going to have problems.
Say you have the aforementioned catastrophic loss--for example, a burglar steals all the equipment in your office. You're in deep trouble because your backup will be gone too. But networked backup is fantastic for users who erase files by mistake or when a single PC crashes. And many products, such as the Mirra, allow remote access to your backed-up data. So even if your PC is offline, you can access a reasonably current version of a file from across the country. This can be a great utility; it takes a backup solution and almost turns it into a remote access app.
Pain-reducer No. 2: automated online backup
I don't know about you, but I really don't want to deal with backup media or hardware at all. So I've signed up with Connected for online backup. It's not the only option, either; competitors include Xdrive, Ibackup, and many others.
Every day at around 7 p.m., my home PC sends all the recent changes in my data files to a server farm somewhere. I have to trust in Connected's security, and it costs me a few dollars each month. But it's completely automated, and there's no media or computers for me to manage. Plus, as with the Mirra, I can access my backed-up files from anywhere. I highly recommend hosted offsite backup for individuals and small networks. Some accounting applications even include scaled-down versions of online backup utilities.
The problem with online backup is that you generally can't get enough storage to archive giant collections of photo, video, and music files. So I augment Connected with an external 300GB hard drive as my backup photo shoebox. If my house starts to burns down, it's going to be the first thing I grab when I run out.
Pain-reducer No. 3: PC replication
Here's a form of backup that isn't strictly backup: As I've written before, I use more than one PC. So which one has the most recent versions of my files? Answer: All of them. I frequently synchronize the data files from my laptop to my desktop using LapLink. That way, should one of my computers crash or go missing, I can use the other one, and it will have (relatively) current data.
LapLink is smart about synchronization; it copies newer files over older ones, in both directions (desktop to laptop and laptop to desktop). If I've changed files on both machines, after I sync, they'll both be completely current. If I've changed the same file on both machines, I get a warning and have to figure out what to do. But that doesn't happen too often.
Newer sync tools, such as DataPod, FolderShare, Save-N-Sync, and FilesAnywhere, work over the Net. In other words, they'll keep multiple machines in sync no matter where they are. I haven't yet found a tool that works without noticeably slowing down my systems while I'm using them, but I have high hopes.
Pain-reducer of the future No. 1: redundant drives
RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks) technology is coming to consumers via modern motherboards and new chipsets. RAID allows one system to keep a live hard disk backup at all times, by writing data to two drives at once (other RAID configurations improve performance by sharing the load between drives). That way, if one drive fails, the other will step in immediately. Hard disks are cheap enough now to make this reasonable insurance.
Pain-reducer of the future No. 2: grid backup
In the future, your data may be backed up everywhere and nowhere at once. Some companies, such as the start-up HiveCache, are working on technology that will copy data to multiple machines at once but in little pieces. Just as BitTorrent downloads files from multiple locations at once, a utility such as HiveCache will write your data to multiple computers in its network. It's being designed with an eye toward multicomputer households, where each of the machines on your network can act as a backup for the others (pieces of data will also go over the Internet to other HiveCache members). It's still a formative business, but it's intriguing. For one thing, your data will be highly secure since no computer but yours will have all of it. And it should be reliable since each bit of data will be copied to multiple locations.
With all the places and methods I use to keep my data, one could say I'm paranoid about data loss. I am. But even with all the options above, I spend very little time actually managing my backups. And I know that almost wherever I am and whatever happens, I'm unlikely to lose the files and memories that are important to me.