Do you have a backup?

At the office, your IT guys probably back up your computer for you or force you to store critical files on a file server that they back up. I'll write later about how the Institute does backup at a corporate level. The concern of this posting is backing up personal computers. What are you going to do if your hard disk starts making a funny clicking sound, then stops spinning? Or when your notebook drops out of your hands and tumbles down a flight of stairs? Or when a nearby lightning strike fries your 5 year old surge protector and everything attached to it?A number of friends tell me that they copy critical files onto CDs or flash drives. But how often? How much data are they willing to lose, assuming they've ever made that calculation. I know that backing up my 24GB of music, years of financial data, plus all the email I've ever sent or received since 1992 is a daunting task. The simplest form of backup is the one you don't think about.. Here's how I backup my computers:

  • Sony Vaio notebook running Windows Vista Because this system is not in use all the time, I back it up before taking it on a trip or before major software installations. I use Acronis True Image (version 11) and create a fresh image backup each time. With compression, the image comes out to about 20GB, so I back it up to my home server. If you don't have your own home server, an inexpensive USB 2.0 external hard drive would be an excellent choice.
  • Dell Dimension running Fedora 8 12 Linux On this Linux system, the critical files are located in well defined locations: my home directory contains all of my personal files and the /etc directory contains system configuration files. Both get backed up to my home server. I use slightly tweaked versions of the scripts posted here. The backup is kicked off automatically each morning right after I leave for the office.

Once you have your backups, you need a restore strategy and you need to test it. My linux backup strategy works well. When I upgraded this system from Fedora 7 to Fedora 8, I did a clean install. That meant reformatting the disk, installing a new version of the operating system, then using rsync to restore my home directory and copies of some system configuration files. From inserting the installation DVD to having a working system (with a few non-critical exceptions) was a matter of four hours. My Vista backup strategy uses image backups. This means that Acronis creates a clone of my hard disk at the backup site. It's got all of my files — everything — and allows me to either restore a single file for the "oops" deletion event or, by booting from the Acronis CD, restore the system to its state at the time of the backup, whether or not I have a working operating system on the laptop. It's not important that you use these tools. It is important that you think through how you'll deal with restoring lost data now, before its gone.