Making a List, and Checking it Twice

OK, you now understand the basic rules around backing up your data. The next question is what to backup.

If you wanted to be able to restore your complete system, operating system, programs, data, etc. you would be making what is usually called an image. These have their place. In large organizations like the one where I work everything is done via images. If a machine starts to show problems, no one spends time trying to fix it. They just re-install the image, called re-imaging. It just isn’t cost-effective to spend a lot of time investigating software errors since you can do a re-image in that environment in about 15 minutes, and most of the time that corrects the problem. On the other hand, the images used do not include data. You are warned that a re-image will lose any data stored on the local drive, and that all data should be stored on the network, where they have systems in place to backup that data.

If you as a home user are looking at this type of solution, I would recommend that you make a clean install of your operating system and all of your frequently used software programs, then create an image you can use later on to re-install if you have any problems. However, I would not use a whole system image to backup your data, for a few related reasons:

  • Whole disk images take up a lot of space. A modern operating system probably takes up a DVD all by itself, and your programs will add more. Whole disk images would therefore take up multiple DVDs to store everything.
  • Making a whole disk image requires active involvement. You need to remember to do it, it will take up some of your time, you will need to swap blank DVDs, etc. This means that relying on whole disk imaging violates one of our rules: Any effective backup strategy must be automatic.
  • As a consequence, you will never have good backups of your frequently changing data. If you did a whole disk image once a month I would be really surprised. But your data can change by the hour. So backing up your data has to proceed by different means.

I will for the remainder of this series focus on backing up your data. If you want to make a whole disk image, by all means do so, but use this to make it easier to re-install the OS and your software, not to do data backups.

To back up your data, you need to do a little preliminary work to identify what you are going to back up. Here are some of the things I back up every day:

  • Documents – In this case I mean written documents, spreadsheets, presentations, etc.
  • Bookmarks
  • Passwords
  • E-mail
  • Some music files – I only backup those I cannot re-rip or re-download, mostly the ones I bought from Amazon MP3
  • Web sites – This is a special case of Documents, really, but I keep mine in a different directory on my hard drive. I keep my local hard drive copy synchronized with what is on the Web site, and back up those files.

Here are some things I do not back up daily:

  • Music – A lot of it was ripped from my CDs, and the rest are mostly ones I bought from E-Music, which lets me re-download the MP3 files at any time. About once every 6 months I will take the files I have downloaded and burn them to a CD for long-term backup.
  • Photos – Flickr or Picasa give you free storage for your photos online. I use this for day-to-day, and again about every 6 months I burn a CD or DVD for long-term backup.

The next step is to make a list of the specific directories (folders) where your data resides. In Linux, this is pretty easy, since all of it lives in your Home directory. In Windows, it is a little harder since Microsoft puts things all over the place. A lot of it is stored in the C:\Documents and Settings directory, but you probably don’t want to back up that entire directory. And where things are stored varies with each piece of software. For example, your bookmarks are called Favorites of you use Internet Explorer, and they are stored in a directory in C:\Documents and Settings. But if you use Firefox, they are stored as a single file in your profile in the Firefox program directory in C:\Program Files. Since I don’t know what software you are using, I can only say that you may need to spend a little time with Google to figure out where your data is located. The good news is that you only need to do this once, since we will use this data to create an automated backup solution that will not need much in the way of attention after this.