Verifying Your Backups

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan famously used the phrase “Trust but verify.” This is very good advice if you want your backups to be useful. One of our rules for effective backups states “If you do not test your backup, you don’t have a backup.” So this last step is very important.

If you do a whole disk image type of backup, there is only one way to test it: You have to take the image and install it on a computer. If you install it on the computer it came from, you are essentially wiping out everything and replacing it with your backup image. If that strikes you as scary and dangerous, it strikes me that way too. The only way I would do that for a test is if I had a spare computer with nothing on it that I could use as a test bed for my backup. In company IT departments that is not so difficult, but this series is intended for the home user, and we cannot assume spare computers lying around.

This is one of the many reasons why the strategy I recommend here does not use whole-disk images. The techniques we have discussed are targeted to backing up specific files, and with these techniques there are two things you want to do to verify your backups.

Is This Thing On?

The first check you need to do is to make sure that your automated backup is still backing up. To do this, you need to take a few minutes to look at your backup folders, and make sure you see some recent dates in the time-stamps of the files. Go to each of the top-level folders, look inside, and make sure you see some recent activity. If you do this once a month, you can usually expect to see at least one new document in your documents folder, at least one new bookmark for your browser, some new mail activity in your mail folder, etc. This does not need to take a long time. I should think in 2 minutes you could do this. Make sure you check both your local backup and your online backup.

You need to do this because even though the backup worked fine when you first set it up, changes to your environment could have affected the backup software. Maybe that new program you installed broke something. Maybe the latest OS security patch has stopped things from connecting. If you do find a problem, you will have a little detective work to fix it, but for online backup I would start with the support area for the backup product you use. If the latest OS Security patch did break something, chances are they already know about it, and have an update to their software you can download and install that will fix the problem.

Open Some Files

The other thing I would check is to try opening some files at random and make sure they open and display properly. Remember that we are not doing whole disk image backups, but are selectively backing up important files. So it is a good idea to make sure that the backups you made are really working. Take a couple of minutes, open a few files, and make sure they look good. Again this can be done in a couple of minutes easily.

Minimal Effort, Maximum Return

With these techniques, you can have effective protection for your important data with minimal effort. You do have to invest a little time once to set it up, but then all you need to is put in 5 minutes a month to verify your backups, and you can have peace of mind. I use a service called Remember The Milk, which is an online To-Do list that integrates with my Google Portal, Gmail, and my Google Calendar, but there are other ways of reminding yourself to do your monthly check.