Data today, gone tomorrow. That’s why you always need plan B
Most of our personal and business data exists as bits and bytes stored on optical media and hard disks in computers. We live in a digital world. The robustness of computers, though, is still often thrown into question—think virus attacks, system failures, and hardware malfunction. It’s therefore important not to keep all your data in just one place: back up.
Traditionally, the process of backing up valuable data has been glossed over, probably because of the absence of affordable storage and the lack of easy-to-use software. However, this doesn’t apply today, when you have storage available at dirt-cheap prices as well as great software—some of which are free. Such software has a plethora of features that enable you to set up a backup system once, and then forget about it; and they are suitable both for individuals and businesses.
If you’re convinced about the necessity of data backups, you need to sit back and understand your requirements. The frequency of generation of data will determine your choice of software, as there are some upper limits to how frequently you can back up. Likewise with issues of retrieving older copies: some software allow you to store multiple versions of the same files, while others overwrite older versions and keep only the latest version in storage.
Data backup methods have evolved over the years. Until about a few years ago, most SoHos used the older and cheaper way of data backup—optical media (CD / DVD). But though CDs and/or DVDs are still useful for one-time backups, they can be a pain in the neck when regular backups are needed. More user-friendly storage would be external USB hard drives. Many drives feature the “one-touch backup” option; they come with software that automatically backs up data at the press of a button.
Image Or File?
Like hardware, data backup software comes with varying levels of features and complexity. Backup software basically performs two types of backups: image and file. Image backup is when you restore data along with all the settings of the system. The software creates bit-for-bit copies of the source disk—something like the System Restore feature in Windows. This is ideal when you’re not planning on upgrading your hardware, or when you need to get back up and running minutes after a disk failure. However, image-based backups typically take a lot of time, which might mean that the user can perform less frequent backups.
File backup, on the other hand, is the conventional copy-and-paste (rather, copy and burn to storage media). The software copies the selected files on demand, or on a predetermined schedule. This is fast, and is suitable even when you install new hardware. The problem with file backup is that if and when the OS crashes, you will have to start installing everything—Windows, device drivers, and your software, before you can use the data. Then again, there is the chance that you might just forget to back up an important new document because it wasn’t in the usual source folder for the backup software.
A third type of backup solution is offsite, online-based backup. For a price, storage companies allow you to automatically back up data to their servers. This works well if you have a broadband connection. Online backup is file-based; it takes less time, and less space is utilised because only the data is copied (without any settings).
When it comes to software, customers have a number of choices based on budget and requirements. Data backup and recovery software comes in both paid and free versions. We’ll look at both categories.
Norton Ghost 12
This is Symantec’s data recovery software; it falls in the image backup segment. It costs $69.99 (Rs 2,800); find a free evaluation copy on this month’s DVD. Norton Ghost works on Windows and does a comprehensive backup of your hard drive. You can also back up individual files and folders. Restoration is as easy as clicking a button. However, it is a resource hog. Ghost analyses your hard drive when you start it, so startup times depend on the amount of data on your hard disk(s).
Some options with Norton Ghost are the scheduling of backups and use of password protection on the backed up files. It creates periodic restore points, like System Restore does in Windows. Norton Ghost does not need to be running for a scheduled backup to start: it will start all by itself. It even allows you to back up more than once in a day, which is ideal for a busy day at office. Backups, especially image-based backups, are a performance hog when they run, and Norton Ghost has a Progress and Performance feature which allows you to slow down the backup if you are in the middle of something. You can even back up systems that are dual-booted.
The backup sets can be burnt onto CD / DVD or transferred onto a USB drive. Security for your backups is rock solid—the files are protected by 256-bit AES encryption, one of the best methods. Apart from scheduled backups, backups can also be triggered by user-set events like the installation of a new application, or when the size of the backup source folders increases beyond a certain limit. Multiple computers running Ghost can be controlled remotely from a single machine. (Each computer needs to have an unique license key, so this proposition would be very costly if your network is large.)
Restore times depend on the amount of data that is imaged. However, the process is easy—it is basic point-and-click. If you have no time to do an image backup, Ghost will let you do an individual backup of files and folders. It will do incremental backups when space is a concern. The backup files can be searched either through Ghost’s inbuilt feature, or synced with Google Desktop Search.
Norton Ghost is a costly choice, but it does it job pretty well. The documentation is pretty detailed, and technical support can be obtained via e-mail. For more details on how to use Norton Ghost like a Pro, check out this month’s 30 Minute Expert in our Tips & Tricks section.
Vembu StoreGrid Backup Software
For those businesses that run more than one computer, this is a godsend. Each computer on the network usually has some free space. Vembu StoreGrid allows you to back up data across an intranet utilising this free space. Find the software on our August 2007 DVD. The free edition runs on Windows, though the paid versions run across all platforms.
Unlike Norton Ghost, StoreGrid runs very well on systems with average system specifications. The free version does not have all the features of the paid one, but it does the job of backing up your files. Some nice features are the ability to do incremental backups by default—StoreGrid will back up changes each time they appear in the file, but it won’t save multiple copies of the same file. Rather, the changes will appear in a single file, which results in space and time savings.
If you’ve spent hours tweaking your Registry for optimum performance, those changes can be saved, too. User data is encrypted up to 448 bits using the Blowfish algorithm, and is password-protected. StoreGrid supports hardware like Network Attached Storage (NAS) and external hard drives. The Pro version has the feature to back up files via secure FTP (File Transfer Protocol). It also stores Outlook, Outlook Express, and browser settings and will back up data to Microsoft SQL and Exchange Server.
The interface is intuitive, and setting up the software is easy. There are three modes of configuring the software. The first is client / server mode, in which the computer can be used to store backups of other systems and also back up its own data to others. The other two options are client and server: systems configured for the client mode cannot have backups of other systems stored on their hard drives, while systems configured for server mode cannot have their data backed up elsewhere.
Control is through a browser-based interface, and you need to type http://localhost:6060 into your browser’s address bar to start the console. Backups can be scheduled on a calendar, or set up so that every time a file is updated, it is backed up. For users who use both a laptop and a Desktop, StoreGrid can be configured such that data on specific folders on laptops will be automatically backed up on connecting to the network.
For those on a budget, Back2Zip is a simple and effective data backup software. It is freeware; find it on this month’s CD.
This is a no-nonsense, no-frills software. It sports an extremely simple interface with a minimum of options, but does all that you’d expect it to do. It can either do a simple copy, or compress the files into zipped folders; the level of compression can be set to low or high. (The higher the compression, the slower the backup.) Back2Zip backs up whole files and folders; it is not image backup. The duration between successive backups can be set from 20 minutes to 6 hours; the 20-minute option is ideal when you are working on important documents.
This software leaves a very small footprint. The compression method used is the industry-standard ZIP and ZIP-64.
Over The Wires
Online backup is typically a costly option for individuals and small businesses because of recurring costs, but you can get some good bargains if you hunt for them. Some companies like IDrive (www.idrive.com), Mozy (http://mozy. com/), and Carbonite (www.carbonite.com) offer packages tailored to the needs of individuals and small businesses. The offerings are comparable in terms of cost. IDrive, for example, offers 2 GB of storage space for free, with unlimited space for personal use at $49.50 (Rs 2,000) per year, and 50 GB to 500 GB for businesses at yearly rates starting from $99.50 (Rs 4, 000). These services typically require the installation of a client on the local machine; this is used to control settings and options. They offer the full range of features, right from scheduled backups to encryption—just like those offered by Desktop software.
At The End Of It
For a SoHo user, the best solution would be to use backup software and back up data to another hard disk, preferably an external drive. It is not advisable to use another internal disk to back up the data, as both data and backup could be lost at the same time.
External hard disks are pretty affordable these days—a 160 GB drive, for example, costs between Rs 4,500 and 6,000 (internal hard drives of the same capacity cost about Rs 3,000). Since you can carry all the data with you, you have yourself a great solution.
Online backup can be expensive or affordable depending on your budget, needs, and connectivity. It’s definitely worth considering.
Data today, gone tomorrow. That’s why you always need plan B