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What and How to Back Up

January 2020


by Richard Lee


In the previous blog I discussed Why to back up.


In this blog I talk about What to back up and How to back up data on your computer.


Back up:

Essentials to back up are:

- documents

- spreadsheets

- databases

- projects

- other (such as designs, drawings etc)

- photos / videos / audios

- email for non POP3 accounts


As well as your local C: drive, some or all of these files may reside on an external device

such as a USB hard drive/USB memory stick. These should also be backed up.


In general the operating system (such as Windows or Adroid, Linux or MacOS) does not need to be backed up. Thats because you can access the operating system either online or through your media such as USB stick or CD/DVD. The same generally applies to most programs such as Office, Acrobat, Photoshop, Internet Explorer, Firefox and anti malware.



What if your files are stored in the cloud?

Should you back these up or not?


Although most cloud providers say they have redundancy and back ups in place, it would still be prudent (where feasible) to make local backups of data stored on the cloud. Thats because the cloud provider is not immune from internal issues and external attacks that can compromise (even lose) your data.


Just to give a scenario where you might want to access your data but can't. If your internet service is down then you can't access your cloud based data. But then if you did make local back ups of your data, then you can.


How to Back Up:

- simplest way is to use "copy and paste" in the File Explorer

- Windows 10 has File History

- a back up program comes with some external USB Hard Drives

- free downloadable backup programs from internet

- paid commercial back up programs


What are the advantages of using a back up program?

- it runs for you automatically and you don't have to be at the computer

- options for backing up including incremental, differential, full and copy

- back up integrity checking possible

- some programs allow backed up data to be encrypted

- some programs provide a back up log that can be reviewed


What is the difference between free and paid programs?

The common expression "You pay for what you get" seems to apply quite

well to back up programs.


Here are some advantages:

- tend to be more reliable than free programs

- better reporting log facility vs none or detailed reporting (too much info)

- can perform actions before or after the back up (such as run a script or shutdown

the computer automatically)

- options to compress and encrypt backed up data (encryption is recommended when you store sensitive data on the cloud)

- support for more backup destinations (such as network drives and external media)

- better more intuitive user interface

- some have options for disaster recovery

- after sales technical support



I now discuss about the different back up types:

Incremental - backs up any data that has changed since the last back up. Say you had

backed up files A, B, C, D, E, F. Now let say that files C, D and F have changed (been

modified) since you did this full back up. The incremental would only back up files

C, D and F. On the next incremental run if say files A, B and F changed then only those

three files are backed up. The advantage is that the back up sets would tend to be smaller than a full back up. Therefore the time to back up is also correspondingly shorter.

The drawback is that you may have to do a full restore followed by any number

of incremental restores to restore a particular file or files. Time to restore will normally

take longer than a full back up.


Differential - is similar to Incremental, however it backs up all files that have changed

since the last full back up. Taking last example further, a differential would back up files

C, D and F in the second time. The third time round it would back up files A, B, C, D, and F.

A differential back up can be expected to be smaller than a full back up. So it would take

less time (but not as brief as incremental over the space of a few back ups) than a full back up.

For restores the differential back up is faster than the incremental but not normally as fast as a full back up.


In both differential and incremental back ups, the first back up is always a full back up.


Full - everything selected to back up is backed up irrespective of whether anything has changed or not. This is the best option if you need fast restores. The drawback is that full back ups take a lot longer to run than either Incremental or Differential. Also it takes a lot more storage space as well.


Copy - a copy back up is a back up that copies all selected files but does not mark the file as being backed up. It is virtually same as Full Backup but the Copy back up does not compress the files whereas Full Backup can.


Back up Integrity checking is useful as a way to ensure that whats been backed up is a true reproduction of the original file backed up.


Encryption is used to "scramble" the data of a file so that should it fall into third party

hands it cannot be meaningfully read without the key needed to decrypt it (restore it to normal). If you store your back ups on the cloud strong encryption is recommended. Also if your back ups are stored on external USB device encryption could be useful. Encryption would create an extra computing overhead so that would slow the process of backing up files.



After you've backed up the data, is there anything else to be done?

Well yes, there is. You should check to ensure the data actually did back up. You can do this by inspecting the backed up data and/or looking at the back up program log (if available).


Back ups can fail for any number of reasons. Some common ones are:

- destination ran out of disk space

- computer not switched on at specified back up time

- there were open files which cause back up of those files to fail

- hardware issue or error

- network or path not found

- no internet connection


So back up should be a "set it and monitor it" operation not a "set and forget" one.


One last aspect of backing up is this: How often should back up be done?


This depends on how often your files are changing. If they change regularly almost

every day then daily makes sense. On the other hand if it is more like a week or longer

between updates, then select once a week or even once a month.


Also it would be prudent to do a test restore from time to time (2 to 4 times a year). You

can restore a selection of files that is a typical representation of the file types you back up.


Then restore several of these files to a temporary folder. For example if you commonly use Office and store many photos you might want to check you can faithfully restore Office files (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Access and Outlook) and JPG or RAW. Once restored to the folder see if you can open and read those files. If you can then all is well. If you can't then further investigation is needed to troubleshoot the issue.

I've been out to many sites and found that users did not have a back up available when it was needed most. Make back up a habit today and you protect your data. For disaster can strike anyone with a computer with little to no warning.




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