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Back That Data Up!

No matter how good the components in your computer are, sooner or later you will have a major failure on your hands. Unfortunately it’s usually after such an event that people start thinking that they should have backed up their data. 

We place our lives on these machines. They are essential tools for education, entertainment, and daily communications and we spend much of our time in front of them. No matter how much time you spend with your computer, make no mistake about it – these machines do not care. They can and will betray you and can and will come crashing down at the most inopportune of times. 

In the business world, preparing for this inevitable event is called disaster recovery or DR. While the practice of having spare machines may work for large companies, most of us have to resurrect the machine we have. The key to surviving a major crash is something that sounds quite simple but its importance cannot be over emphasized. This key to disaster recovery is planning. 

In this guide we’ll try to get you to face this inevitability and be prepared for the worse case scenario. 

Since most computers are running some form of the Microsoft operating system and since this is the environment most people know the best, this article will be restricted to so called WinTel machines. 

It’s All About the Data

The most important part of your computer is your data. You can usually restore the operating system with a CD that comes with your machine but all the files you have collected or created over time represents the effort you have put into your computer and the reason for having it.

Backup your data as often as possible. After every major session on your machine make a backup. You don’t have to backup the whole hard drive. Identify the directories that hold your important data and back only them up. Instead of just hitting ‘Save’ to store your work use ‘Save As’ and make a note of the location the program is using to write your data. Add that directory to your backup list. Yes, this is going to take a bit of time but consider the time it will take to recreate everything from scratch. Consider your time valuable, it is. The cost of a professional service to get data off a crashed hard drive is not only very expensive – in the thousands of dollars – but there is no guarantee that everything you want can be restored. 

File Backup Programs

A fast Google search will get you a list of dozens of backup programs. They range in cost but most have the same basic features: You create a list of what files or folders you want to backup, decide whether you to save the registry entries and either backup then or set the program to wake up during off hours and perform the chores. You don’t even have to spend anything for a backup program. All Microsoft operating systems comes with a basic but useable program. You can find the Microsoft Backup Utility in the Start menu under Accessories -> System Tools. The usual location for the program is C:WINDOWSsystem32 tbackup.exe. 

There are three major variations of a backup; Full, Incremental and Differential. The full backup is just what it sounds like. Everything on your backup list is backed up each and every time. With the incremental backup only those files on your list that have changed since the last full or incremental backup will be backed up.

To restore from a backup you have to apply the full backup and every incremental backup since the full. With the differential backup all files since the full are stored. Unlike the incremental backup you typically have to restore only the full and the last differential backup. Look at it this way. Say you have five files, A, B, C, D, and E. With an incremental backup,  if you change B only that file will be saved. If C is changed the next incremental will save only C. With the differential the second run will save both B and C. So, typically the differential backup requires less passes to restore. 

That brings us to where you should place your backups. Never, repeat; never store your backups on your main drive. After all that is the drive most likely to crash and your backup files will be lost with everything else. Most computers come with a CD-RW drive that is perfect for backups. Remember to label the disc and keep it safe. If you need a lot more space to save your important files, consider investing in an external USB or Firewire hard drive. 

Binary Backup Programs

There are programs that will create a perfect binary image of your whole hard drive or partition. On a restore from a binary backup, there are no worries about registry problems that often plague file oriented backups.

Two of the leaders in the image backup are Symantec’s Ghost and Powerquest’s Drive Image. Most of the features are pretty much the same. Basically the way these programs work is they read the contents of a partition, compress the contents, and then stores it either on another partition or a removable media such as CD, DVD or ZIP. 

The way I like to set things up is to create an additional partition, and save the image there. For this always create a FAT-32 partition so you can see the image file from a bootable rescue floppy.  

Some of the newer features to this type of program include the ability to restore individual files or directories. This is great when you are moving up to a new computer. You can easily transfer your data to your new machine. You should also use a binary image before any major change to your computer. This way, if things go horribly wrong, and sooner or later they will, you can restore to the exact configuration you had before the new software was installed. 

If your machine becomes unstable, all you need to do is roll back to the last good configuration you saved. This is where having a floppy drive and FAT-32 partition comes in handy. Even if your NTFS formatted Windows operating system is unable to boot, you can get it back to normal in a reasonable amount of time.

Unfortunately, I have been forced into this situation many times myself. I find myself installing software to test or review that so destroys the integrity of my machine I have no recourse but to go back in time to before I loaded the offending programs. If you depend on the typical file oriented backups you would have to reformat your hard drive, load your operating system and attempt a restore. All too often the registry will not come over correctly and things still will not work. With the binary image everything you need to get back in business is done quite painlessly. 

Real Time Backups

Another popular form of backup program is one that runs in the background and saves files as they change. A nice example of this type of program comes with Powerquest’s Partition Magic, Datakeeper. There are many out there that basically do the same thing. You run the program from the startup folder in Windows and every time you delete or change a file a copy is stored. Datakeeper has an interesting provision; you can select two destination locations. With the increasing popularity of removable media this program makes allowances for when the primary location may be off line. In this case as soon as Datakeeper sees the removable drive is back it updates the files from the secondary location. 

Among the features to look for with the real time backup are file selection and how many copies you want to keep. In most cases you realistically do not have to save every file that is changed. Many are temporary files or intermediate files used during processing. 

As with the recommendation for file oriented backups, determine what data files you absolutely need to protect. Only select those files for monitoring and saving. This will cut down on the time required for processing. Next you should be able to determine the number of copies to keep. If you have a large amount of space on your destination drive you can set this number fairly high, around 25 or 30 copies. The reason for the high number is you may go through many versions of a file during processing. If you need to roll back to before the processing began you may need to try a number of files. 

This brings us to another reason for such real time backups. Even if your machine does not crash you could potentially make a drastic mistake at some point. When working on a document or file, you often make many changes and may forget where you were when you last saved and save over something that you wish you hadn’t. When this happens you go back to the list of file copies and restore the file before the damage. 

Preventative Measures

The best way to protect your data is to get into a routine where you act before your machine crashes. Frequent checks on the health of your machine will save a lot of time and trouble down the road. With every Microsoft operating system there is a program called Check Disk (chkdsk). It’s an older program but still has value. To run it just go to the accessories menu and select Command Prompt. In most Windows systems this will open a window that looks like the old DOS command line. Type in CHKDSK and let it analyze your hard drive. If there are problems you really can’t do much while the drive is mounted for use. Re-run chkdsk with the /r (repair) option for a five step check or /f (fix) for a much quicker three step check and reboot. This hopefully will fix the problems. It may take several passes until you get a clean bill of health. 

Many problems start with the registry. This huge database of settings and locations often contains extra entries and some that are out right bad for your machine. I found a program from Macecraft (http://www.macecraft.com/) called RegSupreme that is excellent for the identification of registry problems. It has three levels or depths of the scan it performs, Normal, Deep and Extra Deep. It also has a simple text file where you can enter any registry keys that you want excluded from the scans. I found that there are several Microsoft Office keys that show up as problems that are required for the programs to work. I simply included those keys in the exclusion file and they never show up in the scans again. 


The whole reason for your multimedia computer is the files you have on it. From the moment you take it out of the box and start working on it you are creating and saving data that can be important to you.

Your data is the most important thing on this machine and a little time invested in protecting this data will pay off sometime. It is not a matter of if your machine will crash; it is just a matter of when. There is a reason why every major corporation spends a small fortune on backup and restore procedures. Being well prepared now will save you a lot of time and heartache in the future.

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