It wouldn’t be too bold to say that at least once, many of us have faced the situation of losing important data on our personal computers. And, as it happens, we only acknowledge the importance of data preservation when it is already too late. Unfortunately, something as simple as backing up our computers is neglected and isn’t part of a regular computer maintenance for lots of users. Statistically around 60% of users will lose their data at some point due to a wide range of factors: hard drive failures, system crashes, physical damage of computers, human actions, virus infection, hacker’s attacks, bugs in software, theft and so on and so forth. Some of these factors are preventable and easy to manage before they actually occur, but some are not.
Losing personal data is very unfortunate and painful – it will cost you time and effort to re-create it. In case you lose pieces of software you’ve been developing or a book you’ve been you have the opportunity to re-create it from scratch. However if you lose family photos and home videos you may not be able to get them back. And if we talk about business and companies, loss of important data will turn out as a loss of money and could even jeopardize the future of the company depending on the scale of the company and value of the lost data.
What is a backup?
In short, backing up is a procedure of making a copy (one or multiple) of your essential data in order to protect it from loss due to aforementioned factors, giving you the ability to retrieve this data in case of such loss. Usually backups are done to a different type of external media, such as compact discs, portable hard drives, flash drives or the cloud. Making backups to a different partition on the main hard drive that is actually used in your computer is not recommended, because in case of its failure or physical damage of the drive the risk of losing backups along with its originals is very high.
There are a variety of different backup methods exists that applicable for various scenarios and setups, but we just look at the most essential ones.
Full backup – is the main and fundamental way to make a backup copy, which implies that all of the data stored on your hard drive is being copied to another place. Although, this method can be quite cost-intensive, it is considered to be the most complete and reliable. Why is it cost-intensive? Because if you need to backup multiple copies, the total amount of stored data will be increasing in proportion to number of copies, which would require more space accordingly. In order to avoid such wastefulness, there are several methods of compressing the data while copying, as well as combination with other types of backup: incremental and differential. Full back up is the essential way to retrieve the whole system from scratch in case of its complete failure or loss.
Incremental backup – is a partial backup, which is based on copying only the data that has been changed since the time of the last backup. This method is quite good when there is a limited amount of available media space reserved for backups, as well as if there is a requirement to decrease the backup time. It is important to point out that incremental backup will only make sense when full backup is done prior to that. The main drawback of this method is that data retrieval is quite slow, since all the data from all incremental backups should be restored sequentially, which requires substantial amount of time.
Differential backup – also a partial backup where only the data that has been changed since the last time of full or incremental backup will be copied. The only difference between differential and incremental backup is that the same changed data will be copied every time again. The advantage of this method is the same as incremental – less time required to make a backup. And there is another advantage – retrieving of data is also fast, since all copies of the changed data already stored in the very last differential backup copy. Basically, you’d need a full and the last differential backup copies in order to restore your data, whereas in case of incremental backup you would have to restore all incremental copies one by one.
Backup destination options
After you have decided to start backing up your data and have decided on the type of backup and what software you will use, all that is left to decide is where the backup copies will be kept. As a matter of fact, there are plenty of different options currently available and all of them have their pros and cons, as well as field of application and cost. Many of these solutions already come with backup software. Many Networked-Attached Storage (NAS) devices and cloud solutions are bundled with backup software that automates the process of copying the data and restoring it. Here is some options for home or small office users:
- External Hard drive – the most basic solution that is affordable for virtually every user. It’s cheap and vastly available in every computer retailer shop, relatively reliable (if not dropped of shaken), bus-powered (doesn’t require a power adapter – the drive uses the data cable). Its portable (generally based on the 2.5-inch laptop type drive) and can be taken anywhere and easy to handle. The main disadvantage (again – relative) is the fragility and sensitivity to mechanical shock. If you drop or strike it the risk that internal disc will be physically damaged is quite high and most likely your data might be lost. As another minor disadvantage most of the currently available portable external drives on the marked come with the single-volume design of up to 3 Tb total size, which still makes it a great backup solution for those users who has limited amount of data to store.
- NAS (Network-Attached Storage) – one of the network backup solutions that can offer various kinds of backups. In general, network backup means that you have one computer (NAS server in this particular case) as primary backup destination for all computers within the network. Although, NAS can offer all sorts of backup methods, it is only one of the many other useful ways to use a NAS. The main advantage of such backup is that once it’s properly setup, it will be running without any additional user’s interference without a need to plug the drive every time you need to do a backup as with a local backup to an external hard drive. Not to mention the small size of the most commercially available NAS servers that can be easily hidden away in order to restrict access to other users and not to create clutter if used in limited room space. It is worth to mention, that NAS solutions mostly appropriate for small companies or home business offices. For ordinary home use it may overkill in terms of cost and functionality, but if you are a power user, or you have a large family, this could be a worthwhile solution. Also, it is more complicated to setup, which can be troublesome for some home users. It is also slower, since it is limited by the network speed due to limitations of 1Gbps in comparison with access speed to a hard drive. For more information about NAS, see our blog post, What is a NAS and Why Would You Want One in Your Home?
- On-line backup (aka cloud backup) – Internet based backup service that allows to store data at an off-site located computer (server). The data is likely hosted by several servers in data centers all around the world. This type of backup is setup in a way that your data will be automatically synced with the remote server in real time or on a schedule that you set. Such on-line services as Google Drive, DropBox or SkyDrive offer users various backup options and about 5GB of online storage for free and more, if you need, can be purchased. The main advantage of cloud storage – it is convenient and keeps the data at relative safety (still, encryption would be highly recommended in case of uploading confidential or commercial data). Other advantages include the possibility to retrieve your data from anywhere to any computer as long as it has an Internet connection and no need to purchase additional equipment. The main drawbacks of cloud backups is that they heavily depend on the availability of an Internet connection and its speed (especially upload speed), which generally means much more time will be needed to do a backup and retrieve process in case of lower Internet speeds. Another drawback is relying on a third party for the safety and privacy of your data. And in case of paid services – it can be expensive over time.
The conclusion is quite simple – backups are essential part of the regular computer maintenance in order to prevent data loss and which type and way of backups users will choose will depend on identified needs and available possibilities – both hardware and software.