Utilizing one of the common and proven backup strategies will save your day when you least expect it.

This article will show you how to create a safe data backup strategy that will prevent you from loosing your precious data, easily and at a low cost.

So why waste time on this when your trusty old computer has never let you down before? The list of what could go wrong is long and could include things like; hardware failure, theft, fire, virus, etc.

Nothing like this may ever happen to you, but if or when it does, it will leave you with a nasty sensation of cold dread, regret and a full schedule for the near future.

Basic technical options of backup strategies

Technically speaking you have three backup strategies to choose from that are suitable for a home office scenario. I will elaborate on issues and variations of each option later.

  • Backup – While the word backup is often used to define the overall process of safeguarding data, it is often used to describe backing up data with dedicated software and will typically mean some level of compression and a “one file” result.
  • Synchronization – Left to right file comparison followed by bringing the side up to date (synchronizing) with the changes that has been made or the files that have been added.
  • Copy – While I do not recommend this method for your important data, one could argue that a file copy constitutes a backup. Personally, I only use this method for things such as movie backups that can be replaced with little effort.

What defines a proper backup strategy

Before I get into my personal views and approaches to safeguarding data, I want to make it clear that any kind of copy or effort to secure your data is better than nothing. If you are doing something already means that you are aware of the risks involved with not having a backup.

A few examples of what a real backup strategy is not

  • Having a simple copy of your data stacked away somewhere in your home or maybe even on an internal hard drive or partition in your computer.
  • Having only one backup placed in your home. One backup is better than nothing, but still…..what do you have if your computer crashes or gets stolen? Yes, a single version of your data.
  • E-mailing files to yourself.
  • Cloud storage. Many will disagree with me here and this point of view might make me a dinosaur, but there you have it. I am not ready to throw my precious data into the void and hope for the best. I want to know exactly where my data goes, when and how. As such this article is about creating a data backup routine on physical storage that you can see and touch. I want to see more online security first.

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Then what is a real backup?

A good backup strategy is having a routine where you will never be able to loose more data than you can create within your chosen backup frequency. If you consider the following or similar suggestions you should be safe except for some unforeseeable event. Personally I feel that loosing more than a days work is unacceptable.

Convenience

An effective backup strategy is one that gets done. Creating a convenient and easily maintainable routine that demands little effort is your best guarantee that you will stick to the system and schedule over time. Most backup programs for personal and home office use are convenient “One click” solutions.

Automation

A maximum of automation will obviously increase the likelihood of continuous and timely backups and as such add significantly to the level of data safety. Some backup software will offer the option of several backup strategies including scheduling the backup or synchronization task to run automatically at a specified time and date.

How many backups

A true backup strategy is having at least 2 backups. Keep one in your home away from your office and one remotely placed with family, friends or at work. Someplace where you can make the weekly switch without much effort. This strategy will demand some effort of course, but only you know how much time it will take to re-create your work and whether the extra logistical effort is justified.

Integrity

Whereas copied files and synchronized files are accessible at all times, a backup is typically a closed compressed file that is not directly accessible. As such you need to check the integrity of the data at intervals. A typical backup scenario could be once a week, and you might want to unpack and check your backup once a month or every fourth or fifth backup.

Parallel redundant systems

Let´s imagine for a moment that you produce an amount of work or personal files each day that you can not accept loosing and that you have already setup a weekly backup schedule.

In a situation like that you could benefit greatly from setting up a file synchronization system that lives parallel and independently from your backup system. That would enable you to secure your days work or as often as you like within a few minutes compared to running a backup. Added to that you have constant access to the synchronized files compared to an encapsulated backup file.

Example: I work on a 2013 Intel Quad core PC with a 90 GB “live” work directory. A File sync procedure takes 2 minutes to run and a full backup takes 40 minutes.

Encryption

Depending on the nature and sensitivity of your data you may want to consider encrypting your work at some point. While this will give you a marvelous sense of privacy, it also adds another level of maintenance and complexity and has its own set of advantages and risks.

Quite often encryption of the back up file itself is offered by the software and is therefore a straight forward option. Keeping your “Live” work files encrypted is another matter and is beyond the scope of this particular article.

I will return to this topic in a later article.

How to get started with your backup strategy

Prepare your file structure

Before you begin planning your backup strategy, a little preparation will give you a head start and make your life much easier down the road.

Where to keep your work

I would like to direct your attention to the previous article in this Data Management Series; Organize Computer Files Wisely and Be More Productive, where I discuss the different advantages of utilizing a one folder work directory.

Identifying and selecting what to back up is wonderfully straightforward when you know that everything you need resides in that one directory. While other structures may work for you, the “one folder” approach has served me extremely well for many years.

Data Separation

Keeping your work files separate from the operating system (OS) is absolutely crucial. Whichever way you choose to structure your files and folders, you need to keep your work files easily identifiable and selectable. This makes selecting what to backup from within the backup software so much easier.

I can´t recommend this part enough. If at all possible, never use the default OS or software folders for your work files. Examples of this could be:

  • Default document and spreadsheet folders
  • Default software folders
  • Default download folders
  • Do your best to isolate your important data at the time of creation. Once you experience the purity of keeping your work away from the operating system, you will never want to go back.

Exceptions

In some cases a total separation can be problematic and will demand some manual action. Examples of this could be:

  • Browser bookmarks
  • Localized e-mail setups
  • Program settings
  • Programs such as iTunes may leave data in the OS area that you need to secure manually

Physical data separation

While this topic deserves an article of its own, I want to direct your attention to the massive advantages of physically separating your work data from the OS by using more hard drives or at least more partitions. I took this step some years ago and I just love it.

Separate hard drive

I wholeheartedly recommend having a separate hard drive dedicated to your work directory. This may be impossible if you work on a laptop exclusively, but if you work on a stationary computer it is pretty straight forward and the advantages are significant.

Not only will it speed up your work flow with certain work types, it also adds a whole new dimension to data safety by keeping your data away from OS crashes and the vast majority of virus and Trojan horse issues.

By all means, keep the hard drive size moderate but able to accommodate your current amount of data plus comfortable headroom to grow. If you have a work directory of 50 gb, a 2 tb drive will only tempt you into using it for other things as well. I recommend choosing a smaller and faster drive that will hold only your work files.

Another advantage is that you have the option of using a traditional hard drive while using a super fast SSD drive for your OS hard drive. This is an advantage because with a traditional hard drive you still have the option to use data recovery software as a last resort. An option that is not available or at least more difficult with RAM based storage.

If you have a smooth backup routine running this aspect may be less of an issue. But it is worth to keep in mind when you choose among the different backup strategies. Personally I am disregarding this to some degree because I often work with large files and I need as much speed as I can get. So I run a separate SSD drive for my work files, but I am synchronizing to a local traditional hard drive on a daily basis or after finishing important work.

Separate partition

If you use a laptop or a small cabinet stationary computer, creating separate partitions for your OS and work directory will create a somewhat similar scenario. You loose some of the advantages that I mentioned previously, but at least you can shake off some of the risks from mixing up your work with the OS.

Backup or Archive

If you haven´t already, I want to repeat my recommendation of reading my article, Organize Computer Files Wisely and Be More Productive. Here I make arguments for running a project based folder structure which leads up to the topic of convenient archiving.

Even though traditional hard drives are cheap and large these days, there are good reasons to keep your active work directory at a reasonable size. It makes much sense to archive finished work instead of keeping it in circulation in your backup or synchronization workflow.

  • Your data amount and the time it takes to backup or synchronize is linked 1:1. In order to keep your backup strategy manageable you should keep your active work directory as small as possible.
  • While super fast SSD drives are getting more common and accessible, they are still significantly smaller and more expensive than traditional hard drives. This is another good reason to get into the habit of archiving inactive data.

Keep in mind that archiving should not lead to skimping on security what those files are concerned. Maintain the principles from earlier and keep working backups locally and off-site.

Backup schemes

The full backup is the backbone of all backup strategies. A backup comes in different variations but they can effectively be categorized into two main types:

  • Full backup – This is a sealed copy of the present state of the selected directories. As mentioned the result is a single file that is mostly compressed or at least encapsulated in the format of your particular backup software. This file is not directly accessible.
  • Incremental/Differential backup – This variation executes an analysis that compares 2 points in time and adds or removes what has changed. Please note that this includes files that has been deleted or overwritten unintentionally.

Rolling backup

To keep storage use within reason you can use a “rolling” backup strategy. This means that you keep a certain amount of numbered backups. When the amount of backups uses the disc space that you have chosen to designate to your backup routine, you simply start replacing the oldest version with the latest.

Example:

If you have an active work directory of 60 gb the fully compressed backup might take up 50 gb of disc space. With the price of storage these days, setting aside 1 tb of disc space would not be to flamboyant and would be able to hold some 18 backup versions.

If you back up weekly this is almost 4 months of backups which is a decent amount of time to discover mistakes.

Please remember the topic of backup integrity and make sure that the backups are working at intervals.

The backup tool that I use and recommend:

I stumbled upon the backup feature in Acronis True Image in 2009 where I actually bought the program to use for creating full hard drive images. Do not let the software name confuse you. Even though the backup feature is not the only feature in this program it is extremely comfortable and straight forward to use. Acronis True Image offers all the usual types of backup, password protection as well as the programs powerful disk image creation feature.

Related article and step by step instructional video: Acronis True Image 2016 Review, Facelift or Big Release?

A disk image is a full copy of a system hard drive, including the Operation System. With a full disk imaging program you can effectively backup your Windows or iOS installation uncluding programs, settings, files and everything. But this is a subject on its own for another article.

At 50 dollars, Acronis True Image 2015 is quite a bargain really. They offer a full 30 day trial version so you can have a look before deciding to buy Acronis True Image or not.

The program has served me incredibly well and I can truly recommend this software.

Synchronization

A synchronization software is a good friend to have between the full backups. Depending on the size of your work directory, it takes only a few minutes to run.

These programs are usually build with a visual left to right comparison in mind. The software compares your active work directory with the target directory and automatically makes the necessary additions, removals and changes.

Theoretically, you could base your backup strategy on this or the incremental backup technology although I am reluctant to call this approach a standalone backup solution. The potential risks with leaving out a full backup are too great in my opinion.

Advantages:

  • It is fast and convenient. Perfect for the slip between your full backups.
  • It provides you with a list of what will be updated. However, this list can get rather lengthy and you will quickly get to a point where you stop checking the whole list.
  • The “Slave” is always accessible if you need to get something or check the integrity.

Disadvantages:

Unintended changes will go unnoticed by the software. Unless you check the update list before synchronizing the software will do as it is told and delete or change whatever is on the list.

It is actually possible to reverse the left to right sync order and accidentally sync an old directory over the newer files.

The File sync software that I use and recommend:

Despite the shortcomings a synchronization program it is an extremely powerful tool for the daily “backups”. I have used Goodsync from Siber Systems since version 8 of 2009.

Related article and step by step instructional video: GoodSync Review – is This the Best File Sync Software?

During my extensive research at the time when I chose Goodsync, I found in other similar programs, that this task can be presented in rather confusing ways. I find Goodsync to be very fast, powerful and very intuitive.

It is a 30 dollar program that will serve you well. Also, you buy the software and the license will remain active even after your updates run out.

They offer a trial period with the full version and a free version after that. However the free version is too limited to be a serious alternative for your backup strategy.

Do you have to choose?

No! I am using both in a parallel independent set up and I will have it no other way.

However, if you want only one line of security, my advice is to go with a backup software that offers a full backup option such as Acronis True Image which I mentioned before.

My backup strategy

Obviously my choice of backup routine is just one of several options. It may be over the top, but loosing my data is simply not an option. Quite frankly I would be devastated. So the effort and cost involved is nothing compared to loosing my precious data.

  • Goodsync Pro for synchronization and backup on a daily basis.
  • Acronis True Image for backup. Since I do a lot of work on weekends, Sunday is when I run my full backup in the evening.

Good luck

I hope this gave you some ideas and inspiration to how you can arrange yourself with a good backup strategy that suits your particular needs. Knowing that your data are well taken care of is a good feeling and the time, effort and cost involved is worth it.