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Backing up Your Computer


From time to time, people tell me they want to back up their computer and ask me for advice on how to do that. Unfortunately there isn't one perfect solution. Here are my thoughts on the available options and the trade offs involved. Which you choose depends on what scenario you're trying to protect against, how careful you want to be, how much work you want to do, and how much you want to spend.

If your data isn't super sensitive and/or you're not paranoid about security, I'd suggest an online backup tool such as Mozy. I haven't used Mozy so I can't vouch for it first hand, but it's easy and cheap enough to try.

The long version is...

Option 1 - An online backup tool like Mozy. It backs up your computer to their systems over the internet.
Pros:
  • Easy (in theory).
  • Reliable- their job is to make sure your data isn't lost and they will probably do a better job that you would yourself.
  • Protects you against device failure, virtual attacks (viruses or people breaking into your computer and deleting stuff), and physical destruction (like a fire) or theft of your equipment.
Cons:
  • Monthly payment (instead of up front cost).
  • Another company has access to all your data.
  • If they do mess up their security, your data could in theory be accessible to anyone online.

Option 1.5 (because I'm adding this after writing the rest) - Dropbox, another tool that backs up your data online. It doesn't back up your whole computer though. You can create a folder and anything you put in there gets backed up.
Pros:
  • Option 1 plus
  • They have a free option if you have less that 8GB of stuff you want to back up.
Cons:
  • Option 1 plus
  • You have to make sure to keep all your important stuff in the dropbox folder. Sometime people don't remember that something they mean to back up isn't in there.

Option 2 - A backup disk connected to your computer and a backup program to copy your data to it.
Pros:
  • One time cost.
  • You control your backed up data.
  • Protects against device failure.
Cons:
  • You have to keep an eye on your backup system to make sure it's working properly. I've seen people with this kind of backup system that thought the backups were working but weren't actually.
  • Doesn't protect against virtual attacks or physical destruction.

Option 3 - Like option 2 but with a 2nd backup drive. You switch which drive is connected to your computer periodically.
Pros:
  • Same as option 2 plus
  • Protects against device failure and virtual attacks.
Cons:
  • Same as option 2 plus
  • More complicated set up. You have to remember to switch the disks periodically and you may have to run some commands in the backup system to tell it to use the new disk.

Option 4 - Like option 3 but with the unused backup disk moved out of your house or into a fireproof safe.
Pros:
  • Same as option 3 plus
  • Protects against device failure, virtual attacks, and physical destruction.
Cons:
  • Same as option 3 plus
  • More hassle of bringing the extra disk to a friend or family's house or getting a safe (if you don't have one).

On pcs, I've used Norton Ghost and Acronis True Image Home as backup programs to a disk connected to the computer. They're both ok, at least in some scenarios.

On macs the options of using one or more backup disks connected to the computer are easier and cheaper than for pcs because macs come with backup software that is really easy and nice to use.
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