Your data back-up plan

Would you be lost without your laptop? If your home computer was destroyed or
stolen, how much would you lose?

Computers are susceptible to a myriad of disasters: viruses, system crashes,
natural disasters, defective parts, fires, theft and even human error. If you’ve
ever felt the panic of having your computer “freeze” or a file go
missing, then you know the real value in your computer isn’t just the technology:
it’s the content. The more we do on our computers the more we have to lose —
including financial documents, family photos and even our music collections.

Are you looking at your computer a little differently? Good. It’s time for
a back-up plan for your computer. A little time and money are all you’ll need.
Here’s how to get started:

What are your needs?

What solution you end up purchasing will depend on how much information you
need to back up, and what kind of files you typically use:

File back-up: Maybe you have hundreds of digital photographs,
important projects, digital bank statements or bills all sitting on your computer’s
hard drive. Or perhaps you’re working on a major project you want to back up
while you work — just to be on the safe side. What you’ll need is something
that is quick and easy to access.

System back-up: Rebuilding your system after a crash or a
virus is a time-consuming process. Why? Imagine having to re-install all of
your software, download and install all the latest updates since you bought
it and customize your settings. That’s why you need a system back-up, a record
of your computer “as is” — and you’ll need something big enough to
hold all that information.

“Covering your back” back-up: This isn’t a technical
term, but you get the general idea. You’re giving a talk or making a presentation
and you need a second copy of your notes and slide show. Or maybe you’re on
the road and you want anywhere-in-the-world access to copies of your travel
documents like your passport and insurance policy. Something small or web-based
is the ticket.

When it comes to any kind of storage, size always matters. Word processing
documents and spreadsheets tend to be smaller files, and therefore require less
“room” but pictures, music and video will require more space.

Online services

Now that web-based email services have greatly increased inbox size, it’s
easy to simply email yourself a file that you’re working on for a quick online
back-up. There are also many document management services such as Google
than enable storage and sharing. However, for more security and capacity
many companies are now offering online back-up services.

There are other advantages too: You don’t have to worry about losing or damaging
physical storage device, and you can access the information from almost anywhere
(if you’re travelling, for example). Here’s what to look for:

Cost: Fees vary by company, and some services are even free.

Features: Is it easy to use? How can you access it? Will
it send you reminders, or does it automatically conduct a back-up?

Capacity: Is the service designed for “light”
use like uploading certain documents, or will it cover a full system back-up?

Security: Admittedly, there is some level of risk with any
online service. What measures does the company use (such as encryption methods)
to protect your data?

What system requirements and internet service you need for optimal
Will it work with an older computer or older operating systems?
Will it be compatible with your firewall?

For more information, see Online
Backup Reviews

Chances are you might not need a back-up solution for work. Many companies
have online solutions like intranets, shared drives or personal drives where
you can keep files in addition to storing them on your hard drive. You should
talk to your supervisor or tech department to find out what’s available, and
what security policies are in place.

USB drives ($8-$100)

Also known as “flash drives” or “thumb drives” due to
their small size, these devices make it easy to save, delete and over-write
files. The device connects to a USB port on your computer and acts like a floppy
disk. You simply copy-and-paste your files or save them directly to the device.
They’re small and easy to carry, and will tuck into any purse, pocket or briefcase.

USB drives range in size from 1 GB up to 64 GB, but price doesn’t always correlate
to capacity. There are a few rules to keep in mind when shopping for a device:

– The largest capacities (in this case, 32 GB and 64 GB) are the newest on
the market and consequently the most expensive (about $150 and $300+ when this
article was written). Watch for the prices to come down.

– Avoid buying a USB drive at the regular price. It’s not unusual to see a
$40 device drop to $10 with a sale or rebate, and there’s almost always a promotion
or special somewhere. In most cases $20 will provide a decent size.

USB drives are ideal for transporting and transferring files because most computers
have a USB port (or an adaptor). They do require some vigilance to keep them
from getting lost, and they’re not suited for system back-ups.

Optical discs ($10 to $ 30 per package)

Optical discs — CD, DVD and Blu-ray — have long since displaced floppy disks
when it comes to short and long-term storage. They’re inexpensive, widely available
and permanent (or as permanent as any technology can be). However, some people
consider them to be wasteful when compared to other more reusable options.

If you’re going to be over-writing files, you’ll want to make sure to choose
a re-writable format (e.g. RW, -R/RW or +R/RW or DVD-RAM). In comparison, -R
or +R are “write once” formats and will only let you write once. Once
the space is taken up, it can be over-written. You’ll need to know what kind
of drive you have because not all discs are compatible. When in doubt, look
for discs that have both the “-” and the “+”.

You can use any of these discs for file back-ups. But for a system back-up,
CDs aren’t practical and you’ll likely need a couple of DVDs to hold everything.
Work with the drive you’ve got if you’re not looking to upgrade your computer.

If you’re not familiar with the name, Blu-ray is the latest format for optical
discs and is predicted to replace DVDs in the long run (like VHS displaced
Betamax). For non-video purposes, the biggest advantage is the size: Blu-ray
discs hold up to 24 GB, while CDs typically hold 800 MB and DVDs between 4 –
8.5 GB. (To put those numbers in perspective, a single Blu-ray disc can hold
more than a package of CDs.) However, if you don’t happen to have a Blu-ray
drive, expect to invest at least $200 or more until prices come down.

Memory cards ($20 – $80)

Those little cards that fit into your digital camera can be used in the same
way as a floppy disk, CD or USB drive. Generally, they’re not intended for long-term
storage needs. They can be misplaced or damaged easily, and are best used for
the camera alone.

When it comes to purchasing, the same rules apply: Bigger and newer ones are
more expensive, and they often go on sale. Expect to pay at least $20, but some
online deals for smaller cards (i.e. 1 GB) can go as low as $10- $15. They’re
a great way to bump up your order total to above the free shipping minimum,
but on their own the shipping charges might not be worth the discount.

External hard drive ($70-$300)

What these devices lack in portability they make up for in capacity — they’re
often bigger than the hard drive on your computer. Most are roughly the size
of a book and range in capacity from 120 GB to 2000 GB.

The way it works is that the hard drive will connect to a USB drive on your
computer. From there, it operates in a similar way to any other storage medium.
You can download files to it, or set it up to house a complete system back-up.

In terms of price, $100 or less will be enough for some serious space. Unless
you work with a lot of video, music and complex image files, you likely won’t
need the top end 2000 GB versions. In fact, don’t let the large numbers fool
you. If the size is larger than your entire computer, you may end up using the
external hard drive as a primary storage device. There’s nothing wrong with
that, but you’ll still have to back up the files elsewhere.

Some final words of advice:

– Avoid putting your eggs in one basket: Keeping all of your back-ups with
your computer won’t save your data in the event of a flood, fire or break-in.
If you prefer physical back-up solutions, slip one into your safety deposit

– Storage devices can also spread viruses. Include them in your regular virus
scan, and use caution when transferring files.

– Comparison shop online first. It’s faster and won’t empty your gas tank.

– If you don’t get weekly flyers, you can view them online or sign up for email
alerts to notify you when deals are available.

Which solution is best? It depends on your needs and your risk tolerance. Don’t
worry too much about archival or long-term storage. Remember, 15 years ago we
were still using floppy disks. Technology develops rapidly, and as it does we
will likely have to convert our stored files as old methods become obsolete.

Photo © Sandeep Subba