Hack 75 Build a Better Backup Strategy


Don't be blindsided by disk crashes and other disasters. Here's how to have a backup ready at any time for any reason.

I used to use 3.5 inch diskettes for backup; to back up to disks today would take me approximately 98,000 diskettes. While we don't use diskettes for major backup procedures anymore, a lot of the thinking that goes into a backup is still pretty ancient.

I don't believe any users actually set out on a given day to destroy a functional operating system, but you know as well as I do that it happens. A little tweak here, a Registry edit there, a power surge or perhaps a badly behaved application that trashes the computer. We've all been there and when it happens I can almost guarantee you that if you listen closely you'll hear something approximating, "Darn. I meant to _____," where the blank is whatever backup task you have been putting off.

In addition to making yourself do the backup, there are a few steps I recommend to make your backup procedure easier, more convenient, and more effective.

8.4.1 Map Out a Backup Plan

I recommend separating the operating system and programs from the data when it's backed up. All three components?operating systems, programs, and data?have become huge over the years. In most cases, lumping them into a single, large backup is a waste of time, especially for home users.

Before you actually back up anything you need to ask yourself some questions:

  • How will the backup be saved? Many of today's computers come with devices that are suitable for backups; CD-R and CD-RW drives, tape drives, removable cartridge drives, and even a second hard drive can be used to store backups. With the exception of the second hard drive, any of those mentioned can be removed from the site where the system is located, and even the hard drive can be relocated by using specialty cradles that allow it to be plugged in and removed easily. There are a number of web-based hosting services that can be used for offsite storage for a monthly subscription fee. Business users normally back up to a company server, either local or remote, and the IS department takes over from that point.

    The best system is one you think you'll actually use, so that you'll have the backup.

  • Where will the backup be stored once it's created? If fire, flood, or theft should strike where the system is located, the backup should be available from another location to restore the system and data files. Unfortunately, safe storage of the backup can be hard to get on-site. If you don't use an off-site service, consider storing your backups in one of the small fireproof chests that can be purchased at most department or office supply stores.

  • What files should be backed up? At one time, it was accepted, if not almost reasonable, to back up everything on a system at one time. But the amounts of data and the size of applications make that procedure very outdated. Here are three categories of data:

    System files

    There is no need for the average user to back up operating system files. What is important is to protect the original media (i.e., the Windows XP CD and all of your program installation discs). Windows XP comes with System Restore, which backs up all of your system files automatically, or you can create a restore point whenever you prefer. System Restore is specifically designed to act in concert with the operating system to restore it in case of a system problem.

    If you don't like or trust System Restore, a number of programs are available that image the system and allow you to reinstall it in a fraction of the normal time. Ghost by Symantec is one of the popular choices (http://www.symantec.com).

    Archive files

    These are files acquired through any number of methods, either downloaded or created by you, that don't change once they have been created. Image and audio files are good examples in this category. They are looked at and listened to for enjoyment, but as a rule they seldom if ever receive any modification once they have been added to your system. Don't back these up more than once.

    Current data files

    More than anything else on your system, these are the files you most want backed up and protected on a regular basis. The list of included files will vary by user, but a few examples are text documents, spreadsheets, financial records, databases, email, Internet favorites, personal information managers (PIMs), web site projects, and any other type of data you create and work with or modify on a regular basis.

    If the thought of losing one day's work makes the hair on the back of your neck stand upright, then you'd better have a tightly structured backup plan and ensure that it's adhered to without fail. If you have a computer full of spam and Freecell stats, it doesn't make much difference when, or even if, you back up.

8.4.2 System Organization Aids the Backup Process

How you organize your system can make backup a relatively painless process. Structuring the system so your data files are organized in one area facilitates pointing the backup program to one area rather than having to gather files from widespread locations. In Windows XP, the My Documents folder is an excellent choice for this purpose. Many programs default to saving created files in this location, including Office XP.

Many power users don't use My Documents because of its corny name; however, some of us have realized that it's a nice shortcut to have (along with My Pictures); because the applications default to these locations, you have less chance of spreading your documents and photos around the computer trying to find your chosen folder. If you don't like the name, change it [Hack #12]. Or, if you'd rather use your own organization structure but want to designate one of your folders as "My Documents," you can do that too [[Hack #8]].

Whatever location you choose, the important point is to use it for all the data you create and work with or modify on a regular basis that will be a part of the backup.

8.4.3 The Backup Utilities in Windows XP

While it isn't absolutely essential to have a utility specifically designed for backing up a computer system, it can make life easier. Both Windows XP Home and Professional come with what Microsoft calls the Backup and Restore Utility, better known as NTBackup. Unfortunately for XP Home users, Backup and Restore is not installed by default, nor is it as fully functional as the version installed by default in XP Professional. Supposedly, the reason it's not installed by default in XP Home is because XP Home does not support Automated System Recovery (ASR), which is a part of Backup and Restore. This in no way prevents you from making a full backup in Home Edition, but it does limit the recovery or restore options. Bottom line: if you have XP Professional, you're ready to go. If you have XP Home, follow these directions to install the Backup Utility manually:

  1. Insert the Windows installation CD into your CD drive and navigate to [CD Drive]:\VALUEADD\MSFT\NTBACKUP, where [CD Drive] is replaced by E: or whatever letter represents your CD-ROM drive.

  2. Double-click the Ntbackup.msi file to start the wizard that installs the Backup Utility.

  3. When the wizard is complete, click Finish.

The "Restore" CD

A few years ago, I wouldn't even have had to add this sidebar, but a trend I heartily dislike has been gaining a foothold in the computer industry. That trend is the supplying of "restore CDs" by PC manufacturers. These useless little circles of plastic are used to restore a PC to factory specifications. "Factory specifications" means that the CD basically wipes your system clean and reinstalls XP and, along with it, all the other garbage (commercial sweetheart deals) that PC manufacturers use to pump up their coffers while depriving you of an unadulterated copy of a Windows XP installation CD. Unfortunately, if you fall into this group, you'll need to buy your own third-party backup program. Or, if you feel comfortable doing so, borrow a real Windows CD from a friend and install the Backup Utility on your system. The Backup Utility is something you should have received with your own copy of Windows to begin with. OK, kicking my soapbox back under the desk and moving on.

Here are a few things every hacker should know about NTBackup. I Want My CDs!

This really should go under the "you've got to be kidding me" category, but NTBackup does not allow you to back up directly to a CD-R or CD-RW drive. Allegedly the best, most stable, and advanced operating system Microsoft has offered, XP, has no CD burner support in backup. The solution is to back up to an alternative drive and then copy it to CD. There are many alternative backup programs available that do support direct backups to CD-R and CD-RW. Microsoft says their decision is by design. I say it's from a lack of design. Considering how popular CD-Rs and CD-RWs have become as backup media?and how inexpensive they are?this lack of design presents a major problem for most people.

However, there is a way to store your backups on CDs (or DVDs, if you're in the early adopter wave and already have a DVD burner). First, back up as you would normally, and then copy the resulting file to a CD-R or CD-RW. If you have to restore a backup from the CD-R or CD-RW, you'll be able to do that directly; you won't have to first copy the file to another medium.

One problem you'll run across is that your backup might be larger than the 650 MB or 700 MB that CDs hold. To solve the problem, create two or more backup sets, each smaller than 650 or 700 MB (depending on your CD's capacity) separating data from programs or operating system files as suggested earlier will help you do this, and then copy each resulting set individually to a different CD. Restoring a backup

When a backup is created the data is not saved in the same way you see it in the backup window where you select the files and folders. A backup is a single file that has to be broken apart during the restore process. To do so, it's necessary to use the same program that created the backup file to restore it to your system. Normally this is not a problem, except in one special circumstance. Restore will want to return your data to the location it occupied during the original backup. For example, if you backed up data from D:\ and no longer have a drive D:\ when you want to restore, the process will fail. XP Home, NTBackup, and Automated System Recovery (ASR)

The Windows XP Home Edition does not support Automated System Recovery. I've been told this is why NTBackup is not installed by default in Home, but if that's the case, why include the item on the Home CD in the value-added directory? Whatever the reason, it's something you need to be aware of, in spite of the option for ASR that appears in NTBackup when installed on a XP Home machine. XP Professional users are good to go with ASR.

8.4.4 Get a Better Backup Program

XP's built-in backup program leaves a lot to be desired. But there are downloadable try-before-you-buy backup programs that offer you more features. Two of the best are Backup Plus and NTI Deluxe Backup Plus! Now.

Backup Plus

One of the strengths of this program is its simplicity, particularly when restoring backups. Even though the program stores its backup file with a .bac extension, in fact, the backup files are .zip files. So, if you want to restore files or folders, you only need to rename the backup file so that it has a .zip extension and then open the file with an unzipping program, such as the one built into Windows, or WinZip. Once you open the file, you can unzip it as you would any normal .zip file. The program also lets you schedule backups and, unlike XP's backup program, will back up to any kind of media, including CD-Rs and CR-RWs. Backup Plus is try-before-you-buy software. You can download it from http://www.backupplus.net and try it for free; if you decide to keep it, you should pay $39.95.

NTI Deluxe Backup Plus! Now

This is one of the more powerful and flexible backup programs you can find. It can back up to any media (including DVD-Rs), includes password protection for backup jobs, can span media and drives when backing up, and lets you make a complete image of your hard disk so that you can restore your entire system. NTI Deluxe Backup Plus! Now is try-before-you-buy software. You can download it from http://www.ntius.com and try it for free; if you decide to keep it, you must pay $79.99.

?Jim Foley and Preston Gralla