Since my solid state drive died last week I’ve been rethinking my data strategy and now have a solution that should – knock on wood – give me substantial protection through a combination of backup, synchronization, and “cloud services.”
On my PC I put my data into four categories:
- System and Programs (this includes the Operating System, installed software, and annoying details like the MBR, FAT tables, and the registry)
- Business Content – documents and spreadsheets that you need/use for work.
- Personal Content – this includes photos, MP3’s, documents, spreadsheets, etc.
- Low value Content – there are some types of content where the overhead of backing up isn’t justified. For instance some watch video content becomes stale quickly; I’m sure you can come up with other examples.
This segmentation is important because it helps you map a bewildering array of solutions to these types which often do not require or even support the same solution. In order to take best advantage of these categories try and setup your file directories and partitions aligned to these content types. I generally consider the following best practice:
- Strong separation for “System and Programs”. You should keep the operating system and your program installs on a separate partition (either logical or physical) from all other data types. This allows you to image the system and snapshot different timeframes that you can return to later without getting this mixed up with the user content types (types 2,3,4)
- “My Documents” should host to all (or at least a majority) of user content. If you have a single root to all user content this can have a lot of advantages and often avoids the accidental miss of including a directory off to the side. There are cases – particularly if you are spanning user content over different physical disks – where you’ll need multiple roots of user content but always keep this to the smallest number of entry points as possible.
- Use “synchronization” as a compliment but not a replacement to your backup solution. More on this in a second.
In the solution space I recommend again thinking of four main categorical areas:
- File Synchronization
- Local File Backup
- Local Disk Imaging
- Cloud Services
I am using all four in some capacity and while I’m sure there can be some debate on the right mix of products I would say that unfortunately at this point I consider myself pretty well informed. If you use the solution outlined here you can’t go too wrong.
Let’s start with File Synchronization. For anyone who uses more than one computer at a time (for me is it is my home computer and two laptops) being able to ensure that the business documents (or personal too if it suits) on one computer are exactly the same as the others. In addition to documents I also make sure browser bookmarks and usernames/passwords are synchronized too. This is a huge benefit immediately. Unlike most of the other services which make you life better when things go wrong, File Synchronization has a noticeable and desirable effect for everyday operations. If this weren’t enough to get you all hot and bothered already let me say that this is a great program that does this for FREE! Microsoft’s “Live Sync” runs as a lightweight background process and let’s you sync between all your computers (both PC and Mac and PC based phones) with almost no setup time and zero administration costs. In addition, you can setup folder sync’s that you can share with other people. In this second scenario you have the ability to limit what different users can do (aka, they can only read content, they can add or modify content, they can invite others to the share, etc.). This has some really powerful potential which I won’t go into here (use your damn imagination for once will you). In the mean time stop wasting your time and get to the Live Sync website and download this great tool!
One could make an argument that this solution fits into the “cloud services” category and I won’t argue too much (unless you’re buying my pints) but the reason I’ve separated it is Live Sync uses P2P technology. The “cloud” only has references to files rather than actual files themselves. This means that the solution only works if two or more computers are on at the same time but it also means that security in the cloud doesn’t really matter and that these kind of offerings can be offered at no cost and have “unlimited storage.”
File Synchronization – as mentioned above – is useful in everyday life but by ensuring that your key documents are shared across multiple computers you effectively have a backup of these documents that works very effectively in most real life disasters (aka, a hard drive goes “boom” or a laptop is stolen, etc.). Get to it. You owe to yourself. And, no, I don’t get any royalty payments from Microsoft on this. :^)
Local File Backup:
Hanging a large capacity external drive off of your computer and having a scheduled backup of your hard drives is a traditional method of backup and a good one. I use a 1TB eSATA drive to backup all business and personal content (types 2 and 3) on a weekly basis. There are a number of programs you can buy in the market to do this but I prefer to use the quite simple but well integrated solution in Windows 7. Mac’s have time machine which i understand is even better but both allow intuitive and simple methods of providing backup. I use eSATA because of it’s fast transfer speeds which becomes more important the more you are backing up. If you don’t have a lot of content than USB or Firewire should be suffice.
Local Disk Imaging:
Not to be confused with a normal file backup such as above. This allows for a complete image of a drive to be copied and later restored to the same or new physical medium. This is particularly relevant for the Operating Systems boot drive as it contains the master boot record (MBR), registry settings, FAT tables, etc.). This is the part I didn’t have when my solid state drive broke and it meant that I had to reinstall everything but at least my file backup saved my user content. There might be a way to achieve this with Windows 7 backup solution but it is left a little unclear and so I thought it was worth buying a commercial program for this. After some investigation I ended up with Acronis True Image software. It is well designed and comes with reasonably good help (which is important because of the variety of options it provides). Acronis could double as my local file backup solution but I’m using it just to image my laptop and home PC’s boot drives. I backup this image to a portable USB drive for portability. USB works for me because boot image size is much smaller than content backup (43gb versus 200gb+).
There are starting to be a large varieties of solutions that can be employed here but for straight backup purposes the one I’ve been hearing really good things about is Carbonite. I have just started using and am so far impressed. Getting the system backed up initially can take several days (it uses your internet connection when you aren’t using it) but from that point forward it keeps changes constantly updated with a very reasonable latency. It costs ~ $50/yr for the solution but this is a small cost for piece of mind. You might ask why you could possibly need this in addition to the local file backup … to me there are two reasons:
- The Carbonite backup is offsite. If – god forbid – your house burns down your data and your backup will go away in one fell swoop.
- Redundancy in backup. This may sound like a circular argument but the reality is that you rarely ever really validate that your backup is working as it should. Nothing is worse in feeling confident that you have a backup only to find that it was missing directories you needed, wasn’t working due to some small configuration snafu, or other nuance. Sound paranoid? Well maybe but I promise you this kind of tragedy is a common story in the world of IT.
Hope this helps. Drop me a comment if you have anything you want to add.