Monday, January 21, 2013

The importance of a backup

First off, I'd like to say this will be a short post, but when have my soapboxes ever been short! Some things just need length to get your point across (OK, so maybe they don't, but I gotta get it out somehow, Zachary didn't have too much sympathy for me when I tried to explain the situation to him this weekend, but he is, afterall, a puppy). But alas, on with the show...

We take a lot of things for granted when it comes to computers; they will never get viruses, they will always do what their told, they will always work correctly until we decide to replace them, etc (hey, am I talking about computers or humans here?). We all have a love/hate relationship with our computers most times leaning heavily toward one of the spectrum or the other.

Most of us (and I'm probably being kind here) take care of our computers with virus software, anti-malware and anti-spyware programs, and we run cleanup programs occasionally with deep cleaning once every quarter or so (if you're not, don't tell me, or I'll jump on another soapbox). But it always surprises me the number of people who don't perform routine backups (or even random ones).

One of my bosses got his rude awakening last week. His Macbook Pro crashed completely and, as per usual, it comes to me with the explicit instruction of "fix it". "Fixing it" is not always possible. Sometimes you can repair an operating system and all will be well again. Sometimes you just have to reformat the entire puppy and restore their files from their backup. Sometimes the hard drive has to be replaced, but again, files can be retrieved from a backup. The worst possible scenario is that you'll just have to get a new computer, in which case, having your files backed up means you can just transfer them to your new one.

The first question I asked was, "Is your backup handy?". He didn't have one, never had done one. He knew he should have been doing one, but just hadn't gotten around to it yet (the laptop is two years old). Ugh.

I first explained he might want to take it to the Apple store to see if they can retrieve his files. He didn't want to do that since the store is about an hour away. So I explained that there is a good possibility that I would have to reformat his computer which basically means it will be restored back to the original factory settings and he would loose everything, but I would try my best to get what I could off, no promises. I also explained the importance of backups in situations such as these and the simple act of doing one could have saved his files. "Just do what you have to do"...never trust your boss when he says this.

The more I dinked with it, the worse it got. It definitely wasn't a hard drive issue, but the OS repair wasn't working and it was becoming more and more apparent the only option available was reformatting and factory restore. Since I'm relatively new to Macs, I did call Apple Care and had them talk me through a couple of additional steps, but they soon came to the same conclusion as me, it was a lost cause and nothing could be done. Even they couldn't get me to the files so I could maybe pull them off a different way and the tech assured me the store could do no better.

I reformatted the computer. It is a heck of a lot easier to do with Mac than a PC, that's for sure (it also helped that he had Snow Leopard, so he had his disks - I hate the fact that computer manufacturers no longer ship disks, easier for them maybe, but a heck of a lot harder on us - but that's another soapbox for another day). So, within an hour, he had a base system all up and completely updated (which I did out of the kindness of my little black heart, I could have left that for him to do).

Since I had the all-clear from the get-go (remember "just do what you have to do"?, Yeah, this is where it bites me in the butt). I called the boss, told him the bad news and what I had to do, to which I get "Well can you still get my files off?, Can you still save my emails?, What about my music?". Dude, seriously? Look up screwed in the dictionary and there is your pic (OK, I didn't say this to him, but if looks could talk and be seen through a phone line...).

The moral of this little story is this: go to Amazon or Wal-Mart or wherever and buy a backup hard drive. It might cost you $100, but how much are your family photos worth? Or your entire music library you spent months creating from your CD's? Or that email from a friend you've saved for years because she died not long after sending it?

There are plenty of free software programs out there and the newer version of Windows comes with its own backup program (as well as the fact that most new hard drives come with their own software-even though they mainly all suck).

I go one step beyond (well several actually), I have an actual copy of Picture, Music, Document, and Video files dragged and dropped to my backup drive (I actually have two separate backup drives and alternate them as well, the power of OCD), just in case the backup fails. I have actually had this happen, so all I had to do was reformat and dragged and dropped the files back into their proper location. Plus, if you had a virus, chances are your backup was infected as well and all you would be doing is restoring your infected files back on and you could end up going through the whole process again.

It's also always easier to transfer specific files you know you want to a new computer versus transferring from machine to machine or from an old backup. With transfer or backup you are just dumping junk over as well, clogging up your new machine.

If you have a PC, most backup hard drives will accommodate them just fine, Macs need a drive that is Mac compatible (some drives will handle both on the same drive, but don't count on this). And don't worry about how much room they take up on your already overcrowded desk, they are not the external drives of old and can be quite small now.

Make sure you get one several sizes larger than the actual used space on your computer (i.e., if you've used 200GB, a 1TB hard drive would be a good size, whereas, if you've used about 30GB, a 250GB would be more than enough, but allow room for growth since the size of your used hard drive space will grow over the life of your computer. Don't splurge on a 3TB drive because your computer might have a 1TB drive in it unless you are using every bit of that 1TB (which the general population doesn't).

You don't have backup constantly unless you are doing important work 24/7 (and not doing it constantly prevents infections getting embedded in the backups). I only do one every month, or sooner if I do a major project. Plus, I also use USB Flash Drives for short-term storage (since these aren't reliable). Some programs do incremental backups every day (meaning it only alters the files that changed from the last backup). I'm not a big fan of this since incrementals can be corrupted easily. I just do a full manual backup whenever I feel the need. Some people may need the structure of "scheduled backups" and that's fine, just make sure you actually let them run when scheduled.

You'll also want to remember that, depending on the amount of used space you have on your computers, backups could take quite a while. I use about 500GB of my home drive and a full backup takes about 4 hours with another few hours for verification (I use EaseUS at home, it's free and easy). So make the time to let it run without bother. And you will also want to temporarily disable sleep mode or hard drive shut down after a certain amount of time (and I also stop the screen saver because it slows down the backup). Most backups will stop when the computer goes into sleep mode or will slow down considerably due to a screensaver. The problem with this is you come back after 8 hours expecting it to be done only to discover it's barely started because it went to sleep.

Backups are as important as running virus scans, in my opinion. Most of us can't afford to go out and buy a new computer because we got a virus, or because our hard drive crashes. So why not take that little extra step of backing up? Think of it as life insurance for your personal files! Don't whine or cry about what you lost to the techs trying to help you, after all, it is YOUR fault you didn't do backups even if it may not be your fault your computer isn't working. Their job is to try to get your files back, but if it can't be done, their job is to get you running again. Be thankful if they can achieve that much!

Soapbox dismount.


Miamina said...

I am very happy to be able to tell you that I do have my PC very secure (well as secure as you can) with all the necessary anti virus/spyware/firewall etc. I also have a truck load of backup stuff too, USB drives, external hard drives, cloud storage,

I guess having a software engineer for a husband has its uses....he can't put up a shelf but he can built me a new computer when needed! YAY for geeks!

Keebles said...

Geeks rock!

Caitlin Jordan said...

I know I'm not the best person to talk but at least I won't blame anyone else when I forgot to back up my computer. I know it's my own fault if I forget for a couple of months or more (unfortunately a lot more). Which kinda reminds me I need to buy another drive. At least I keep my computer up to date with spyware and malware and fairly regularly do disk cleanups at least twice a year. But thank you for the information I will be better, or at least try to be better.

Vickie said...

just plugged in my backup system so it is doing it now as I type.

Ruby said...

Ouch! Talk about starting from scratch. Your boss sure did have a rude awakening about the importance of backing up files. I had the same experience years ago, and it was devastating for me to lose everything so easily. I learned my lesson since then and have made everyday back-ups a routine.

Ruby Badcoe @ Williams Data Management