How To: Implement a comprehensive backup strategy

Creating backups, both imaged-based and file/folder-based, is a topic which has been pretty well covered in the past. However, it is a subject which can bear repeating and this article is in response to a request from one of our subscribers who asked: “Could you provide detailed instructions and content about how to “implement a comprehensive backup strategy” and create a ” full system image” (detailed Steps, and hardware, software suggested etc.) Thank you.”

How could anyone refuse such a polite request. So ‘Lotm’ my friend, here it is:

Backups come in two main varieties – 1) Image-based.. and 2) file/folder-based. It’s unusual for both methods to be included in freeware products, generally these will only cover either one or the other. What we are discussing here is freeware, so all references herein will be pertaining to the freeware method. To learn more about the differences between imaging and file/folder-based backups, see here: Backup vs Imaging – what’s the difference?

Here is a brief overview:

Image-based (or imaging) involves creating backups of the entire contents of a disk/partition, usually the main system (C) partition. This type of backup is primarily designed for disaster recovery purposes, in other words for when the system becomes unusable due to malware infection, corruption, whatever. Everything is backed up, including any personal data which happens to be contained on the particular drive, plus all elements required to ensure a bootable recovery.

File/folder-based is a backup system specifically designed to safeguard your personal data which is generally maintained in User folders such as Music, Pictures, Videos, Documents. Any file or folder can be selected for backup using this method. However, this type of backup will not provide the user with a means for recovering a failed operating system (and installed programs), only data.

One should always bear in mind that the primary purpose of image-based backups is to protect the user against a failed operating system, the fact that personal data is often included is simply an incidental by-product of the imaging design. If, for example, the user maintains all personal data on a drive/partition separate from the main system partition, then that data will not be included in the system images. Also, utilizing [free] imaging software does not necessarily guarantee that personal data included in the image backups is entirely up-to-date… file/folder-based backups, on the other hand – when setup properly, do. So, both types of backups have an important role to play.

It’s equally important to understand that personal data stored on you PC’s system hard drive is extremely vulnerable. We tend to drift along, lulled deeper and deeper into a false sense of security each rime we press that ‘go’ button and the computer boots up without any problems… big mistake!! The most important aspect of any backup system is that a copy of all data is ultimately stored on external media of some sort, whether it be in the Cloud, on an external drive, or DVDs. NEVER maintain backups on a separate partition on the main drive… hard drive failure could subsequently render all that data, both original and backups, inaccessible.

Unfortunately, because of the diversity involved, there is no one-size-fits-all backup strategy to suit all users. For example; I have around 500GB worth of video files saved on my hard drive, utilizing one of the free Cloud storage services to backup all that data is simply an impossibility. On the other hand, for someone whose interests involve much smaller file sizes, cloud storage can be a useful medium. So, all I can really do is let you know how my own comprehensive backup plan works, and hopefully that will give you some ideas on how to proceed.

What you will need – Hardware:

An external USB hard drive. I would advise buying a drive with larger than anticipated capacity. Remember, personal data does not diminish over time, it grows. If there is a huge amount of data involved, my own personal preference is to buy two smaller drives rather than one very large capacity hard drive.

Blank DVDs. I always choose DVD-R, it appears to be more widely supported and trouble free than others. And I always stick with a reputable brand, your data is far too important to trust to el cheapo bargain DVDs.

What you will need – Software:

Free imaging software. There is not a huge selection available, Macrium Reflect is arguably the pick of what is a pretty lean bunch. You can read my full run down on Macrium Reflect Free, including a guide to creating images here: Macrium Reflect free imaging software. (**The article is getting a bit long in the tooth now so some of the screenshots and features may have changed slightly but the basic premise remains relevant).

Of course, anyone running Windows 7 has a built-in imaging tool already at their disposal. I’ve tried it out and, while not exactly replete with features, it does a pretty good job of creating and saving full system images.

Free file/folder backup software: Plenty to choose from here, and several pretty good ones. I would suggest taking a good hard look at BitReplica from the reputable Auslogics stable. BitReplica is full featured, including; automation, scheduling, compression and support for both incremental and differential backups. You can read my full review here: Auslogics BitReplica: The backup software everyone should have?

Imaging methodology:

This information is also included in the article referenced above but I’ll repeat it here for the sake of convenience. Because free imaging software does not generally include support for either differential or incremental images, the user is restricted to creating full system images only. This presents two minor problems; 1) Image file sizes are always going to be on the large side… much larger than differential or incremental… and 2) Because of the additional file size and time exponentially involved with creating full system images, the user is generally going to create images at wider intervals than would normally be the case using either incremental or differential. Here is the method I utilize:

First, create a full system image immediately and save to external media (preferably external hard drive). Now, every month or so create and save a new image until three images have been stored. From then on, continue creating and saving a fresh image at regular intervals, deleting the oldest image each time.

*Note: The period between creating each image is entirely subjective and depends largely on how much the computer is being used, how much total data is on the drive, plus the extent and frequency of  changes made. Every one to two months would be the norm for most. Remember… the more often you create an image the better your chances of not losing data following a disaster.

File/folder-based methodology:

My approach regarding personal data is often two-fold, occasionally even three-fold. All personal data is important but, to me anyway, some files are more important than others. If I were to lose my digital music collection for example, I would be extremely cheesed off but not wholly devastated. On the other hand, losing my entire collection of photos would be catastrophic, an absolute disaster… they are simply irreplaceable.  Accordingly, I tend to treat these digital memories of life’s journey with extra special care.

First off, setup your free file/folder-based software to automatically backup all your personal data to your external hard drive. Schedule the backup process to run automatically at regular intervals to suit (refer to the previously referenced article for more information regarding this process in BitReplica).

Now, this is where my mistrust of hard drives kicks in… yes, hard drives can and do fail. DVDs are an inexpensive and reliable method for backing up data, there is nothing wrong with utilizing more than one backup medium… when it comes to backups it’s a case of ‘the more the merrier’ (or ‘safer’ perhaps). A blank DVD can hold up to 4.7GB of data. To put that in perspective; that equates to around 800 MP3 music tracks per DVD (average 6MB per track @ 192kbps bit rate). Or around the same number of digital photos per DVD (dependent on megapixels). The point being that backing up data to DVD as a secondary precaution is very cheap insurance.

I also burn selections of my photos to a slide-show DVD as a digital replacement for the old ‘photo album’. For example; say you go on a trip and take around 100+ photos. Save the lot to external hard drive plus DVD data disc. Then hand pick the very best/most suitable, eliminating similar photos, etc., create a slideshow, and burn to DVD. This is a much better, more entertaining method for sharing your memories with friends and family than all hunched around a photo album, plus it represents yet another form of backup.

In extreme cases, where data is of a most critical nature, I also backup to a (32GB) USB flash drive specifically set aside for the purpose. **Remember, backing up need not be complicated or necessarily entail additional software, all it really means is maintaining a separate copy on external media. If you were to manually copy all your personal data to an external hard drive, that would constitute a backup.

I have briefly touched upon storing backups in the Cloud and am not going to go into any great depth here. Cloud storage presents its own particular set of problems involving many variables, such as file sizes, connection speed, total data, costs, security, etc. Suffice to say that Cloud storage may be a viable option for some, not so for others.

In conclusion:

If you regularly create and save full system images plus maintain copies of all your personal data on external media separate to the main hard drive, you have covered pretty much all eventualities. I say “pretty much” because otherwise, someone is bound to chime in with…’what about natural disasters like fire, or flood?” Yes, some people do keep copies of their precious data offsite, ensconced safely away in a bank vault or whatever. Perhaps a wise precaution, perhaps a tad overkill. I guess, as with many things, that decision is up to each individual

Simply put, implementing a comprehensive backup strategy is mostly about… backup, backup, backup. You cannot have too many backups!

11 thoughts on “How To: Implement a comprehensive backup strategy”

  1. You left out cloud backups which are also free. With your most critical data you can set up the relevant folder to sync with the cloud so that all your updates to that folder are automatically uploaded to the cloud and can be recovered from there if necessary. Different cloud based solutions give a different amount of space (5Gb is now typical) and some (eg. cubby) can even sync multiple folders to the same account. Of couse you would only use it for the most critical files that you don’t want to lose as the space is relatively limited.

    1. Hi Stephen – I referenced ‘Cloud’ storage no less than three times during the course of the article:

      “The most important aspect of any backup system is that a copy of all data is ultimately stored on external media of some sort, whether it be in the Cloud, on an external drive, or DVDs.”

      “I have around 500GB worth of video files saved on my hard drive, utilizing one of the free Cloud storage services to backup all that data is simply an impossibility. On the other hand, for someone whose interests involve much smaller file sizes, cloud storage can be a useful medium.”

      And finally, this entire paragraph:

      “I have briefly touched upon storing backups in the Cloud and am not going to go into any great depth here. Cloud storage presents its own particular set of problems involving many variables, such as file sizes, connection speed, total data, costs, security, etc. Suffice to say that Cloud storage may be a viable option for some, not so for others.”

      If you are going to submit comments in response to an article, at least show enough respect to actually read through the article properly beforehand. Remember the old adage…”Tiz better to keep one’s mouth closed and appear to be a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

      Oh wait, aren’t you the bloke who can never get any software to work properly? Nuff said!

      Cheers… Jim

  2. Hello Jim,
    Lotm here. Wow! What a pleasant surprise to see your article on backups and imaging — such a prompt and thorough response to my request. Now, back to regular programming for you…..I have read your article and the supporting articles, and now must let it all settle in, but I am cheered to feel I finally understand the elements of the concepts/actionsprocesses of Imaging and backup — your comprehensivedistinctions are noteworthy and useful. It is a rare occasion anymore when I read an article of any kind and finish without having additional questions or need for more information. Thank you for your kind diligence and professional effort in preparing such a thorough report with its valuable links and supporting articles.In sum, I have long recognized and agreed with the need for regular backup — and now I am glad I can realistically put such a procedure into practice. Thanks, again. Best regards,

  3. Hi Jim,
    Like Lotm, I am thankful for the above article on backing up. I have been fortunate to have never had a hard drive fail, so have never had to use any of my backups, such as they are. Some time ago I bought Acronis for my desktop XP machine, which today sees very little use. My wife and I bought laptops about 18 months ago which came with Win 7. Not being able to network the XP machine to the Win 7 machines, the XP sits idle almost all the time, so the Acronis I bought is of little value. I did buy 2 x 1TB Seagate external drives which I use 1 for each of the Win 7 laptops. They each came with proprietary backup software which I use for data as it does not backup Windows. This fact was news to me, as because of your article, I finally read the manual for this software. So, having read the companion article on Macrium, I guess I will have to bite the bullet and purchase Acronis for my 2 laptops, to ensure I have the OS completely covered in case of disaster. So thank you again for getting me to finally do the right thing and cover all possibilities.
    My only concern with any kind of backup; image or files only, is restoring. I am hesitant to try a restore simply as a test, for fear of screwing up a perfectly well running machine, and doing irreparable harm. Do you try any of your backups, or do you simply rely on the fact that you do them in case of a disaster?
    Cheers, Ralph

    1. Hi Ralph – I do not actually restore images for testing purposes. Most imaging software includes an option to ‘verify’ the image after saving, in Macrium Free it’s a manual task but in Acronis it can be set to automatic. It’s always a good idea to ‘verify’ an image immediately after creating and saving, this process will affirm that the image is good and not corrupted… which is pretty much comparable to testing via restoration.

      What I do always ‘test’ is the bootable media created from within the imaging software. That’s a primary concern because if the operating system won’t boot, you need the recovery disc in order to restore an image… and if for some reason the recovery disc does not work properly, you are in dire straights.

      Cheers mate… Jim

  4. Thanks Jim, I shall do as you suggest, and verify the image. I obviously only done half the job, because I have not made the recovery disc. Shame on me, and I shall correct this.
    Thanks again,

  5. Hi Jim,

    Thanks so much for these great articles on backup!

    One question that rattles around in mind about backups is: Can one do a back up while using the computer? If so how does the back up handle any new data that is being created while working on the computer and does the computer become sluggish while the back up is taking place? Suspect best is to do backup while the computer is idle?



    1. Hey Chris – Best time to schedule automatic backups is obviously when you are not at the machine… or, as you say, while the computer is idle. The backup process will definitely slow things down and yes, if you are working in an area which is a designated part of the backup, it’s going to mess things up.

      Cheers… Jim

  6. Great, helpful article written in a clear understandable fashion. Could you clarify the upside of using -R over +R for[additional] storage media?

    1. Hi Richard – No definitive reasoning really, just that DVD-R is more widely supported by hardware devices, in fact universally. I cannot recall ever coming across a device which would not recognize and read DVD-R but have done so many times with DVD+R.

      Cheers… Jim

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