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How to back up desktops and laptops

Losing all of the data on your laptop can be a catastrophe if it hasn't been properly backed up. Here are some laptop and desktop backup best practices.

Losing a hard drive on an aging system is just as common as the accidental deletion of a file, data corruption or a computer virus. There are also the more infrequent catastrophes, such as fire, flood and theft or loss of a laptop. If you're like me, data on a laptop or desktop is your lifeline -- whether it's business or personal files. If access to data is lost, the impact could be huge.

So what's the best approach to PC backup?

Onsite backup could be as simple as manually copying critical files to a USB pocket hard drive, CD or DVD. Or it could be more sophisticated -- leveraging a backup utility that automates the collection, transfer and cataloging of files to some external device. Backup utilities come in all price ranges (including freeware and utilities built into your operating system), levels of complexity and methodologies.

The most common method is file-based backup, where selected files are copied to some target media. Full (all files), incremental (only new or changed files since the last full or incremental backup) or differential (only the new or changed files since the last full backup) methods of backup can be specified. Incremental and differential strategies use less storage capacity (which means less media), but the tradeoff is recovery. If tape, DVD or CD media is used with an incremental policy, for example, it may take several pieces of media to reconstruct a full recovery. File-based backup may be more complex than other approaches.

Image-based approaches capture a copy of your entire PC (operating system, applications, configuration settings and data) and store it on the media of your choice.
Image-based approaches capture a copy of your entire PC (operating system, applications, configuration settings and data) and store it on the media of your choice -- internal or external hard disk drives or portable media such as CD, DVD, USB, Jaz drives, etc. The beauty of this approach is that if your system or hard disk crashes, you can recover quickly -- without having to reinstall your operating system and applications, or restoring your configuration settings.

One other approach worth noting is continuous data protection (CDP). This method involves saving file-level changes in real-time to disk. When saving a Microsoft Office document or a calendar entry, for example, the information is stored in a repository on the PC (in the background and without your intervention). The repository can be automatically replicated to portable media or storage accessed through the Internet or a network connection. When a recovery is needed, you can locate the file in its folder and choose from multiple versions to recover. This method stands out because it's seamless, provides versioning and enables both local and remote copies.

Offsite backup involves a subscription with one of the many service providers delivering backup as a service over the Internet -- many offering up to 2 GB of free storage "in the cloud." Signing up for the service is straightforward, requiring only a credit card. The service provider offers automatic or scheduled backup for a set monthly fee, for as little as $5 per month. The distinction between backup as a service and rented Internet storage, such as Inc.'s Simple Storage Service (S3) or Xdrive, is the automated collection of data and a management interface for recovering data.

The advantage of an offsite backup approach is that data is offsite. Backup and restore can occur from and to any location. The disadvantages? A full backup or full recovery over a broadband connection could take hours to days to complete, although a full backup only needs to occur once. Incremental strategies are applied thereafter.

Regardless of the chosen approach, it's important to get started with a regular backup regime -- before it's too late.

About the author: Lauren Whitehouse is an analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group covering data protection technologies. Lauren is a 20-plus-year veteran in the software industry, formerly serving in marketing and software development roles.

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