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Backup Philosophy

by Jerry Stern

© Jerry Stern 2004, All Rights Reserved.

What's wrong with backup software?

First, let's define backup software--it's the group of programs that are designed to backup your entire hard drive, and to restore that entire file set when needed.

The main thing wrong with many of the backup programs is that you can't restore the operating system. After a disaster, you must first install Windows, install the basic drivers that allow you to read from the backup device you're using, such as a tape drive or external cartridge drive, then reinstall the backup software, and then load the file set back into the PC from the tape or cartridge device.

This is possible for most advanced users, but it's at least a half-day's work, if they were organized enough to keep separate manual backups of all hardware drivers with their Windows CDs. In some cases, it's nearly impossible to do in any reasonable fashion, such as when you need a driver to read the drive that holds the driver. For example, restoring a Windows XP system that must connect to a network location to find restore files, including security patches and antivirus files--that leaves the system open to Internet worms while trying to reinstall antivirus and firewall software from a backup--it can't be done online.

Or for a hardware-based example, running a system restoration of Windows 95, version B, on a motherboard containing an AMD K6-2, 400 Mhz CPU, which requires a software patch to run in Windows 95, which can't be installed without running Windows 95. Tricky stuff.

Even with the better backup programs that can do a proper disaster recovery, and start from booting with a diskette and a blank hard drive, the fact of the matter is that the most frequent disasters that destroy data on PCs destroy the entire PC, or destroy enough of the system hardware that a system restore will be impossible for anyone but a system consultant.

If your computer is stolen, your system backup is useless; you need precisely the same device to restore from as you backed-up to. Most backup software that does create emergency diskettes hard-code the drive type and letter into the diskettes, so that the data won't be readable on a replacement system without, once again, reinstalling the operating system, hardware drivers, and so on.

If your motherboard is fried by a power surge, or you installed a motherboard and CPU upgrade since your last backup, your system backup is useless. Backup software can't cope with reinstalling only the software settings in the Registry; it wants to restore the entire Registry or none of it.

If you replaced your backup drive, and it came with new software, you might or might not be able to read your old backups--it's unlikely. If you compressed the backups, it's extremely unlikely, because there is no standard for file compression on backups.

Let's face it--for the worst disasters, you'll buy a new PC, with the latest and greatest operating system software already installed along with the hardware drivers, and you'll manually reinstall your favorite application software and utilities, and then try to recover your project files, such as documents, spreadsheets, and E-mail. In that case, a total system backup is useless, but if your new drive can read your old backups, you might be able to do a partial restore, if you know where your data files were kept, and how they were organized.

Even in the best of all possible disasters, you need to backup data files constantly, but the operating system and software only needs backing up about six times a year, for most users. Using backup software to manage data backups is slow; it's the wrong tool for the job.

In other words, use backup software in the hope that you'll be able to restore the operating system and software with it, but do a completely independent backup of your project and data files, using a file synchronizer such as FileTiger, and backing up to a standard device that you can easily replace later on, such as CDRW disks or a removable hard drive.

Basic Backup Rules for DATA:

1. Planning is everything. Know where your data is at all times. If at all possible, keep all your data on a different drive letter than your operating system and software. For example, reserve the D:\ partition, if it's a hard drive section on your system, for nothing but projects and data. Set each of your programs to save to folders on D: Never allow a program to save data to the same folder as the program. Always set a folder for program data.

2. Use a file synchronizer, such as FileTiger, to backup your data to a standard device that you could easily replace if you have to; choose one that uses a drive letter.

3. Update your data backups regularly. In FileTiger, use Tree Copy , with the Newer & Missing option, to copy only files that have changed since your last backup.

4. Always store at least one copy of your backups off-site. The roof leak that fries your computer will also destroy the cartridges sitting next to it. The burglar who steals your computer will also take the disks sitting on top of it. The tornado that sends your computer to the magic land of OZ will also, well, you get the idea.

5. Don't backup data files with backup software, unless you back them up in a separate file set than the operating system and software. Never use compression to backup data files. If you must use a non-drive-letter backup device, such as a tape drive, never use proprietary software that can only read and write backups to the one device it was shipped with; instead, purchase a third-party backup program that can read and write on as broad an assortment of devices as possible, and store a copy of the backup software off-site with your system backups.

Jerry Stern is the editor of ASPects, the author of Graphcat and FileTiger, runs Science Translations, and is online at

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