Hard-drive Failure is Imminent. Are you prepared?

I’m continually amazed at the lack of attention paid by small businesses and home users to backing up the data on their hard-drives. The fact is, all hard-drives have a maximum lifespan. They are spinning at thousands of rpm’s, and the parts are incredibly tiny and fragile. It’s amazing they last as long as they do.

Keep this in mind, always: Your hard-drive could fail today. It will fail in the future.

Even if hard-drives never failed, there are other good reasons to keep backups of your important data. You may delete a document, only to realize next week that you should have kept it. If you keep regular backups, you can just go back to the backup tape or disk, and restore the file. There are two reasons to keep regular backups of important data:

1. Your hard-drive can fail at any time
2. You may mistakenly delete important files

I’m going to assume that I’ve convinced you about the importance of regular backups. Now, how do you go about backing up your important files? There are a number of ways of backing up your data, each with advantages and disadvantages. The discussion will use the backup programs included with Windows as an example, but the principles apply to Macintosh, OS/2, and Linux systems.

Backup methods:
1. Drag-and-drop to floppies
2. Windows backup program (WBP), written to floppy
3. WBP to tape-drive
4. Second hard-drive
5. CD-R drive (also know as a CD-Burner)
6. Network backup (to another computer on your local network)
7. Internet backup (to an ASP that provides backup space for a fee)

Now we’ll look at each method’s advantages and disadvantages.

1. Drag-and-drop to Floppy: The greatest advantage to simply dragging and dropping your important files to floppies is that it’s easy. Just about everyone knows how to do it. For the same reason, it’s incredibly easy to restore a file you need: You just insert the floppy into a PC, click on the drive icon, and your file appears. You can open it from the floppy, or copy it to the hard-drive. Another advantage of floppies: All PCs come equipped with a floppy drive. (If you have a newer Mac, this is no longer true).

The disadvantages of this method are numerous, however. Floppies can only hold 1.4 megabytes of data. That used to be considered a lot – back in 1985. Now, most programs are far larger than 1.4 MB, and many word-processing files and spreadsheets are larger than a floppy can hold. You can get around this somewhat by compressing the files using a program such as Winzip, but that adds an extra step, takes time, and eliminates the convenience advantage of using floppies.

Dragging and dropping your files is also time-consuming. You need to remember which files are important, unless you create a list, and you end up with dozens of floppies lying around. You have to label them all, and try to keep track of them. Finally, floppy disks are unreliable. Conclusion: Use floppies if you have just a few, relatively small files that are important to keep safe.

2. Windows backup program, written to floppy: You can use the backup program included with Windows to write a backup file to floppy disk. The advantage is that you can tell it which files to back up by clicking little check boxes next to folders and files. No more dragging and dropping! Also, the program will remember your important folders and files, so once you’ve done your first backup, it’s very easy to make the next one. If you are writing the backup to floppy, however, the combined size of all the files must be under 1.4 MB. The program includes compression, so you may be able to squeeze a few extra files onto a floppy.

Use this method if you want to use floppies, but don’t want to remember a long list of files every time you make a backup. The included compression will allow you to store more files than just dragging and dropping.

3. Tape Drive, using the Windows Backup Program: Using a tape-drive is the most traditional method of backing up data. It goes back to the 1960’s, when mainframes stored data on open reels of magnetic tape. Tape-drives may be old, but they have many advantages. They are reliable, and can store large amounts of information. An inexpensive 4 mm DAT drive, for example, can store four to eight gigabytes of data. With compression, they can store even more. Backup tape is also relatively inexpensive per megabyte.

The main disadvantage of tape backups doesn’t come into play until you actually need to restore some files. Tape drives are sequential devices, so the tape drive has to wind through all the tape holding the files that were written before the files you need. This means that depending on the location of the desired file on the tape, you may have to wait a long time. We’re talking minutes to hours here. If your backup tape contains a full system backup of twenty gigabytes, and the file you need is near the end of the tape, you might have to wait until lunch if you started to restore after your morning coffee.

The speed problem notwithstanding, tape drives are still the best option for backing up large quantities of data. A full system backup would definitely require the large capacity of a tape drive. There are many formats of tape drives available. At the low end, DAT drives can store up to about 12 MB. If your backup needs are truly gargantuan, you can buy a tape library. This is a machine that holds many individual tapes in a rack, and inserts the next tape as needed. You can thus automate a week or month of backup chores, without going near the tape drive.

If you need to store a lot of data, and want to automate the process, a tape drive or tape library is the way to go.

4. External hard-drive (including Zip drives): My favorite backup method is to simply have an external hard-drive hooked up to my machine. I then drag-and-drop my important folders and files over to the external drive whenever I feel the need. I’ve organized my system so that almost all of my important files are in the famous “My Documents” folder. I just drag that folder over to the F drive (my external drive’s letter).

The advantage of this method is that it’s fast: a hard-drive is far faster than floppy or tape drives. Another advantage is that I don’t have to wait for a tape drive to reach the right location on a tape. I can just navigate to the folder, subfolder, or file I need. I don’t even need to restore anything, as I can work with the backup copy directly.

If you have lots of files in many different folders to back up, you can still use an external drive. Just use the Windows backup program, and tell it to use the external hard-drive as the backup destination. You’ll have to actively restore a lost file, though. You can’t just click on a Windows backup file and start using it. You use the “restore” function of the backup program to read the backup file, and restore the needed folders and files.

Although you could use an extra internal drive for backup storage, I recommend using an external drive. One of the purposes of a backup system is to have a copy of your data around if the office goes up in flames or a water main breaks and damages your equipment. Floppies and tapes should be stored off-site. At least with my external hard-drive, I can grab it and run if a natural or man-made disaster starts to threaten. Zip and Jaz drives from Iomega (www.iomega.com) are basically external hard-drives with removable disks, and work great.

5. CD-R drive (also know as a CD-Burner): CD burners, or CD-R drives, have come way down in price in the last year. If you buy blank CD-R media in bulk, you can get it for around forty-cents a disk. That’s forty cents for about 700 MB of data storage.

Most drives come with a program that let’s you back up your whole system, or individual folders and files. This makes a CD-R drive a great option. There are usually many options to choose from in the cd-burner programs, so you should read the documentation carefully. The main disadvantage of using cd’s as a backup medium is that you should not use your machine for anything else while it’s burning a cd. The process is very memory and cpu-intensive, and you might cause an error on the disk if you try playing Quake, or using Photoshop while the machine is burning a backup of your data.

If the price of the drives and the media gets any lower, though, this will become one of the best options. The resulting cd’s are very reliable and durable. Just don’t scratch them. Drives that write onto blank DVD media hold up to 4.7 gigabytes of data, so if you want the ability to store large amounts of data with the convenience of random-access (meaning you don’t have to wait for a tape drive to reach your file’s starting point), then this more expensive option may be for you. There are many competing standards of DVD recording drives, however, so it’s a riskier option.

6. Network Backup: If your office has a local area network (LAN), you can back up your files by mounting a folder or drive from another system on the network, and then copying your important files to the network drive. You could, in effect, use the receptionist’s hard-drive to store a backup of your files (just to be fair, you might want to let the receptionist use your drive for backup). If the whole office is destroyed by a meteor, however, this method won’t do you much good.

7. Internet Backups: Some companies let you send your data to their servers for safekeeping. As long as your have high-speed and reliable Internet access, this may be good option. If your company’s data is sensitive or top-secret, however, this is not for you. One company providing this service is Step One Solutions (http://www.steponesolutions.com/services/web_backup.htm).

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