Should I schedule continuous or daily backups?

My brother, Laurie, has requested a credit for inspiring this week’s blog by asking this question, so “thank you, Laurie, consider yourself credited”. What does the question mean?

Backup Drive on a Laptop

If you leave it connected, how often should you back up?

Actually, this is a different slant on a recent blog post called “Should you leave backup drives connected?

A lot of external hard drives now come complete with their own backup software. Unfortunately, they are never “plug and play”. They need to be configured according to your own preferences. We are talking of Windows computers, here. If you have a Mac then just use the inbuilt “Time Machine” option in System Preferences.

One of the choices to be made on a Windows PC is “how often do you want the backups to happen?” The usual options are:

  • Continuous – files are backed up as soon they are newly detected or whenever they are updated
  • Hourly (not always available as an option) – additions and the latest version of changed files from the last hour are all backed up at once
  • Daily – as above but only once per day
  • Weekly – as above but only once per week

Seagate External Drive in a Box

Seagate include backup software with this 1tb USB 3 external drive.

Let’s dismiss the “weekly” option to begin with. Why would you go to the trouble of buying a backup drive and then configuring it, only to leave your data exposed for anything up to a week? There is hardly any more cost or effort required to back up daily than weekly.

If you’ve got a new(ish) computer that’s very quiet, you may not like the external drive whirring up every few minutes or so. If you have it on continuous or hourly update the noise might irritate you.

Continuous update will also use up the drive space on your external drive faster, of course, than a daily backup, but if the drive is at least twice as big as the initial (full) backup then that’s unlikely to be a problem.

Another argument against continuous (or hourly) backups is that the process of backing up might slow down your computer for anything else you are doing at the time. This isn’t a problem with daily backups as you can schedule the backup to take place at a time when the computer is switched on but you are unlikely to be using it (during a mealtime, for instance). In practice, a new(ish) mid-specification or high-specification machine is unlikely to be bothered by backups going on, but an older machine might be. If you think your computer is already slow, don’t hamper it further with continuous or hourly backups.

If you tend to do a lot of work in one day on the same file or several files, you may prefer continuous or hourly update to prevent losing loads of actual work all done on one day. However, my own way of dealing with that (when putting together proposals for computer support clients, for instance) is to keep saving different versions of the file as I go along (using “save as” instead of “save” and giving each file a different version number as part of the name). I then delete the interim ones when I’ve finished. Yes, this does mean that all the versions are equally exposed to hard drive failure, but that’s a risk I will take in exchange for ease of use.

Backup Strategy Joke - version 2Something else you may need to consider is how your backup software deals with backing up your emails. If you use webmail it’s not a consideration, of course, as your data is all at the server end and not on your computer. If you’re using an email client (program) – and particularly if you are connecting via POP – then you will have large data files on your computer and, since these constantly change throughout the day, you could end up with your backup program spending all its time backing up the latest version of a “pst” file (for instance). Some backup programs get over this by only backing up such files a maximum of once per day. With other programs, your email backup might not happen at all anyway as some backup programs can not back up open files. So, you would only have a backup if you remembered to close your email for at least 90 minutes at a time (if performing continuous or hourly backups) or if you closed it some time before the scheduled backup time (if performing daily backup).

All computer backups are analogous to insurance policies in that the more you pay in premiums (or the more time and effort you put into backups) the better the cover (or the less data you are likely to lose).

If setting a daily schedule actually works most of the time (ie the computer is switched on and capable of doing the daily backup most of the time) then I would probably favour daily backups.

Whichever method you decide on, I would strongly recommend checking the contents of the backup drive a few times to make sure that what you think is being backed up actually is being backed up. In particular, check for email backups if you use an email client (program) to handle your email.

Finally, I think I’m right in saying that some backup programs can work while the computer is asleep. By all means test this out if you prefer to do daily backups, but do make sure that you check to see that the backup is actually happening.

Checking your backup files may be simply a case of viewing the contents of the backup drive in Windows Explorer (now called File Explorer), but if the backup program has created its own proprietory backup file type then you would need to check the backups using the backup software itself. I’m afraid there’s also another potential complication in that Windows may be hiding from your view the folders that contain your emails and/or their backups on the external drive. There’s no room to go into that today, but give me a call if it’s a problem.

Macs have long had a backup system (called “Time Machine”) that the user simply “sets and forgets”

I’ve often wondered why Microsoft can’t do something similar as the whole area of backups is one that a huge number of users find too complicated, too confusing and too tedious to engage with. All the advice I ever give about the importance of backups is probably ignored at least half of the time because it’s just too complicated a subject. Beyond Microsoft’s offerings, I’ve also been looking elsewhere for years for a simple, trustworthy backup system that manages to square the circle of combining simplicity with flexibility. I have yet to find such an animal but it seems that Microsoft may now provide an adequate solution built into Windows 8.

It is called “File History” and is available from the Control Panel.

File History Main Menu

The main menu is reasonably straightforward

It provides flexibility and ease of setting up by assuming that you will wish to back up all data found in your libraries plus the contents of your desktop, contacts, and favorites. If you always save your data in the recommended locations (eg in “My Documents” or “My Pictures”) then your data will be backed up without any further ado. If you keep data in folders that are not contained in libraries then you can add those folders to existing libraries or create a new library where you can place all of the extra folders that you wish to back up.

But – and it’s a very very big “but” – there are folders that could contain absolutely crucial data that would not be included in the backup unless you knew about them and dug deep to find them and add them to the backup schedule (by adding them to a library). The most obvious of these that comes to mind is the “pst” file if you use Outlook. Why on earth do Microsoft hide this most important of data files in a folder that is not only kept apart from other data files, folders, and libraries, but which is also hidden by default? The “pst” file contains all of your email messages, calendar, contacts, and task lists. As far as my own business is concerned, my Outlook PST file is the most important file I have (together with my Clients database). The same applies to other “email clients” from Microsoft. Outlook Express and Microsoft Mail also set up your data files, by default, in a hidden place that’s really tricky to find unless you know what you are doing.

Select a drive for File History

External drives, USB flash drives and network drives can be used for backups

File History is quite flexible in letting you choose where your backup is going to be made. You can not create the backup on your main “c:” drive (as a hard drive failure could lose you your backup as well as your normal files) but you can use USB flash drives, external hard drives, and even network drives. You could also back up onto a different partition of your main drive, but that’s risky, of course, in the event of a total hard drive failure. If the backup location isn’t available when the backup is made then the program caches the backup on the hard drive ready for when the backup drive is available. Personally, I don’t like this as it could lull you into a false sense of security about the state of your backups. I’d rather be told if a backup is not possible because the backup location is not available.

You can choose how long you wish to keep your backups (weeks, months, forever while there’s still disc space) but I need to do more digging to see if backups are automatically removed when they get to a certain age (very very bad) or removed when they reach a certain age provided that there are newer versions available (much better).

You can choose how often backups are taken, ranging from every 10 minutes to once a day. The backups then take place quietly in the background, without (apparently) causing any noticeable effect on the performance of your computer for whatever else you are doing.

Exclude from File History options

Folders and libraries can be excluded from backups as well as being added to them

From what I’ve found out so far, there are other weaknesses in File History. For instance, if you change the name of a file then that name change is not applied to backups: it’s as if you’ve created a new file. For now, though, I’m so pleased that Microsoft have, at last, built some kind of simple data backup system into Windows that I would encourage you to use it if you are not doing any other kind of backup. I could probably help you to set it up by remote control (using Teamviewer), but remember that it is only available in Windows 8 – not in either Vista or Windows 7.

File History Restore Menu

Restoring files just requires “stepping forward or backward” through time and then “drilling down” to select the files(s)

If you don’t take backups then it probably means that you’ve never had a serious data loss yet. And that’s the key word – YET. I’ve seen a few heart-breaking data losses over the years, but I know that it’s difficult for the average user to get their head around the subject. Looked at from that perspective, I think File History in Windows 8 is certainly better than nothing.

I’m going to be testing it in the coming weeks and months by running it side by side with my normal backup routines. I’ll come back to the subject if I find any fatal flaws or useful tweaks.

Notice the rather ominous “1” in the title. This is a subject that will take more than one blog post. So, today let’s just think about what “backups” mean and what they don’t mean.

When I asked Google to define “backup” the first offering was

an accumulation caused by clogging or a stoppage; “a traffic backup on the main street”; “he discovered a backup in the toilet”

You’ll be pleased to learn that that’s not what we mean here. A better definition (offered by Wikipaedia) …

In information technology, a backup or the process of backing up refers to making copies of data so that these additional copies may be used to restore the original after a data loss event. These additional copies are typically called “backups. …”

3.5 inch External Drive

3.5 inch External Drive

So at its simplest, a backup is a copy that can be used to replace an original if it is lost, deleted, damaged. This backup can be a copy of a single file (eg an important spreadsheet) or many files. At its simplest, a backup can reside on the same drive as the original. The problem is that if the entire drive fails then the backup is also lost. Having a backup on an external drive is a much better idea but that still wouldn’t avail you if all your computer stuff was stolen or in the event of flood or fire. The only way to be really sure that the backup will be there if you need it is to keep a backup in a location physically separated from the original. In practice, I’ve only ever very rarely managed to train my clients to such a degree!
 
What a Backup Isn’t

A backup is not usually a copy of any of the myriad files that make up the Windows (or Mac) operating system, nor a copy of the files that make up the programs on your computer (eg Microsoft Office, Photoshop). If we suspect that something has gone wrong with Windows or with a program file then the best thing to do usually is to un-install the program and re-install it. In other words, we don’t just copy back files that are in a backup, but set in motion the process of removing the program completely in the proper way and then putting it back from scratch from the original master CD/DVD or downloaded file. The reason for this is that program files have to be copied and set up so that they work in the specific situation and in concert with the other programs and operating system. Copying files is not enough to achieve this so we don’t back up program files.

What Data should be backed up?

Your own stuff. The documents and spreadsheets and pictures and videos and all the other stuff that is YOURS and that you would not want to lose.

There are also other types of file that are not quite so easily imaginable as data but which you wouldn’t want to lose – eg that huge list of bookmarks (also known as favorites (sic)) that you build up in your web browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera or whichever browser you use). That list of websites is nothing more than that – a list – but I’ve seen a lot of clients looking very deflated when they realise they’ve lost it.

2.5 inch External Drive

2.5 inch External Drive

A hugely important part of backup data can be your email data. This is the email messages themselves, but can also be your contact information. If you only send, view, and receive your data through a web browser then your email data is not being stored on your own computer but on the computers of the service providers. This covers services such as Hotmail, Gmail, AOL mail, Yahoo, and others. This is known as webmail.

 

If, however, you access your email through a program on your computer (such as Windows Live Mail, Outlook, Outlook Express) then your email data is stored on your own computer. Your email provider may have a copy of your recent email history on their own computers (also known as mail servers) but it could be as little as the last seven days worth of data. Don’t rely on your mail servers as email data backups.

It’s also true that webmail can usually be accessed and downloaded with programs such as Outlook (as in the paragraph above), but we don’t need to split hairs about that now.

Having established an idea of what it is that we want to back up, let’s just finish this definition of what a backup is by considering some similar ideas:

An archive – in computer terms, an archive is just a backup but with one important difference. It is never over-written. Suppose you back up your data to an external hard drive. That drive is going to get full and you may wish to delete older backups to make room for newer ones. That means that you can’t always rely on your backups to tell you exactly what your accounts data (for instance) looked like on 23rd April 2009 (for instance). So, we often create archives in the knowledge that whatever happens we can see the data as it looked at a particular time in the past. Archives can be created in exactly the same way as a backup or by a different method. Often, for instance, archives are created on CDs or DVDs, whereas backups are made on external hard drives or USB pen drives (also known as thumb drives or memory sticks. A Memory Stick is actually a proprietary Sony device, so it is a misnomer to describe a generic USB pen drive as such).

 

An image – when we’re talking about backups an image is not a photograph. It’s a different meaning of the word and what it means is a complete, thorough, 100%, copy of EVERYTHING that is on your hard drive (or a sub-division of a hard drive such as a partition). An image can only be created using special software but it does seem to contradict what I said earlier about not being able to back up programs because a complete total image of your drive can actually be used to restore your computer to exactly what it looked like at the time the image was made – operating system, programs, data, the whole lot. But it’s not the panacea it sounds like because restoring an image could result in losing all the changes to the data that happened after the image was created.

Pen Drive

Pen Drive

A clone – similar to an image, a clone is the entire copying of one drive (or partition) to another similar drive so that it can be swapped with the original in case of disaster. The problem with images and clones is that they can take a while to create, you can only be completely certain they’ve worked by installing them, and they don’t change as data is added or changed.

 

That’s an introduction to backups. The next blog on this subject will look at the actual creating of backups in more detail.

One final word: I implore you to keep your master program discs all in one place and know where that place is. I would include in that any data backups and archives on “loose” media such as CDs or DVDs. So many times in the past I have been summoned by a distraught client with an apparent disaster on their hands who needs programs (and maybe data) to be re-installed but they can’t find their discs. This is already a fraught situation. It just makes it more stressful and more expensive if the client can’t find the discs. This doesn’t need to get complicated: just put everything in the same box and know where that box is.

© 2011-2017 David Leonard
Computer Support in London
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