What is the best backup method if I work from home?

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What is the best backup method if I work from home?

If your business doesn't have a backup strategy, you could be out of business in a heartbeat. Adam Turner explains the options.

What would you do if your computer died right now? Gone. No time to backup all your email, documents, projects and client details. No time to backup your precious contact list and calendar, or your accounting software. All gone. Forever. Can you afford to start again from scratch? Even if you can get the business back on its feet, will your customers ever trust you again?

It can happen to you - fire, flood, theft, virus, power surge, hardware failure, a disgruntled employee and plain old human error are just some of the threats to your computers and your precious data. What if you couldn't get to your computer?

It might seem melodramatic, but these scenarios are not far-fetched. Your business needs a data backup strategy, and a business continuity and disaster recovery plan. A good business continuity plan keeps essential aspects of the business up and running while you enact your disaster recovery plan to get back to business as usual.

Key points:

  • The best approach is a combination of onsite and offsite backup.
  • Save yourself time by using automatic backup software.
  • Consider a server or Internet backup to eliminate a single point of failure – that one PC that stores everything.
  • Start today by buying an external USB drive. Then you’ve got some protection while you consider the next step.

Where to start

There are plenty of backup services around. As with any business project, the first steps are to evaluate your requirements, consider your budget and then assess your options.

Below is a list of questions. It’s a lot of questions to be bombarded with, but they will make the difference between having an ad-hoc backup system, and a method that might save you a lot of money and time.

  • A good place to start is to ask yourself what are the biggest threats to your business and where are the single points of failure? What would be difficult to recover and what is irreplaceable? What would put you out of business?
  • Perhaps you already have an ad-hoc backup strategy in place. Do you test it regularly? How long would it take to restore from those backups to get the business running again? What if your computers, key staff members and perhaps your business premises were unavailable?
  • Even if you could revert to a backup copy of your data, how recent would it need to be? Would rolling back to last month's files do the job? If not, could you afford to lose a week's work? How about a day's work or an hour's work?
  • Now try putting a dollar value on what this kind of disaster would cost the business, not just in lost productivity but also potentially in lost customers. Once you've put a price on a disaster, you'll have a better idea of what you can afford to spend to avert one.

DVD, USB drives

So how do you backup your important files? The simplest way is to manually burn them to blank DVDs, or copy them to a USB stick or USB drive. Remember that not all your important data resides in your My Documents folder. For example you'll need to check where your email client, calendar and address book store their data. The same goes for specialist software such as accounting packages. You'll also want to familiarise yourself with how to restore this data should you be forced to reinstall your applications and start from scratch. Speaking of which, do you have the installers and product keys required to reinstall all your important software? Are they stored somewhere safe?

Remember, you need to keep backing up your data to ensure you lose as little as possible if disaster strikes. You'll also want an archive of important files which don't change, such as old project files and tax records. USB drives are better-suited to regular backups, while DVDs are more practical for archiving. You might consider scanning physical documents and printing electronic documents as an extra backup precaution.

Save time, make it automatic

The next step is to automate your backup system, particularly if your computers are used by business partners or staff who may not be as concerned as you when it comes to data protection. Many USB drives come with software which runs in the background on your computer and automatically copies new and changed files. You'll also find a range of third-party backup software, generally offering more advanced configuration options. In theory such software is "set and forget," but it's important to check on it regularly. It's also important to ensure that everyone in the business stores their data in the appropriate folders to ensure it is backed up.

Watch out for backup software which compresses your documents into large data files. This makes it more difficult to extract important files quickly, especially if it relies on specific software. You want to ensure your backup and business continuity plans work together smoothly.

Protect yourself against losing power

While it's tempting to think of disasters as earth-shattering events, keep in mind that simple power spikes can wreak havoc with your computer. Consider protecting important computers and other equipment with an uninterruptible power supply, which can compensate for brownouts and power surges. The built-in battery can also keep your computer up and running for minutes or hours, depending on how much you want to spend. It might not be practical to keep working for hours, but you at least want to buy yourself enough time to backup your data, enact your business continuity plan and shut down the computer gracefully.

Other methods: SD cards, NAS

Of course a USB drive might not be practical for backing up a notebook computer which doesn't stay in one spot. An alternative is to use an SD card or perhaps a tiny USB stick which only sticks out a few millimetres from your computer.

If you're protecting more than one computer, consider a central backup point such as a computer, server or Network Attached Storage drive. Most backup software supports copying files across your wired or wireless network to a central drive, so once again it can be a "set and forget" solution.

Eliminate your single point of failure

If your business has grown to the point where you're supporting several people across different computers, designing a backup strategy might present the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate the way you work. Are different people accessing the same data and collaborating on files? Is one computer a single point of failure in that it offers the only access to the financial package or other "mission critical" software?

Perhaps it's time to investigate collaboration tools and consider whether important documents should reside on servers or in the cloud rather than on desktop computers. Also investigate options for your software, such as running it on an in-house server or online as Software as a Service (SaaS). Along with extra flexibility, SaaS also grants small businesses access to enterprise-grade software without the need for considerable upfront expense.

If your business lives online, it's important to keep offline backups of your website, e-commerce system and other important data in case disaster strikes your service provider. Be sure to examine your options in terms of exporting data and changing service provider.

Whether you're a sole trader or part of a team, it's important to assess which software, services and devices your business is reliant on. These will play an important role in your backup, business continuity and disaster recovery strategies.

Remaining as platform-agnostic as possible is generally a wise insurance policy. If you do embrace specialist software, services and devices, it's important to understand your options in terms of importing/exporting data and transferring your data should you want to change to a competitor.
Keep in mind the risks of vendor lock-in, weighed up against the need to use industry standard tools. Choose carefully when considering tools such as accounting software, point of sale systems, invoicing, customer relationship management tools, content management systems, web design tools, blogging platforms and video editing suites. Do your research before embracing anything which requires you to lock away your business data and only access it in a specific way. Should a tech disaster force you to reinstall the software and you don't have your registration key, you could be forced to buy the software again just to access your data.
One recent example of vendor lock-in is Apple's cloud-based overhaul when introducing iCloud. Under Apple's old MobileMe it was possible to host a calendar on your Mac and sync it up into multiple cloud services such as MobileMe and Google. This made it possible for Apple users to share calendars with non-Apple users.
With the changes under iCloud, Apple made it necessary for users to host their calendar in iCloud and sync them down to their Mac. It seems like a minor change, but this made it impossible to also sync that calendar with other services such as Google. Nor could you sync iCloud calendars with older iPhones which won't run iOS 5. Affected users were either forced to only sync calendars with other Apple users or to abandon iCloud and move to a platform-agnostic calendar sync service such as Google.
As a small business you don't want to become trapped in a vendor's expensive upgrade cycle, especially if it has a habit of forcing upgrades or discontinuing support for older devices, software and features. Don't let your business be held to ransom. 
Accounting software has a notorious history when it comes to upgrade cycles. For example, Quicken and MYOB both went through a phase of denying customers the ability to edit tax tables -- the income tax rates used by companies to calculate Pay As You Go deductions from workers' wages. When tax rates change the information is released free of charge by the Australian Taxation Office. But by denying customers the ability to edit the rates in some versions of Quicken and MYOB, the vendors forced customers to update their software just for this small change.
In another example, Apple decided to strip features out of its professional-grade Final Cut Pro video editing suite, replacing it with the stripped down consumer-grade Final Cut Pro X. Some professional video editors were forced to abandon the time and effort they'd invested into Final Cut Pro and start again with alternate expensive professional-grade tools from the likes of Adobe and Avid. 

Offsite backups

So far we've talked about backing up data within your business premises, but it's also important to keep "offsite" copies. Remember, some disasters such as fire and flood which destroy your computer will most likely also destroy the backups in your office.

One option is to invest in several USB or network drives and rotate them offsite, so at least one drive is away from the office at all times. Of course this relies on you remembering to swap the drives, so it's not a fully automated system. Another drawback is that your backups are not within easy reach should you need them.

A better solution might be to use an online backup service. Now you can run backup software on all your computers to automatically upload new and changed files to a secure folder on the internet.

You've got a wide range of online backup services to choose from including Google Drive, SkyDrive, Dropbox, SugarSync, Jungle Disk, Mozy, Crashplan and Carbonite. These omnipresent hard drives on the Internet let you store a range of file formats and access them from any Internet-enabled computer. Many also let you sync your files between your different computers.

Most online backup services offer a few gigabytes of storage for free and then charge a few cents per gigabyte per month if you need more. They tend to be designed to work with single computers, but some also offer business plans for backing up multiple computers to the same account. Check which desktop operating systems and mobile devices are supported. Some online office suites such as Google Docs, Zoho and Office Web Apps let you edit your files online.

Keep in mind that you're now at the mercy of the cloud and your Internet connection, so you'll want to consider offline backup options.

Remember some Internet Service Providers count your uploads towards your monthly data limit. Take extra care if you’re running online backups over a mobile broadband network. Your first backup will take some time, so think carefully about how much this will cost. Start small and trial the service for a while before committing all your data to it. Thankfully after the initial hefty backup you'll only make smaller incremental backups of new and changed files.

Another tip: Some online backup software lets you create multiple backup jobs and schedule them to run at different times. This can reduce your bandwidth usage by backing up some files hourly and others weekly. You also might want to throttle the upload speeds, or restrict some backup jobs to certain times of day, to prevent them interfering with other services such as internet telephony.

While the Internet is a handy place to work and/or keep your backups, it's not foolproof either. You'll want to backup the files which live on the Internet to your desktop, but you'll also want to backup the files which live in the Internet to your desktop. This is why it's important to trial online services and see if they do what you want before committing to them.

In my view, the best backup strategy uses a combination of onsite and offsite backup to offer layers of protection, particularly when dealing with mission critical or irreplaceable files.


There's clearly a lot to think about when it comes to backups and surviving disasters. Don’t put it off because it seems too hard. If your business has no backup strategy you're sitting on a time bomb. Go out today, buy a 1 terabyte USB desktop drive for less than $100, backup all your important data and put the drive away somewhere safe offsite. Don't wait until tomorrow or next week, do it today.

With that simple backup in place, you can sit down and evaluate a full backup, business continuity and disaster recovery plan which is right for your business. Think of it as a digital insurance policy.

Tradesperson (sole trader)

 Business scenario

You're plumber or carpenter who works at different sites everyday and only sits in front of a computer to do your finances. 

What you should be doing

All that work you do in the evenings balancing the books could be lost if your computer dies. At the very least you should be backing up financial data to a desktop USB drive from the likes of Western Digital or Seagate. Try to automate these backups.


Suggested Product


Western Digital Elements 1TB hard drive

What to do next

It's time to consider a simple offsite backup strategy. If your home internet plan won't support a basic service such as Google Drive or Dropbox, at least get in the habit of copying important documents to a USB stick and leaving them at a friend's house. If you're reliant on your phone's calendar and address book, consider syncing them to the cloud.


Information worker  (sole trader)

 Business scenario

You're an accountant, consultant or some other professional who works in a small office or home office.

What you should be doing

The heart of your business probably resides on your computer's hard drive, so onsite and offsite backups are essential. For onsite backups consider the extra security of a multi-disk network drive such as a Netgear ReadyNAS, especially if you're using a notebook wirelessly. As for offsite backups, rather than a simple syncing service you should consider the extra flexibility of a dedicated backup service. Give some thought to remote access.



Suggested product


Netgear ReadyNAS Duo

What to do next

You're a service provider. If disaster strikes, how will you keep providing that service and retain your clients? You need a business continuity plan, however simple, which allows you to sit down at another computer and keep working.


Multimedia worker (sole trader or SMB)

 Business scenario

You might be a graphic artist or video editor, or perhaps an architect or engineer. You work with big files which rely on specialist software.

What you should be doing

Offsite backup is important, but unfortunately online backup might not be practical for your largest files (at least until the NBN reaches your door). This means you need extra redundancy in your onsite backup, using multi-disk desktop drives such as a Drobo and perhaps regular backups to a central network drive. You might also make regular manual offsite backups using removable media.

Suggested Product


Drobo S


What to do next

Consider running overnight or weekend backups of your massive data files, using a business-grade online storage service. It's important to have offsite copies of the installers and registration codes for your specialist software, in case you need to start from scratch. This is particularly important if you rely on older versions which the vendor no longer sells or supports.


Shop owner (SMB)

 Business scenario

You might run anything from a chemist to a computer parts store, but you've got employees and suppliers along with inventory to manage and books to balance.

What you should be doing

Consider the productivity hit should your IT systems go down. You should be backing up data at least once a day, to a USB drive or perhaps a central network drive such as a Netgear ReadyNAS (preferably located where thieves are unlikely to discover it). If you weigh up the total cost of an onsite disaster, it might justify upgrading the shop's internet access to take advantage of offsite backup (or investing in a mobile broadband connection).



Suggested Product


Netgear ReadyNAS Pro 4

What to do next

Just backing up isn't enough, you need a business continuity and disaster recovery plan. Regularly test your backups and understand the complexities of rebuilding your IT systems. Once again it's important to have offsite copies of the installers and registration codes for any specialist software. Most SMBs have a "trusted advisor" they turn to for technical support. Run worst case scenarios past them -- such as fire, flood or theft -- to develop a solid backup and recovery strategy.


Professional services  (SMB)

 Business scenario

Anything from an accounting firm to a PR agency, you manage an office full of professional and administrative staff.

What you should be doing

Important client data shouldn't be languishing on a single computer, especially if it's a notebook. You need a central backup strategy, perhaps to an in-house server which is in turn backed up to the cloud. Backup needs to be automatic and not reliant on staff to do the right thing. One major challenge might be document version control, which is why it's worth evaluating business-grade collaboration tools and perhaps Software as a Service.


Suggested Product


Ninefold SMB Cloud Drive

What to do next


Client relationships are everything, so consider redundancy in your communications tools. In theory many of your staff could work remotely, but your IT systems and workflow need to accommodate this. Evaluate online backup and collaboration tools which grant staff appropriate access to the mission critical resources they need. Once again, work with your technology "trusted advisor" to plan for worst case scenarios.


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