The data backup guide: how to protect your data

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The data backup guide: how to protect your data

It's easy to replace a lost computer, but replacing your files will be much harder unless you take these precautionary measures

Your computer is full of files – hundreds of thousands – but they aren't born the same and, when it comes to backups, they should be treated separately. You might not shed a tear on losing a PDF from five years ago, but when your family photos disappear with a stolen laptop or broken hard disk then it's heartbreaking.

Here we'll explain how to keep your important data safe without wasting time backing up files you don't need to worry about.

Before we go into detail, consider the dangers to your data. Your computer could be lost or stolen, its hard disk could break down or in the very worst case a house fire or similar disaster could destroy not only your PC but the rest of your computer kit, including backup disks. Follow the advice below and ensure your files are safe in every eventuality.

To build a backup strategy you need to decide what to back up, where the backups will be stored and how often the backups will be created. Your budget will probably cause you to compromise with one or more of these decisions, so make sure they're the right ones.

Which files to back up?

Our first piece of advice is obvious but often overlooked: documents, home movies, photos and other files that you have created yourself are the top priority. Perhaps the only thing you need to protect. If these are lost you'll spend a lot of time re-creating them – or they may not even be replaceable. Photographs of special occasions are a good example of irreplaceable files.

Music and movies that you've bought, which can be downloaded again or copied from physical media like CDs, are less important and may take up a lot of your backup space. These should be of minimum priority for backing up.

Many backup programs are able to distinguish between different types of file, which makes it easy to include and exclude different data from your backups. It's worth taking time to look at them properly. For example, BullGuard's Backup software lets you choose from many different types of data, even including email files as a separate category.

Email records are exactly the sort of data that can be overlooked. It's only when disaster strikes and you realise that a piece of information was locked away inside one that the truth hits you: often, those obscure file types are just as important to protect as family photos.

Unless you have unlimited storage capacity and, if you use an online service, an incredibly fast internet connection, then we recommend excluding applications and media files that you have purchased and can easily recover from the original source without paying again. Google Play music and movies, content bought through iTunes and other similar services are good examples of files you should not back up.

Where to back up?

Common options for storing backups include: online, on an external hard disk, on the PC's own internal hard disk, on a USB flash drive or using a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device. There is no reason why you should not use a combination of backup locations. In fact that can make a lot of sense.

There are pros and cons to each option. Online backup is usually limited by the space provided, so you'll have to be quite ruthless when choosing which files to backup. If your broadband connection has a monthly limit on how much you can upload you'll run into problems too. However, if you have unlimited broadband you can find services that provide unlimited storage for £5 or less per month. BullGuard Internet Security includes 5GB and BullGuard Premium Protection includes 25GB of backup space as part of their subscription price.

One major advantage of online backup is that your backups are stored off-site, away from your computers and house. If something dramatic should happen your files should still be safe. Setting an online backup to save documents and photos continuously won't tax your system too hard but will protect your most precious data.

External hard disks are very inexpensive and can hold huge amounts of data. You don't need a fast broadband connection and your data stays off the internet, which brings extra privacy. However, a single disk can fail and if your house is robbed or your computer destroyed (by flood or fire, for instance) you risk losing both the computer and the backup.

Internal hard disks are even riskier. Backing up to these is really only useful if you are worried about accidentally deleting or otherwise damaging the main files you are working on. USB flash drives are a better option because they can be stored separately from the PC, although they lack the capacity of both internal and external disks. Flash drives larger than 64-128GB are very expensive.

NAS devices are likely to stay in your house but, unlike an external disk, the NAS will often have more than one disk inside. In such cases you may be able to set it up to have some redundancy so that if one disk fails the other continues to hold your data safely. Combine a regular NAS backup of most files with a continuous online backup of extra valuable files for a good all-round setup.

When should the backup run?

Most backup programs and services offer three main options for scheduling backups. The most comprehensive is to run backups continually. This means that nearly every time you change a file a new backup of that file is made. If you choose this option, ensure that your backup program can handle multiple versions of the same file otherwise you don't really have a backup! Accidentally delete a report on your PC and you would lose your backup too. When backing up to local disks, such as external hard drives, BullGuard's backup software tracks changed files and lets you specify a time period over which to keep multiple versions.

The extreme opposite of the continuous backup is on-demand backup. This option requires you to order the backup process to start manually. It requires discipline to run backups regularly and, once started, the process can take a long time and may make your PC slow to use as it's happening. It makes sense to run such backups at the end of the working day, when the PC would otherwise be idle and there is fresh data to save.

A good compromise is to back up according to a schedule. This still requires that you leave your computer on when you're not using it, but you don't have to remember to run backups regularly and, if you schedule things sensibly, you won't struggle with an unresponsive PC that is copying thousands of files to a disk or over an internet connection.

To encrypt or not?

If you store your files online then you would expect your service provider to keep your files private, possibly using encryption. If it offers you an option to increase encryption protection, possibly by encrypting the files on your system before uploading them, then take it. However, if you save backups to a disk in your own home then encryption is less important and can even cause problems when disaster strikes. If you do opt to encrypt make every effort to ensure that you will be able to unencrypt the files again. Test this out before you experience problems.

This article originally appeared at

Copyright © Alphr, Dennis Publishing

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