Monday, August 3, 2009

Keep your data safe. Planning for disaster.

To keep things simple, lets divide data into two classifications, Software and Documents.


Software is the applications you install on your machine that make it useful. This includes the Windows operating system, MS Office, Quick Books, and the various software that we purchase or download from the internet. When downloading software from the internet, I recommend getting it directly from the publisher’s website and only if this publisher is well trusted.


Documents are the files that are create when using the various software programs on your computer. These may include Pictures (*.jpg, *.bmp), Text files (*.txt), Word docs (*.doc, *.docx), Adobe Portable Document Format (*.pdf), and many more. The extensions are related to the software that is used to create them. This data can not be recovered, unless it is backed up. In case of disaster such as a hard drive crash, a virus or software product that makes your PC unusable, it’s important to back up this data or risk losing it forever. And quite often (we’re human), we unintentionally delete or overwrite an important file.

Backing up Documents

Microsoft Windows has a “My Documents” folder for each User account on the system. This is the default folder for the documents you create. There are some exceptions, for example, if you use MS Outlook then your Personal Outlook data file (.pst) is saved elsewhere. I’ll cover that in a future blog. You can also change the location of this folder. If you have not changed the location, then “My Documents” is probably the folder that contains most of the documents you created.

It’s good practice to save all your documents in the “My Documents” folder, or a subfolder within. Microsoft Windows creates some default subfolders here, “My Music”, “My Pictures”, and so on. You can add additional folders and organize them to suit your needs. You can think of this as your Electronic Filing Cabinet. The “My Documents” folder is the cabinet, and the many subfolders are the drawers. Keeping everything in one place has two advantages. First, it makes it easy to find your stuff, and second, it makes it easy to back up.

Now that everything is neatly organized (or perhaps not so neatly) within your “My Documents” folder, it is simple to back up this data. Choose your favorite software or tool to back up your “My Documents” folder, including all the files and subfolders contained within. My favorite application for this is called GoodSync. GoodSync allows you to perform bi-directional syncing of folders. It can track changes in both your working folder and the backup folder. It can also propagate deletions and between folders, something not common with typical backup software. Another nice feature is the ability to copy locked files, those that are currently open or “in use” by some application. There are tons of applications available to back up your data. Choose the method that works for you. You can even manually copy and past the files from one drive to another, although I would not recommend this method.

Important: Your backups should always be created on a separate drive, in case the other drive fails.

Advanced: As I mentioned earlier, you can move the location of your “My Documents” folder to another location. I moved mine to an external drive. This provides some benefits. Here are a some:

  1. I can move this drive from one machine to another, keeping my files accessible and current regardless of the computer I’m using. Simply plug this drive into any computer’s USB port, and viola, “My Documents” are available for use.
  2. It keeps my important documents off the main hard drive, the one that is the most susceptible to viruses and malware.
  3. Creating full drive backups (drive images), the size of the backup images are significantly smaller. This leads to another benefit; full backups take less time to complete.
  4. Restoring drive backups will not overwrite all the files in “My Documents” with older versions.

Backing up Software

There are three categories of software to consider: Freebies, Purchased/Licensed, and Installed. I could have classified them into four categories, the free and purchased, both installed or not installed. This was not necessary as Installed includes both.


This is software that you download from the internet; many refer to this as freeware. I don’t worry too much about backing this up. If they are needed in the future simply visit the Publisher’s site and download the latest version. To conserve disk space, I almost always delete these files after installing them.


Here I refer to the software that is paid for and downloaded, not the software on CDs and DVDs. Most Publisher’s will allow you to download the software in case it’s lost. But what happens if the Publisher goes out of business. Or more often, they discontinue the version you purchased and it’s no longer available for download. I recommend backing up all software that is purchased, along with the Keys and Serial Numbers. This can be accomplished in many ways. I use a combination of all the below.

  • Under the “My Documents” folder, create a Software subfolder. This will be included as part of your backup plan as discussed earlier.
  • Large .iso files can be burned to DVD and stored for safe keeping. Once saved to DVD, they can be deleted to free up hard drive space.
  • Create Software DVDs, that include as much as you can fit on the DVDs, and free up space on your hard drive. The more data you can offload onto DVDs the better, for many reasons: Faster virus scans, faster backups, and faster defrags.
  • Purchase a large external drive (1TB or 2TB) and keep all your backups on it. Now you’re cooking! But remember, if this is your only copy, you may still want to copy your purchased software to DVDs or another drive.


This software is installed on the main drive, the one that runs your Operating System (Windows 7 for me), and the applications that make your computer useful. A lot of time is spent organizing your computer, installing software and updates, organizing your Music and Photo libraries, and perhaps customizing your desktop with some cool themes and gadgets. Everything is working just the way you like. If it could only stay that way. Well I’m here to tell you that it can, by creating full drive backups. This is also referred to as creating a drive image. If you have a separate backup plan for your documents, then you may only need to image your main drive.

I have been using Acronis True Image for many years and has worked very well for me. There are other products that do the same thing. Norton Ghost is one example, but there are many available, both free and commercial.

A word of caution: When it comes to data backups, I prefer to pay for a commercial product. I’ve tested many free and open source products, but have yet to find one I feel will protect my data in case of disaster. I’ve restored my system numerous times with Acronis True Image and trust it will work when needed.

I use Acronis True Image to create a full drive backup image once I have my system working the way I like. Then an occasional incremental backup is performed, generally after a new software installation has been tested for a few days. If disaster strikes, the system can be restored back to the state it was in during any of the backups. Remember when I said I keep my “My Documents” folder on a separate drive. Here is another benefit. Restoring my main drive does not have affect my personal documents. Imagine making weeks or months of changes to your documents and then having to restore your main drive. If these documents were kept on the main drive, then I would restore old copies. Then the newer copies would have to be restored from you backup. I prefer to just avoid this altogether.

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