Backing up your computer is critical to avoiding data loss. I'll look at what it is, give a suggestion for average users, and I'll describe how I backup my computer.
Your question’s not ridiculous at all. In fact, I’m certain that this is why so many people don’t back up: they simply don’t know how.
For something that’s as important as backing up is, that’s a little scary.
Let’s look first at what it means to back up a computer and what your options are. Then, I’ll tell you what I recommend for average users.
Backing up is nothing more making a copy of data and/or program files and then keeping that copy in a safe place.
Nothing more, nothing less.
The key word in that statement is “copy”, as in duplicating the information. After you back up you have that same information in at least two or more places. In fact that leads to one one of my most important rules of thumb:
If it’s in only one place, it’s not backed up.
I occasionally run across folks that misunderstand the concept. After copying their information to their backup drive, they delete the original, leaving only a single copy on that backup drive. Regardless of what you call the drive it’s on, if it’s in only one place, it’s not backed up.
The goal of a backup is also simple: if something happens to your computer so that you can’t retrieve your information from it (which happens more often than people realize) or you somehow otherwise lose access to your data, then you can get the information from the backup copies.
Where backing up starts to seem complicated is when you look at all of the options relating to how much to back up, how often, and what tools to make sure that it happens regularly.
Types of backups
Backups typically take one of two forms:
- Copying your data. This is conceptually very simple. For example, if you copy pictures off of your digital camera and then immediately burn those pictures to a CD for safe-keeping, you’ve backed them up. Similarly, if you regularly take the contents of your “My Documents” folder tree and copy it to another machine or burn it to CD, that’s one form of backing those files up. They’re safely stored in another location in addition to the original.
- Imaging your system. This is also conceptually very simple. Rather than backing up only this-and-that, hoping that you actually remembered to include everything that you might need in case of a disaster, this approach makes a copy of absolutely everything; your data, your programs, your settings – even the operating system itself.
Both types of backups share a common characteristic. Whatever they backup, be it just certain files and folders or absolutely everything, they do so by a) making a copy, and then b) placing that copy somewhere else.
If your data is in only one place, meaning that there are no copies of that data, then you’re not backed up.
So where should this “somewhere else” be?
Well, the ideal answer is “as far away from your computer as practical.” The further away, the more you are protected from various types of disasters.
- If the backup is on the same hard disk, then you could lose your data and your backup if that hard disk dies.
- If the backup is on a different hard disk, but inside the same computer, then you could lose your data and your backup if something happens to the computer that causes both hard disks to be harmed.
- If the backup is on an external hard disk but connected to the same computer, then you could lose your data and your backup if there’s a software glitch or malware on that computer that starts destroying files on all connected devices.
- If the backup is on a different computer on the same network, then a network problem or malware on your local network could start deleting files and you could lose your data and your backup.
- If the backup is burned to a CD or DVD, but kept in the same physical location or any of the solutions are all in the same place, then you could lose your data and your backup if that location suffers a physical catastrophe (such as a fire or flood).
That’s scary stuff, but you get the idea. The closer your backup is to the original data, the greater the possibility that you could lose both at once. It doesn’t happen often, but it can. So, make a copy of your data and store it in a safe place away from your computer.
The question remains – how do I back up? The questions that drive that answer are:
- How likely is it that the problems that I mentioned will happen to you?
- How important is the data?
For the first question, the answer is always assume the worst.
When your data is important, it’s likely that you’ll want to back up more frequently. When you have multiple copies of those backups, you’ll want to keep them in different locations. The importance of your data is something that only you can really judge.
By far, the three most common issues that I see people encountering that causes data loss are:
- Hard drive failure
- Accidental deletion
That means protecting yourself against at least those is a great place to start.
A suggested backup plan
There are many approaches to backing up, which I’ve discussed in an earlier article, What backup program should I use? Rather than revisit those approaches here, I’ll make a simple suggestion.
For most average home users, I suggest:
- Get an external USB hard disk.
- Use an automated backup program like Macrium Reflect or an equivalent and back up everything (an image backup, as discussed above) to the external drive automatically on a daily or weekly schedule.
This won’t protect you from everything (like your house burning down), but it will protect from what I see are the most common causes of data loss. If your hard disk dies, you can restore files and perhaps the entire system from your backup. If you happen to – oops! – delete a file by accident, then as long as it was there when the most recent backup was taken, you can restore it quickly and easily. If malware happens,you can restore your system from a backup taken prior to the infection.
Most programs come with relatively simple instructions to set up the most common types of backups for average users.
If you’re using Macrium Reflect specifically, then I’d like to also suggest Saved! – Backing Up with Macrium Reflect – my ebook that details how to back up your machine using Macrium Reflect. (Access to demonstration videos, as well as multiple digital formats is included.)
As your needs increase, as you determine that the importance of your data requires stronger measures, then you’ll have a good base to build on.