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Do I need to have a separate data backup if I backup my system regularly?

Question: I’m evaluating a free version of Macrium Reflect. If I make a disk image, it contains everything that I need to restore my Windows XP and also my data such as documents and settings, etc. Now if I do incremental backups to this full disk backup, it backs up my data and the OS files. Given that, why do I need to have a separate full backup of my data only and then make differential backups of the data only? Is not all of that covered in the system backup?

It sounds like there’s some confusion here about the types of backups and when you may want to use them.

No, you don’t necessarily have to do an additional backup of your data. Ultimately, it depends on what you’re working on and what you can withstand to lose.

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Backing up with image and incremental backups

Let’s start by reviewing two types of backups that you are (and everyone should be) doing regularly.

An image backup is a back up of your entire system (and that really does mean your entire system). This contains the operating system, all the installed programs, and of course all of your data at at the time the backup is created.

Incremental backups happen periodically after the image backup. They happen more frequently to capture any and all of the files on the machine that have changed since the immediately preceding backup.

With those in place and happening regularly then in a very real sense you’re done. You’re backed up and, quite honestly, you’re better off than 90% of the people that are out there.

An image backup is a complete copy of a hard disk or other media being backed up. The copy is complete in that it can be restored to a completely empty hard drive – as in a replacement hard drive after a failure – and the result is a hard drive that contains everything that the original did. There are, of course, nuances to the term.

Adding another layer of protection

Let’s say you’re not backing up very often or, dare I say it, at all. Or perhaps you want a level of backup that is more frequent than the nightly backups you have configured for the data you work on throughout the day. You may then want to consider adding an additional layer of backup protection.

As an example here’s what I do.

  • Once a month, I do a full image backup of my machine.
  • Every night, I do an incremental backup.
  • I store my work in Dropbox.

That last step – storing my work in Dropbox – is an example of an additional layer of backup. All of my working files (Word documents, text files and other things) are all stored in Dropbox. That way, whenever I make a change they automatically get backed up to Dropbox’s servers.

Data lossHow does this help? Let’s say my machine crashes in the middle of the day. If I was working on a file in the morning my latest work would not have been included in the incremental backup that happened the preceding night. However, it would have been backed up by Dropbox, as long as I’d been saving it to disk periodically.

Should I need to recover the file then all I need to do is go to another machine, sign in to my Dropbox account, and there it is. The version will have all of the changes that were made as of the last time Dropbox snagged copy of it, which means as of the last time I saved the file.

Another layer of protection… it’s up to you

If losing a morning’s worth of work could be painful to you, then using Dropbox or something similar is something that you might consider.

Ultimately, that level of additional protection isn’t typically necessary. What you’re doing with your full backups and your incremental backups (as long as they are full system backups) is great. But if you want to minimize the impact of something disastrous happening to you during the day, then the next step is creating another layer of backup to protect your data.

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2 comments on “Do I need to have a separate data backup if I backup my system regularly?”

  1. >and that really does mean your entire system

    This is only true if you have a single hard drive with a single petition. I have programs on C and data on D so I have to do a separate backup for each.

  2. I agree with all of the above, and have practised it for years. It works with monthly, weekly or daily cycles, and is a great prevention of data loss.
    There is one little extra (literally) that I use, measuring 12 x 21 x 4 mm, weighing 3 grams: a 25 euro 32 GB usb device I carry on a string around my neck. On it are portable truecrypt, a truecrypt container with all my passwords and other stuff, portable Xplorer2 file manager, and… all the data of the projects I’m presently working on. Wherever I go, and I travel a lot, I can use any windows machine and do my business, whether staying with relatives, friends, in hotels, you name it. Usually I take a webbook with me on my travels, and use the little stick as backup-device. But quite often I travel without a computer, not planning to do any work. Then it often comes handy. Whenever my latest version of a document on this tiny stick is the only copy I have, I email it to myself as a temp backup. Should I get stranded, should my house burn down, should I have to run from a hotel in an emergency… I can always get on with my projects. (Yes, I also wear it when I sleep.) Gives me great peace of mind. In fact, I have two of these little contraptions, a new one around my neck, the old one in my purse. I buy a new one every year, as their life cycle seems to be limited. Call me a maniac, call me obsessive, I don’t care. The price for the utmost in preventing personal data loss is extremely low, so why not go for it?


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