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Back it Up! : Online File Backup done right

By Christian Carvajal

As I write this, itís early December, and try as I might, I canít remember what my new yearís resolution was last time around. One thing I can say with near hundred percent certainty is that whatever it was, I failed to keep it.

Maybe youíre the same. Maybe you resolved to quit smoking, lose weight, or read more. We all make promises with ourselves, then fail to keep those promises. Worst of all, those promises might be exactly what we need most. Consider this: When was the last time you performed online file backup? Last month? Last year? Never?

Letís make a new yearís resolution together, you and I. Letís promise to back up our computers. Itís important, I promise. Just yesterday the automatic backup feature in MS Word saved me about an hourís work when my computer froze up. Given that I havenít backed up my computer in almost a year, I canít even imagine how much data Iíd lose if I suffered a power surge or hard drive failure. It can happen to the best of us, and often does. Even high end hard drive manufacturers report an average failure rate of between five and eight per thousand every year. That may not sound like much, but letís face it, somebody has to be those five to eight people. Feeling lucky?

There are about 185 million household PCs in the U.S., according to Computer Industry Almanac, so that means about 150,000 hard drives fail each year. But even if your drive stays intact, about a tenth of all computers suffer minor data loss in any given year. A power surge, the magnets in your home stereo speakers, or even an accidental nudge can affect data storage. According to a report from the ONTRACK data recovery service, data loss can be caused by natural disasters (3% of cases), computer viruses (7%), software problems (14%), and plain old user error (a whopping 32%). Now, Iím sure you never hit a wrong keyboard button, but do you have a button on your computer that prevents a bolt of lightning? I didnít think so.

WHEREAS our data is important, and disaster can befall even the most noble and undeserving of us, BE IT RESOLVED that you and I shall back up our computer files forthwith.

Amen, brothers and sisters. Now, where and how do we start?

STEP ONE: Choosing Favorites

Not all files are important enough to preserve for posterity. The most critical files on a computer are its operating system files. If youíre a good little consumer, you bought the operating system and kept those CDs handy and secure from data loss. If youíre not, then remind yourself to go stand in the corner later. The drones at Microsoft did not work for years just to watch you steal their work. Itís people like you that keep Bill Gates from buying his second planet. Now that youíve been suitably chastised, either go buy a legal copy of the operating system, or include the necessary files in your ďmust back upĒ list.

The same principle goes for software applications. Maybe you bought an ad and spyware blocker you really like, but the company that coded it has since gone out of business (perhaps because other consumers werenít as scrupulous as you). If so, include the files you need to run the app in your must list.

Now itís time to look at the remaining files on your computer and prioritize. If youíre not a digital packrat like me, it may be possible to save everything. If so, congratulations. I donít have ten gigabytes of portable media at my disposal, so when I back up my computer, Iíll be leaving a few gigs of MP3s and questionable Windows Media files at risk. One of the first things I will save is the folder I use to save my writing assignments, because that data represents money in my pocket. Iíll back up my email address book, plus my digital photography and fiction writing efforts. I can live without ďMilkshakeĒ (what was I thinking?), but the guitar piece my friend recorded and sent to me is going on the list. Your results may vary.

STEP TWO: In Which I Tell You Where You Can Put It

Thatís right, this is the section in which Iíll tell you where to store your data. Itís not a good idea to put backup files on another drive on the same computer. That defeats the whole purpose. Duplicating your files on another computer in the same LAN is almost as risky, because computer viruses can spread as fast as an imaginary Anna Kournikova JPEG. You need to find a portable storage medium that can hold all the files on your must list. Your options include floppy diskettes, portable hard drives, optical drives, tape drives, and remote servers. Weíll look at each in turn. Hard diskettes, the old familiar 3.5Ē squares, hold up to 1.44 megabytes of data. Theyíre cheap, but 1.44 MB is less than two percent of the ten gigs of data on my hard drive. Even if each of those files were smaller than 1.44 MB (and each werenít), Iím not keen on the idea of buying, labeling, and storing fifty diskettes. Next idea, please.

Most computer experts rely on removable hard drives for memory backups. The most popular of these drives are the Zip drive from Iomega and the ORB drive from Castlewood. Theyíre relatively inexpensive and hold up to two gigs of data. Basically, youíll save your data on a Zip disk, then transfer it from the disk to the portable drive. The catch is that removable drives fail about as often as regular hard drives. They may even be more susceptible to damage from dust and rough handling. A sub-option here is to use a permanent hard drive as a removable drive. At up to two hundred gigs, conventional hard drives are bigger than removable drives, and prices have dropped enough in recent years to make this idea practical. Whatever kind of hard drive you decide to use, make sure to keep it isolated from dust, magnetic charges, and static electricity.

Optical drives use a laser to store information, rather than a magnet. Even if youíre not a tech junkie, thatís probably enough information to give you a clearer idea what weíre talking about: namely, CDs and DVDs. Less common are EO (erasable optical) and WORM (write once, read many) media; theyíre less common because they cost over $1000 per drive. CDs, on the other hand, cost less than a buck and can hold up to 650 megabytes. DVDs hold up to five gigs and cost about fifteen dollars apiece. Most computers nowadays have either a CD or DVD writer (or both), but write times can be slow. My CD writer, for example, works best on the 300 kilobyte per second settingóif then. Iíll be using the remote server option. At $250 and up, tape drives are more expensive and slower than hard drives or optical media, hence less common, but also extremely reliable.

Remote servers are third party companies that store data online for a fee. This is a great option for broadband Internet users, especially people like me who donít own a reliable data writer.

SkyDesk runs , Back-Up Solutions maintains , and Iomega hosts iServer ( ).

XDrive ( ), once a free service, now charges ten bucks a month for up to five gigs of storage. Promotions and other rates change, so itís a good idea to shop around before selecting a remote storage service.

STEP THREE: Git íer Done

Now itís time to put the files you want to save on the storage medium youíve chosen. There are several ways to do this. Your CD writer, for example, may come with proprietary disk writing software. That application may even include a backup option. If it does, and youíre more familiar with that software than Windows features, then thatís the way to go.

Otherwise, backup is still relatively easy on all MS operating systems since Windows 98. Windows 98, Windows ME, and Windows XP Professional include a built-in Backup utility. To run it, just click on Start, then Programs, then Accessories, then System Tools, then Backup. How easy was that? If youíre using the XP Home edition, you may need to add the utility manually. If so, insert the Windows XP CD into your disk drive and wait for the ďWelcome to Microsoft Windows XPĒ screen. (You may need to double-click the CD icon in My Computer.) Then click on Perform Additional Tasks and Browse This CD. In Windows Explorer, double-click the ValueAdd folder, then Msft, then Ntbackup. Double-clicking on Ntbackup.msi will install the utility. Once itís installed, you can also run the program by clicking Start and Run, then typing msbackup.exe (Windows 98 and Windows ME) or ntbackup.exe (Windows XP) in the Open field. Click OK, and youíll be off to the races.

Incidentally, the Windows XP Backup utility also includes a bonus application called the Automated Recovery Wizard. This creates a bootable floppy that initiates backup if the hard drive must be replaced. Other options for ďdisaster recoveryĒ include BackUp MyPC from Stomp ( , $79) and Norton Ghost 9.0 from Symantec ( , $69.95). Ghost actually allows users to duplicate the contents of their computer over the Internet. Both have earned stellar reviews from top PC magazines.

Donít let another month go by without protecting the files you value most. My girlfriend justifies her messy car by saying she ďlives out of it.Ē Well, I live out of my computer. Itís not just my office; itís the home of cherished memories in the form of pictures, MP3, and other data files. Iím resolved to keep it safe.

Author Bio:

Christian Carvajal is a contributing writer to Bargain Laptop Buying Advice, a site providing tips and tutorials to individuals interested in buying and upgrading laptop computers.