NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, September 2004
The Perfect Backup Approach
by Gene Barlow
User Group Relations, Copyrighted August 2004
(click to email author)

Backing up your hard drive is the most important thing you should do to protect your computer system. Yet, I am constantly surprised to find that as few as 10% of my smart user group audiences have a good backup procedure in place. Hard drive crashes are quite common and it is very painful to rebuild a computer system after a hard drive crash. Anti-virus software may offer some protection, but fast moving viruses can get through this protection and crash your hard drive. It may take you days or weeks to recover from a hard drive failure and your important data files are gone forever. So, protect your computer by backing up your hard drive on a regular basis and avoid the pain of a hard drive failure.

For the past few years I have recommended a sophisticated backup process that would adequately backup all aspects of your computer system. Using a file backup utility, I suggested you backup your important data files at the end of each day. Then, to protect your full system, I suggested you should backup your entire hard drive using a full system backup utility each month. I also suggested that you separate out your data files into a different partition on your hard drive to further protect these important files. This approach is outlined in an article that I wrote titled, "Backing Up your Hard Drive". You can read it on my web site at www.ugr.com/nl0102.html.

While many of you followed my suggestions on backing up your hard drive, many of you are still not doing anything to protect your hard drive from failure. Perhaps my backup approach was too complex to understand or too difficult to follow. Fortunately for you, technology has made some dramatic advances in the past couple of years and now there is a better and easier way of doing your backups. This article will show you the best way to backing up your hard drive and tell you what hardware and software products to use to follow this approach. It is so easy that everybody should start to backup their hard drive. All you have to know is the secret of how to do it, and your computer can be safe and secure.

Backup Hardware: The first step to having a successful backup procedure is choosing the right backup hardware to use to save your backups to. For years, users have been burning CDs for their backups. This approach was full of frustrations and problems. No wonder folks hated to do backups. First, it seems that creating a backup and then burning it to many CDs could overtax many computer systems. If anything went wrong, the entire backup process could cancel, leaving you with several burnt CDs, but not the complete backup you needed. Worst than that, the backup might appear to be complete, but the CDs were corrupt and would not restore properly. Thank goodness, CDs have been replaced with a much more reliable backup media.

A couple of years ago, external hard drives entered the computer marketplace in large numbers. Today, an external hard drive is the ideal backup media to use. Instead of sitting by your computer for hours to feed it another blank CD, all you need to do is to attach your external hard drive and forget about it. Your backup will be taken automatically without your being involved. No more drudgery of making backups to CDs.

Why are external hard drives the ideal backup media? First, they are large enough to backup your main hard drive on one device. You do not need to backup to multiple CDs, so the whole process can be done without your involvement. Second, backing up to an external hard drive is many times faster than burning CDs. An external hard drive is almost as fast as the internal hard drives on your computer. Third, external hard drives are much more reliable at saving your important files. CDs can easily become scratched or flawed and not protect your important backups. Finally, external hard drives are relatively inexpensive to buy and use. You may actually save money over the cost of burning a lot of CDs.

What should you look for when buying an external hard drive for backup purposes? External hard drives come in two basic flavors - USB2 and Firewire. One is just as fast as the other and both will do an excellent job of backing up your main hard drive. You will need to attach the external hard drive to your computer using either a USB2 port or a Firewire port on your computer. Most computer today come with a USB port on them, so these are the more popular type of external hard drives. Just be sure your computer doesn't have one of the older USB1 ports on it instead of the faster USB2 ports. If you have an older USB1 port, you can still attach and run your USB2 external hard drive, but it will run at the slower USB1 speed. In this situation, you can add a USB2 port to your computer for a small additional price.

The external hard drives come in a couple of sizes - miniature and standard drives. The miniature external hard drives have a 2.5 inch laptop computer hard drive inside a small case. These drives are small enough to fit in your pocket and are very light to carry. They do have a couple of disadvantages to them that you should be aware of. First, they only hold 20GB, 40GB, or 80GB of backup files. This may not be big enough to backup your 300GB main hard drive. Second, you will pay quite a bit for the small size of these miniature drives. The 20GB drives cost about $160, the 40GB drives are about $200 and the 80GB drives are over $300. So, you end up paying a lot for the small size.

If you don't mind having a slightly larger external hard drive, you can get one with much more capacity and for less money. These larger external hard drives contain standard 3.5 inch hard drives inside the case and are available in capacities starting at about 80GB and go up to 300GB and larger. An 80GB or 120GB external hard drive is an excellent size for most backup needs. If you watch for sales on these drives, you may find an 80GB hard drive for under $100. I have seen them as low as $69. The 120GB external hard drives will be more expensive, but can be found for as low as $99. So, check the ads in your local paper and you may find a great deal on external USB2 hard drives.

Backup Software: The second part of having the perfect backup approach is using the right backup software product. There are two basic types of backup software available - file backup utilities and full system image backup utilities. Older file backup utilities would backup individual files. These utilities were slow since they had to use the operating s ystem to find and retrieve each file separately. We have hundreds of thousands of files on our hard drive and so working on individual files, one at a time, is very slow. A better backup utility will backup your entire hard drive (a partition at a time) and does this at the hard drive sector level. These types of backup utilities create backup images of your hard drive that you can save to your external hard drive. To conserve space, these images are compressed to about half their normal size which permits you to keep many backup images on your external hard drive. So, the first thing to look for in your backup software is the ability to create compressed images of your entire hard drive.

While an image backup utility is a major step in the right direction, it is not the ultimate solution. With full backup images, you still end up backing up your entire hard drive each time, even if only a small portion of the drive has changed since the last backup. So, the images contain a lot of unchanged files that do not need to be backed up again. So, the secret is to find an image backup utility that can do incremental backup images. With the incremental backup image approach, only the changed sectors on a hard drive are backed up and not those parts of the hard drive that have not changed since the last backup. Incremental backup images are much smaller in size and complete much quicker than a full backup image.

A little calculation at this point may help you understand another reason why the incremental backup image feature is so important. Let's say you have a 120GB main hard drive that is a third full. That means it has about 40GB of files on it. A full condensed image of this hard drive would be about 20GB in size (with a compression of about 50%). That means that you could store four separate full backup images on an 80GB external hard drive. Using the incremental backup image approach, you may be able to store 30 or 40 separate backups on the same 80GB external hard drive. Because you can keep more incremental images on your external hard drive, you can make your backups more frequently than if you were limited to only four full backups. Hence, your backups would be more current with the incremental image approach versus the full backup approach. This means less lost files since the last backup. This is of major importance when considering a backup approach.

So, the secret to choosing the best backup software is to look for a full system backup utility that can do incremental backup images. There have been a couple of expensive enterprise software products that offer the incremental backup image feature (for example, Symantec's V2i Protector Desktop Edition v2), but there is only one consumer backup utility that I am aware of that offers the incremental backup image feature and that is the Acronis True Image 8.0 product. This excellent backup utility was awarded PC Magazine's Editors Choice award as the best backup imaging utility on the market. PC World calls True Image the leader in the field of incremental

Backup images. Using this excellent backup utility with an external hard drive will provide you with the most perfect backup approach available today.

How to Backup your Hard Drive: To complete this article, let me suggest how you would do your backups using an external hard drive and an incremental backup image utility. I would suggest that you set up a regular schedule to make your backup images. For the average user, I would make a full backup of your hard drive at the beginning of the month and then an incremental backup image at the end of each week that follows. So, you would have one full backup image and 3-4 much smaller incremental backup images each month. At the beginning of the next month, make another full backup image and follow this again with weekly incremental images. Save all of these images on your external hard drive and don't delete any of the older images until you start to run out of space on the drive. If you have a very active computer system, you could make a full backup at the beginning of the week and incremental backup images at the end of each day. Most users will not need to do the backups this frequently, but some may want the extra protection of more frequent backups. Either way, the approach is the same, just the frequency is changed. With True Image 8.0 you can set up the software to make these backups automatically. So, set it up and forget it. Your backups will occur as scheduled.

If at any time, you need to restore one or a few of your files, you can simply copy these files out of your compressed image files using a facility in True Image. If you need to restore your full hard drive, you can do this also, even if the main hard drive is empty and not bootable. True Image will boot from a special CD to permit you to quickly restore the entire hard drive from the image files. So, you can quickly restore a few files or your entire hard drive using Acronis True Image 8.0.

Finally, you may be wondering why I recommend keeping all of your full and incremental backup images on your external hard drive and not deleting them after you make a new image. You need to understand that the full image you make at the beginning of the month and the incremental images that follow it each week go together in a set. True Image needs all of them to restore your hard drive to the way it was when you made the last incremental image. During the restore, it will combine the beginning full image with each of the incremental images to recreate the hard drive. It does this very quickly whether you are retrieving a few individual files from the image set or recreating the entire hard drive. Now, let's suppose that a stealth virus got on your hard drive and was captured in the last incremental image you made. You certainly do not want to restore your hard drive with this virus on it. So, instead, you indicate to True Image to restore your hard drive from the incremental image you made just before the image containing the stealth virus. That restores your system to a point in the past when it was still clean of the virus.

Over time, you will build up a collection of backup images on your external hard drive that will let you see what files were on the drive at any point of time in the past few months. If you deleted a file some months ago and now want to get it back, you can indicate to True Image to look in a backup image before you deleted the file and you can copy it back to your hard drive from the image files. Having a history of all of the files that have been on your hard drive is a very powerful and useful function. Only with an incremental backup image software product could you afford to keep all of this history on a modest external hard drive. Acronis True Image 8.0 with an external hard drive is the perfect way to backup your main hard drive.

How to Order Acronis True Image 8.0: Acronis is offering this excellent product to user group members and their friends at a special discount price of just $34. To take advantage of this special price, you need to go to http://www.usergroupstore.com and click on any of the yellow "Buy Now" buttons. This will take you to the secure web order form where you can order your copy of Acronis True Image 8.0 at the user group discount. Complete the form including the special order code of UGNL0804 and submit the form. Your product will be processed in a few hours and will be delivered in 2-3 days.

If you have any questions about this article or how to backup your hard drive, please contact me at barlow@ugr.com. I will get back to you shortly with the answers to your questions. I would like to see everyone's computer protected with a good backup approach. The method outlined in this article should do exactly that for your computer. Don't be sorry. Backup your computer today.

Gene Barlow
User Group Relations
PO Box 911600
St George, UT 84791-1600

This is one of a series of monthly technical articles that I plan to distribute on a regular basis in the coming months. Watch for them and learn more about your computer and its hard drive. User group newsletter editors may print this article in their monthly newsletter as long as the article is printed in its entirety and not cut or edited. Please send me a copy of the newsletter containing the article so that I can see what groups are running the articles.

Click here to return to top