NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, November 2003
The Value of Removable Hard Drives
by Allan Pogensky
Las Vegas PC Users Group


One of the most frequent topics on any newsgroup dealing with operating systems or when computer users get together, is what's the best strategy for backing up one's hard drive. Hardly a day goes by where you don't come across literally dozens, if not scores, of postings on the various newsgroups relating to this subject. The queries (and responses) invariably focus on the problems the user has encountered in using this or that software backup program - either some third-party program or whatever built-in backup program is included with the user's operating system.

In my opinion, the best backup system for the average home user and even small business owner to employ in most cases is having his or her computer equipped with two removable hard drives. There are other advantages in having two removable hard drives on one's computer but the most significant one is providing a near fail-safe backup system. The speed, flexibility and peace of mind you get with this arrangement far outweighs (for most users) the relatively small additional cost of equipping one's computer with this hardware configuration.

Using this setup, backing up your hard drive is simple, straightforward, fast, and most important of all -- effective. By easily and relatively quickly making a clone of your hard drive, using a software program like Symantec's Norton Ghost which is specifically designed for this purpose, you get, what seems to me, the ultimate backup solution given the present state of personal computer technology. Unlike backup programs that merely back up your data files - that is, the files you've created in the various programs and applications that you use - by cloning your hard drive you are making a bit for bit copy of the drive, in essence an exact duplicate of that drive. Thus, you are backing up your operating system, your registry, all your programs and applications, your configuration settings, your data files - in short, everything on the hard drive that you have cloned. And you're doing this in one fell swoop. And for added safety you can remove this newly-cloned hard drive from the premises, not to mention making another clone, if desired, for near-absolute security.

So when the day comes - as it surely will - that your hard drive fails because of some mechanical or electrical defect, it's a wonderful feeling to know that you have a perfectly good copy of that failed hard drive that you simply shove in the computer, boot up, and you're off and running. Or if you ever get some miserable computer virus that plays havoc with your system, isn't it nice to know that you have at hand a perfectly good virus-free clone of your hard drive? And then simply clone that "good" previously cloned hard drive to the virus-infected one so that once again you now have two perfectly good hard drives. And in the case where the hard drive is kaput because of some mechanical/electronic failure, you purchase a new hard drive, plop it in the removable tray, make two simple connections, shove it in the computer and then simply clone your good hard drive to the new one. There's no need to partition and format the new drive; no need to reinstall your operating system on the new drive, no need to reinstall your programs and data files. None of this is necessary. You simply clone the previously-cloned hard drive to the new drive. And the added beauty of this arrangement is that you do all this from the comfort of your computer chair. There's no need to take apart your computer case in order to get into the guts of your computer and make complicated cable connections. Everything is done outside of your computer because each hard drive resides in a removable tray (caddy) that you simply slide into the computer's mobile rack. In my case I use the Lian Li RH-42 all-aluminum mobile racks which are generally available from a number of vendors on the net. I've purchased mine from an online vendor, http://www.directron.com who sells them 2/$66 (plus shipping). I'm sure mobile racks from other manufacturers will serve the purpose just as well. I'm aware of many users who have been using inexpensive (about $10 each) plastic mobile racks without any problems whatsoever.

As I've previously indicated, the cloning process itself is easy and fast. Using Symantec's Norton Ghost cloning program as an example, with the two removable hard drives connected to the computer, you simply boot up the computer with the floppy disk that contains the Ghost program and after a few key clicks the cloning process begins. My present computer has an Intel Pentium 4 2.0 GHz processor and I can clone one hard drive to another at the rate of nearly 1 GB per minute. The cloning process is practically automatic and you need not be in attendance during the actual cloning.

I can virtually guarantee that once you begin working with two removable hard drives, you'll have but one regret and only one regret. And that is you didn't have this arrangement on your previous computer or computers. There is perhaps one negative to this arrangement and that is the additional cost involved in equipping your computer with the two mobile racks to house the hard drives, the second hard drive, and the software cloning program. I would estimate it adds roughly about $100 to $200 (as of June, 2003) to the cost of the computer depending upon the size of the second hard drive and the specific make and model of the two mobile racks. Naturally, your computer case should have available two 5 " bays to house the mobile racks in addition to the 5 " bays needed to house your other IDE devices (CD/DVD-ROM, CD-RW, etc.) that need 5 " bays. Mobile racks come in two basic versions, depending upon whether the hard drive to be housed is an IDE/ATA or SCSI device. At this writing I'm not aware of any mobile racks designed to house the recently introduced SATA hard drives, however, I'm certain it won't be too long before they come on the market.

The software program I use for the cloning process is Symantec's Norton Ghost 2003 which I've recently seen selling on the net for about $30 for the CD-only version (no retail box), which is really all you need. (There's an older 2002 version of Ghost available which is considerably cheaper than the 2002 version; in my experience the 2002 version works just fine for straight cloning one hard drive to another hard drive regardless of whether the file system is FAT32 or NTFS). The Norton Ghost program is also included in Symantec's Norton SystemWorks 2003 Professional Edition. There are other disk cloning programs available, e.g., Powerquest's Drive Image and Acronis' True Image among them, both of which seem to get favorable reviews, however, I've had little or no experience with these programs so I cannot speak to them. Another cloning tool is the installation disk that comes packaged with the retail boxed hard drives from several manufacturers, including Maxtor and Western Digital.

When you consider the enormous advantages of having two removable hard drives on your computer, the additional cost in equipping your computer in this fashion pales into insignificance.

There is no restriction against any non-profit group using this article as long as it is kept in context with proper credit given the author. This article is brought to you by the Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an international organization of which this group is a member.

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