Backup & Recovery Strategies
Preparing for Recovery
Backups and recovery are an important part of a strategy for recovering your computer in the case of computer failure or loss of data.
If you only use your computer for games and/or the Internet and don't care about any of the personal information or data on your computer then backups may not be important to you.
However, most of us have irreplaceable data like photos, emails, letters, electronic account statements and other documents. You need to have a strategy to recover these in the case of a computer meltdown.
Plan for Recovery Now
Backups are a lot like insurance. The time and expense seems excessive until something bad happens. If you aren't prepared when you need them, it is too late.
You'll want to consider how quickly you need to get back up and running and how frequently the important information on your computer changes.
You needed to protect yourself against equipment and operator failure as well as viruses and other disasters. Ransomware has upped the ante because a reliable backup is the only recovery you can count on.
Businesses Need Quick Recovery
Some users, particularly businesses, can neither afford to be down for long nor to lose any data.
Such critical systems usually have information that is constantly changing and requires a solution that provides timely, ongoing and reliable backups as well as quick recovery.
A business or other user that requires a quick recovery should purchase software to create routine drive images. This will allow you to quickly recovery your computer with the operating system, programs and data already in place with all customized settings — provided you have a recent image stored in a safe place.
Many home users have less pressure to get up and running and the sorts of data that are important to them may be different. Backups need to be less frequent (although outdated backups place them at risk of losing important photos and other data).
What to Back Up
Your computer installation includes three main areas or categories that you need to consider when planning for recovery if your hard drive fails or corruption occurs for whatever reason:
- the operating system (Windows, Mac, Linux, etc.);
- the programs installed on the computer; and
- the data.
Each requires a different strategy for backup and recovery.
Recovering the Operating System
You will need the operating system installation media (CD, DVD or a recovery partition), driver disks and the registration key (usually a sticker on a Windows computer) to reinstall your operating system and the necessary drivers.
There are other elements like the desktop wallpaper, fonts and special settings that you might wish to save as well.
The process for obtaining and installing your operating system (or upgrades) will depend upon the operating system and version you currently have installed and what your hardware will support.
- Windows users see Recovering Windows for more on recovering the Windows installation itself.
- Mac users see Upgrade to macOS Sierra or download the current version of macOS supported by your computer.
- Linux users may need to download a newer version. See the documentation for your distribution for the specifics on updating your version of Linux.
Recovering your programs may involve more than just copying the program itself.
The program data and settings stored in different areas in Windows. These settings may not be easy to backup or transfer except when using a drive image to recover the installation.
Windows Registry Complicates Reinstallation of Programs
If your Windows installation fails, you'll need to reinstall most (if not all) programs.
You will need the program installation disks (CD, DVD or downloaded installation file) and the various registration keys or codes.
If you can't find your original software installation CDs (and the license code) or if is outdated you may have to re-purchase the software. You may be entitled to a reduced upgrade price but will need to have proof of ownership for your earlier version (usually the license key).
Software Activation Adds a Wrinkle
Some programs, like Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop and TurboTax, require activation after installation. There is often limits to the number of activations available (usually one or two) so you'll need to ensure you de-activate the software before uninstalling or removing the software. If your computer crashes, you may be able to get the company to extend the activation for reinstallation.
Keep a record of your registration numbers to enable you to reinstall and register shareware if necessary. This is true for software that is configured remotely after installation.
Where you're able to install copies on both your PC and your laptop they usually cannot be in use simultaneously.
Saving the Program Settings
Backing up the application data — a hidden set of AppData folders — may help, but you can't always recover everything from them and you can even corrupt a newly installed program by overwriting the information from the older installation.
Make sure you have a complete listing of the settings for each of the programs that weren't installed with the default settings. Even in that case, you may want to know what settings are currently in use.
For more complex settings (like email server settings, FTP settings) a screen capture of the current data can be a lifesaver when it comes to reconstructing your settings and where everything is entered into the program settings.
Email Data Proprietary
Email data is difficult to work with and often is not easily transferred between programs except by using special utilities. I recommend backing up your email using the facilities built into your email program then including that backup file in your main backup.
Most programs will export a single email into a stand-alone file (with the .eml extension in Windows) that can be opened by any email program. Save important emails like program registrations and other critical information in this manner so that you have access to it even if your email program isn't working by using another mail program or computer.
Data files are irreplaceable and constantly change.
If you delete files by accident or lose them with a computer crash they are permanently lost — unless you have backups.
Paper copies may be sufficient backup for some things, but retyping all those documents, or scanning them with OCR software, could take forever (and a disaster would likely destroy these documents as well).
Your data is irreplaceable. This can include the information in your Documents, Pictures and Videos folders and elsewhere including:
- documents (e-statements, letters, spreadsheets, databases, PDFs and scans);
- email (emails, settings, passwords and address books);
- browser (settings, passwords, addons, extensions, bookmarks or favorites);
- other data (photos, ebooks, downloaded music, tax files/returns);
- online purchases (ebooks, music, movies, programs & license keys); and
- other settings and data (passwords, game scores, scripts, network settings).
These are just some of the items that you might wish to consider adding to your backups. Not all these items will apply to everyone, nor does it include all the possibilities. If it is important to you, back it up.
I strongly recommend copying this sort of data directly onto a removable drive so that you can recover it later, even if you use additional backups like disk images and regular backup programs. That way you have access to your data without having to reinstall the operating system and the backup software first.
Locating Data Files
You'll want to check for information in other locations than those mentioned below. Create a “Backups” folder in Documents to store important information so it is easily located when needed.
On a Windows computer most data is stored within the Contacts, Favorites, Documents, Music, Pictures and Video folders located with a folder named after your user account name.
- Windows Vista, 7, 8.1 and 10: look under
- Windows XP (now obsolete): look under
C:\Documents and Settings.
- You might also wish to check for data under the Public folder (All Users in Windows XP).
The Time Machine does a good job of backing up critical Mac user files but you can look under Finder's “Go” menu for Documents, Pictures or All My Files to locate files to be stored on a thumb drive or other removable media for sharing or alternative backup strategy.
Linux provides a link to your documents on the desktop in many cases. Copies of these files will ensure you don't lose them in a crash.
Other Critical Windows Information
Windows users might want to consider these items:
- Internet Explorer Favorites are saved as part of the My Documents, but you might want to have a separate recovery option. (Open IE, the click File Import then Export — Export Favorites.)
- Internet Explorer Cookies (same procedure as for Favorites) — useful if you maintain cookies that let you into sites for banking, etc. and you don't remember the passwords.
- Mozilla Firefox bookmarks, cookies, and settings can be backed up with MozBackup.
- Mozilla Thunderbird email, address book and settings can be backed up with MozBackup.
- Fonts (
C:\WINDOWS\Fonts) to ensure you retain fonts used to create your documents.
Windows Hidden Application Data
Email and other programs save settings and other critical information in folders hidden by default in Windows.
- Look for Folder Options in the Control Panel, click on the View tab then click the radio button on “Show hidden files, folders and drives.”
- Hidden folders are displayed slightly translucent to separate them from regular folders.
- Be careful of making changes — you can seriously damage your data and settings.
In Windows XP this information is stored in the “Application Data” folders; in Windows Vista and later it is stored in the “AppData” folder:
- Windows Vista, 7, 8 and 10:
- There are three sub-folders under AppData: Local, LocalLow and Roaming.
- Windows XP:
C:\Documents and Settings\[User]\Application Data.
C:\Documents and Settings\[User]\Local Settings\Application Data.
In most cases the [User] folder is named “Owner” or your name or some variation depending upon the settings chosen when Windows was installed.
How to Back Up
Schedule Regular Backups
Make a habit of regularly backing up the critical files on your system. The greatest danger is procrastination — something that only a regularly scheduled backup routine can avoid. A good rule of thumb is to backup when the pain of recreating something is greater than the pain of backing it up. Just remember that not everything can be recreated — easily or otherwise.
The traditional method is to do a regular weekly full backup, then to copy the changed files at the end of each day (an incremental backup), keeping three generations of backups. If you don't work daily on your computer a monthly routine with weekly interim backups may suffice.
Keep Multiple Backups
Multiple generations of backups will greatly enhance your ability to recover all your files. If your backup is corrupt or if you have unknowingly been backing up corrupt data the more generations of backups you retain the more likely you will have an uncorrupted copy to assist in recovering your system.
Critical Systems Need More Attention
The more critical your data, the more frequent and complete your backup routine needs to be to ensure complete recovery.
Local Backups for Computer Failures
Keep some backup copies of current files onsite in case of an immediate problem with your computer that doesn't involve a disaster, such as a file that is accidentally deleted or corrupted.
You'll need to choose an appropriate combination of the hardware device that will store the amount of information we have on our modern terabyte-sized hard drives as well as the software needed to perform the backup.
USB External Hard Drives & Devices
The price and capacity of USB external hard drives and thumb drives provide the best and most workable solution for most people.
- Be sure the drive capacity is large enough to accommodate future needs.
- USB 2.0 is good but USB 3.0 is faster if you have USB 3.0 capability (most recent computers do). USB-C is a new form-factor that may play a larger factor in the future (it is the only option on the newest Macs).
- A single drive can be shared by several computers if you partition the drive or create unique folders for each system.
- A USB thumb drive may be easier to store off-site but may not have the capacity needed to store all your information. They do make an excellent option for keeping changed files between backups.
With the larger devices, it is easy to copy whole drives or simply the files you need. It is best to stick to copying data unless you're familiar with how your computer stores information and are comfortable using the command line.
On-line backups (backing up into the “cloud”) provides for true off-site storage. High speed Internet and cheap storage has lowered costs and this can be an attractive option. However, consider these factors:
- Canadians suffer terrible upload speeds with Canada ranking 53rd in upload speeds worldwide according to CBC. This will make cloud backups less attractive and potentially more expensive as ISPs add data caps.
- Once information is “in the cloud” you lose control of it. The storage location can be affected by different international laws and you can never know if the information is truly deleted.
- If the service fails or goes out of business, your data is lost forever.
- Many of these services don't keep archived copies (they simply overwrite the older data each time) so if corruption goes unnoticed for more than one cycle, your backup may not allow you to recover your data (there are no archived backups).
- Be sure to keep a record of the necessary passwords in a secure off-site location to ensure you can access the data in case of a disaster that destroys your computer.
Many people have more than one computer in their home or office. You can backup over the network to a central location. The necessary equipment is relatively inexpensive and easy to set up.
Keep in mind that network backups offer no protection against fire, flood or theft. A server running RAID is more practical than a single drive hosted somewhere on the network because at least that provides some redundancy in case of hard drive failure (but is not in itself a backup system).
CDs & DVDs
CDs and DVDs provided adequate storage when drives were smaller and the amount of data was more suitable. Most people now have more photos, music and videos and other data than can comfortably be stored on this media (particularly CDs).
However, they still play a part in many recovery plans since they can provide a bootable platform (temporary operating system) to launch the recovery process.
Tape Drives & Iomega Zip Drives
Iomega Zip Drives (which worked on USB 1.1 unlike other devices) may provide alternatives for older legacy computers but these are largely obsolete. Tape backup drives are rare except in institutional environments.
- Evaluating Hyper-V Backup Storage Solutions, while discussing a particular product, has an excellent assessment of the various backup options and lists each method's pros and cons.
Windows Backup Software
Windows, starting with XP, has a built-in backup utility — Windows Backup — but it isn't exactly the same in all versions. Other operating systems have varying backup capabilities.
Windows 10 or 8
Windows 10 backup is in the Settings. Click on Start ⇒ Settings ⇒ Updates & Security ⇒ Backup and choose your options.
Windows 10 and 8 use File History to keep older versions of files but can read and restore Windows 7 backup files.
File History certainly isn't for everyone — some users will want third-party backup applications that can take full system backups and back up every file on their hard drives. However, Windows 8's File History backup feature is easier to use and may be more useful for the average user than Windows 7's comparatively clunky tool. — HowToGeek.
- Windows 10 tip: Create a full image backup using this hidden tool.
- How to Use Windows' File History to Back Up Your Data.
Windows 7 includes a Windows Backup program in all editions and it can be used to create backups of your files as well as system images. Windows even encourages (or should I say insists) you create a backup schedule and reminds you when you've missed the set time.
Windows 7 Backup and Restore is located in the Control Panels System and Security category. It includes a powerful wizard to set up a schedule. You can chose to let Windows determine what is best or make changes to the backup settings yourself.
With the addition of scheduling and the ability to do system images, Windows 7 Backup and Restore is a truly useful backup application.
- Back up and restore your PC (Windows 7 or Windows 8.1).
Windows Vista (Obsolete)
Windows Vistas backup utility is augmented by the Previous Versions utility which keeps shadow copies of key data in case of problems. Backup is not included in the Starter edition and Previous Versions is only available in the Professional edition.
To start Vistas backup utility, go to Start ⇒ Control Panel ⇒ Backup and Restore Center. You'll find two options: Backup Files and Backup Computer.
Windows XP (Obsolete)
Windows XP's backup utility, Windows Backup, is located here: Start ⇒ Programs (All Programs) ⇒ Accessories ⇒ System Tools ⇒ Backup. Most of Microsoft's onsite documentation for Windows XP has been removed, including that for Windows Backup.
Early versions of Windows XP's backup utility (based on the ancient Windows NT technology) could only backup to floppies or tape drives. Floppies are vastly inadequate for todays computers and tape drives are rarely installed in home computers.
By the time Microsoft released XP Service Pack 3 backup had become more flexible and capable of selecting the backup location including external USB drives.
Mac Backup Software
Mac has an excellent built-in backup utility called Time Machine.
There are third-party commercial software including Acronis True Image.
- Mac Backup Software, Hardware, and Guides for Your Mac (October 2016).
- The Best Mac Backup Software of 2018 (August 2018).
- No Excuses: 7 Free Mac Backup Apps (April 2018).
- The best backup software for Mac 2018 (July 2018).
Commercial Backup Programs
Many companies produce backup software that will work with the devices that are more likely to be on your computer:
- True Image by Acronis (recommended).
- Best backup software of 2018 — TechRadarPro.
- The Best Backup Software of 2018 — PC Magazine.
- Genie Timeline and Genie Backup Manager.
As well, many of todays larger USB drives come with backup software or will automatically create backups when plugged into your computer.
One of the features of the 6 TB Western Digital My Book that I didn't like was the missing power switch. I can understand that users may be bad at turning on and connecting the backup device when scheduled, but an always-connected device is bound to be compromised with any infection of the host computer, rendering it useless for recovery.
I also skipped installing any of their software after reading the license agreements. Acronis True Image is a much better product anyhow.
CD & DVD Software
Most CD/DVD software vendors include software that can backup your data to a CD or other media:
If software was bundled with a recent DVD recorder it should be capable of performing backups on CD or DVD media. Current operating systems usually have built-in recording capability.
Creating Images of Your Drive
Drive images allow you to recreate a working copy of an operating system including all the programs and data. This is important if you require a quick recovery such as in a business environment, but requires frequent updates to ensure that the data and programs are current.
In addition to backup software provided with your operating system, Acronis True Image is capable of creating disk images.