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Getting Started: A Guide to Data Backup

Don't risk losing data to theft, disaster or human error. Play it smart and back it up. We take a look at the basic options.

By Sally Curran

Some things in life you simply can't afford to lose, and when it comes to your business, data should be at the top of the list. Sales records, tax information and other sensitive data are vital to a business' long-term success. Losing data could have severe implications – up to and including losing your business for good.  Backing up data protects you from all sorts of harm, including human error, Mother Nature and hardware failure.

What's That Term?

Not sure what a particular networking term means? Check out our searchable glossary.
 

The Basics
In the most fundamental terms, a data backup is a copy of a file. You create it in case the original is lost or destroyed. Too many people figure that disaster will never fall into their laps. The longer you tempt fate, though, the chance that something dire will happen increases. Backing up data is admittedly a mundane task, and you might think you have bigger fish to fry, but once you have a backup schedule in place, it really doesn't take much time to maintain.

Take Inventory
One of the first orders of business is determining exactly what information you need to back up. This essentially comes down to deciding what you (and your business) can afford to lose. Of course, there's no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but financial records, customer lists and vendor contacts are obvious places to start. Beyond that, though, the list is highly individualized. You must determine how much data you'd be able (and willing) to re-create. And it's smart to err on the side of backing up too much: Depending on the situation, years of work can disappear in a heartbeat.

More Than Vanilla and Chocolate
There are four main flavors of backups: full/initial, incremental, differential and selective. Each is useful and applicable in its own right. However, the particular kinds of backups available to you will likely depend on the backup software you have.

A full backup consists of a copy of your entire system; typical components include all of your data, applications, drivers, settings and your operating system. Of the four types of backups, this one takes the longest to create, but it has the distinct benefit of restoring your system to its exact state at the time you created it.

Incremental and differential backups are similar to one another; both make copies of only the files that have changed since the last time you ran your backup schedule. The main difference between the two is that differential backups do not indicate which files have changed and therefore grow bigger and bigger. Because incremental and differential backups don't copy each and every file on your system, you'll find that they generally take less time to create (and less time to restore).

For the average small business owner, incremental backups are the best option: They're easier to deal with than their differential counterparts. Windows XP and Vista include system tools that let you schedule automatic data backups to suit your needs: hourly, daily or weekly.

Last, but certainly not least, come selective backups. In this case, you manually select the files you'd like to back up at a given point.

When starting a new backup routine, your first step is to make a full backup. This is especially true if your computer came preinstalled with an operating system (OS) and other software applications. Many PC manufacturers do not include the software discs, and you'll need the backed-up applications to re-create your system should disaster strike.

You'll also want to create a startup disk for your operating system. If your operating system goes belly up, your computer won't be able to boot—a startup disk will get your system running. The process for creating such a disk varies from OS to OS, but your PC's help files will guide you.

After you have the full backup in the bag, you'll most likely want to switch to incremental backups. It really comes down to how much storage space you have, as well as how much time you have to back up your system.

Build A Backup Arsenal
To create an efficient and worthwhile backup scheme, you'll need a few tools in your belt. On the software end of things, you'll find a wide variety of backup software on the market. NTI Backup NOW 5 Deluxe Suite ($49.99) and Acronis True Image 11 Home ($49.99) are both sophisticated enough to get the job done, while remaining simple enough for the uninitiated. Many external USB hard drives (discussed below) come bundled with decent backup software.

The hardware department offers myriad options. External USB hard drives are aptly suited for this task. They're easy to install (simply plug the drive into an empty USB port), and it's a simple matter to move a USB among multiple computers. Furthermore, they're speedy and a breeze to use. Seagate's Maxtor OneTouch 4 Plus (price varies depending on capacity) and Iomega's Silver Series Professional Hard Drive (price varies depending on capacity) are both solid performers.

Next comes optical media. CDs and DVDs are good, reliable options that can quickly and cheaply back up a lot of data. An ordinary CD can store 650MB a single-sided, single-layer DVD can hold 4.7GB while a single-sided, double-layer DVD can hold 8.5GB. Flash drives, often called thumb drives due to their similar size, are also convenient for quick backups and have the added benefit of extreme portability. Capacities range from less than a 1GB to as much as 16GB. Note: USB flash drives aren't intended to act as your sole means of data backup. They're handy for moving large files, but don't forgo a main backup plan.

Remember: After you create your backup, make sure it actually works. Ensure that the files made it to the external drive or DVD disc. A backup of files that won't open only adds insult to injury.

Online Backup
Commonsense dictates that you have two backups of your data: one to keep onsite and the second that you keep at a different location. This belt-and-suspenders approach gives you a full backup of your data in the event that disaster befalls the data at your office.

A simple way to keep an offsite copy of your data is to use one of the many online data backup services such as Mozy.com, Imation's DataGuard Vault or Backup.com. These types of services automatically secure and transfer your data to an offsite data center. Typically, these services provide state-of-the-art security – and offer far more protection than a small business could provide for itself.

Play It Safe
Losing data is a risk we all take when we rely on technology. But the loss of data doesn't have to mean catastrophe. With a bit of preparation and foresight, should you be beset by disaster, you'll have all of your precious data back in no time.

Article courtesy of SmallBusinessComputing.com

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