Results from our Five Minute Healthcheck suggest indicate that most respondents do backup their computers at least once a month. Even better, they have successfully recovered data from the backup.  Before putting a tick in the box and moving on, can I ask a supplementary question:

If your computer was lost, stolen or broken, could you recover?

There are two key points here:Some disasters need more than just a backup...

  • Does your backup include operating system and program files?
  • Are all your data files covered?

A substantial chunk of the space on your machine is taken up with operating system and program files. These do not change, except when the system is updated or new software is installed.  For this reason many backup systems do not include them.  After all, you can reinstall them so you do not really need a backup… This assumes you know what is installed on your machine, have the media/ access to the downloads and all the licence keys.  You will also need time and patience to do all the installation and rebooting required.

The alternative, on a Windows machine, is to take a system image.  This is a snapshot of your machine’s entire content at a given point.  You can restore this and then restore your more recent data files from your backup. Ensure that your system image backup is replaced periodically so it reflects your current installation. Even if you are backing up everything, the use of a system image in a Windows environment is safer as it reduces the chances of problems caused by inconsistencies in the registry.

Apple’s Time Machine takes the other approach and routinely backs up everything. This makes it easier to restore your machine to a point in time.  It does not have a registry to worry about.

What about the data?

Keep installation files and licence keys in a safe placeIf you have just followed a backup wizard without reading the small print, you might find that your backup is not as complete as you think. Before setting and forgetting, you need to check what is actually included. Some backup systems assume that you only store files in My Documents. Others will limit the backup by reference to a file’s extension. If you have installed any software which is not bog standard Windows Office, check. Some applications insist on storing data in a directory on C, while others put data files in the hidden \Appdata\ directory.  Check for file extensions too. I had to add the 2010 MS Access extensions to my backup list.

Once you have adjusted the backup settings to include all the relevant files, let it run and then check that your key files are in the backup set. Better still, do a test restore.

Do I need dated backups?

The simplest, most space efficient form of backup only gives you access to the latest backed up version of your file.  This is what you need to recover from a computer failure. The other reason for backing up is to recover from “finger trouble” – the accidental overwriting of a file.  Apple Time Machine has this covered with hourly backups, providing you switch your backup device on. Windows 8 has introduced File History which purports to have similar functionality, building on Windows 7 backup which can be set up with a daily cycle. There is also third party software which can do the same thing.

The downside of dated backup is the space requirement – particularly if you spend a lot of time changing large files. Note also that backups that run in the background may skip open files. Make sure you have these files closed for long enough to be backed up – over a coffee break perhaps.

Just remember

Set alerts on your backups!Although backups are best done by software that you “set and forget”, it is worth periodically reviewing the situation as things can change:

  • Is it time to make another system image?
  • Is all my data still covered?
  • Do I have enough space?

Finally, make sure that your backup is set so it alerts you to problems. Failure messages in a log file no one looks at are no use at all.