Backups: Why, What, and How

“You should backup your PC” is an old refrain from many years ago. It was good advice. Of course, back then that meant buying a box of floppy disks and using a backup program – MS-DOS had a (later versions had backup.exe) that could be used to make sure that if your PC crashed and wiped out or scrambled your data, you could get it back. Some people (including yours truly) actually did this; some even did it on a regular basis. Most, however, had to experience the loss of a complex spreadsheet that they had developed, or their only copy of the great American novel, or some other similarly precious digital file before they saw the real wisdom in backups.

Of course, the next piece of advice was to store the backups “off-site,” which meant taking them to the home of a trusted family member or friend, or maybe taking them to your office (or home, if it was a work backup), or, in rare cases, perhaps putting them into a safe deposit box at a bank. This was to avoid the situation of a fire, flood, or some other catastrophic event destroying your home (or office) that would also destroy your backup. Almost nobody did this. Not even me.

As hard drives became available and, more importantly, reasonably priced (my very first hard drive was a 10 megabyte (yes – 10 MEGAbyte) Plus Development HardCard, which plugged into an expansion slot in the original IBM PC, and for which I paid about $750 back in, as I recall, 1984), it took many more floppies to back up the PC. Several options were developed to make it easier, but all of them still suffered from the “it-needs-to-be-offsite-to-really-be-a-backup” problem.

Today’s cheap, multi-gigabyte hard drives, in readily available commodity PCs, coupled with digital cameras and cell phones with increasingly good cameras mean that many people – maybe even most people – have lots of photos on their PCs that they’d really hate to lose. The size of these hard drives, the number of files, and the complexity of some of their folder structures makes backing everything up a daunting task.

Still, some people do make backups. Unfortunately, many of them are using external hard drives or USB thumb drives to back up their files on a semi-regular basis (when they think about it). That is better than nothing, but those backups will still be destroyed in a fire, or they could be lost or stolen, or the device could simply fail.

So, the “why” of backups is so that you won’t lose all of your child’s baby photos or their graduation of wedding photos, or your only copy of your digital financial records, or all the work on your novel, or whatever in case your PC crashes or your hard drive fails. And this paragraph provides the “what” to back up – anything that would be difficult or impossible to recreate if it was lost, whatever that happens to be. Now, on to the “how…”

And the “how” is continuous, online (aka cloud) backup. The best-known of these it probably (I am not affiliate with Carbonite and I do not get any kickbacks from them, just so you know), but there are several other good alternatives. This type of backup is basically a set-it-up-and-forget-it approach to safeguarding your files. They are backed up either continuously or every few minutes to a remote server (likely distributed over several geographically dispersed servers), so they are protected from the local catastrophic events described above. You don’t have to remember to make the backup and you don’t spend any time on it (other then the initial setup), which means they’re really convenient. And, starting at around $6 per month, they are pretty affordable.

So, please, you should back up your PC!