Computer Backups

Hi, I’m Mark Klocksin, WA9IVH.  I’m the NSRC Net Director.  Last year, I took some computer classes and have recently passed a Computer Industry certification exam known as A+.  I thought it would be a good idea to share some of what I’ve learned with my fellow radio amateurs.

Accordingly, I will be authoring a series of six articles for this website.  These will be on what to do to keep Windows computers operating—and what to do when problems occur.

The topics will be:

  1. Computer Backups
  2. Routine operation and Maintenance
  3. Slow computer issues
  4. When problems happen
  5. Security issues
  6. Windows 7 special thoughts for hams/Migrating to a new computer.

This is the first article, Computer Backups.

Today, Radio Amateurs depend on their computers.  Most of us have at least one Windows computer in our hamshacks.  In fact, there are modes we operate that cannot even be implemented without a computer (e.g., PSK-31).  Many of us have successfully used our computers over the years, and maybe even feel we have some degree of computer expertise.  But if you’re like I was, you might not know about a lot of the tools Windows has to help you keep your system operating properly and to help you when your system isn’t working as well as it should.  And even if your computer has “crashed,” you should know there are things you can do that might recover your data or even allow you to restore your entire system.

As I said, this first article will be on computer backups.  It’s probably the most important topic, because if you lose your data, nothing else matters much.  So, let’s begin!

First, what is the “data”stored on your computer?  Traditionally this has been your Holiday card address list, your e-mails from friends, and possibly your tax information or Master’s Thesis.  But today, it’s also your i-Tunes library and your family photos—irreplaceable things you can’t afford to lose!  So—if you remember anything about what I have to say in this series—remember to make backups! 

Why don’t people make backups?  It usually boils down to two things—denial and complacency.   People in denial think “it can’t happen to me.”  So you get lazy and feel your computer will always work and that failures “happen to the other guy.”  Complacency occurs when you made at least one backup, but you didn’t test it to be sure it works.  So you don’t know for sure that the backups you’re creating are actually good.  Or, if they are  good, do you know how to use them?  Have you tested the backup to be sure you can restore your system when necessary? The cure for denial and complacency is to realize it can  happen to you, and to make and test backups regularly to be sure they work.  

Like many people, I have a personal story to share about data loss. (You can skip this paragraph if you’re already committed to performing regular backups.)  About 12 years ago, I felt I was well-protected because I had installed a second hard drive in my computer.  I used that second drive only for computer backups, and I did them regularly.  Well, one day I turned the computer on and…nothing happened!  I took it in for repair, and was told BOTH hard drives had burned out, probably as a result of a power “spike.”  There went my system.  I lost everything.  If only I had made a second backup to another hard drive—or even CD’s!  After that, I became a believer!  

There are a few basic principles about backing up your data.  One is to do it regularly, and another is to have multiple backups on separate media. And if one of your backup versions can be stored off-site, that’s even better.  (For example, share an external USB hard drive with a trusted neighbor, or use one of the Internet storage solutions currently available.)  All this may sound like overkill, but it isn’t!  (See the previous paragraph!) So, make a commitment to back up your computer, to back it up regularly, to back it up do different media, and if possible to store one version offsite.

Next is the decision about what software to use.  Interestingly, Windows XP Pro, Vista, and Windows 7 all have back-up software built-in, but Windows XP Home doesn’t!  But XP Home users can actually find Windows Back Up on the XP SP2/SP3 installation discs.  Instructions for installing it can be readily found on the Web.  But note: Windows XP users will need a floppy disc drive (either internal or USB).  You will create a floppy called an Automates System Recovery Disc.  If you don’t do this at the time you create a back up, you will NOT be able to restore your system later!  Other than this floppy disc issue, Windows software works well.  But many companies make software that makes the process simpler, easier, and even automated if you want.   Two good examples are Acronis and Symantec.  You may want to consider these.  Also, many external hard drives come with bundled backup software.  So you have many choices!

Next, be sure you understand exactly WHAT is being backed up: Applications, data files, and/or Windows system files.  If you want everything on your computer hard drive backed up, then look for drive imaging software.  This can be very helpful if something changes on your computer and you want to restore it to where it was at some point in the past.  I recommend you back up your entire system.  Of course, if you regularly back up your data files and you have all your discs and registration numbers, then perhaps re-creating your system “from scratch” might not be too difficult.  In that case, merely backing up your data files might be enough protection for you.  But, for many of us, re-creating our system would be difficult and time-consuming. 

Finally, consider the backup medium.  Should you install a second hard drive in your computer, use an external hard drive, store an image offsite, or back up “to the cloud”—or all of the above? 

That’s it until next month!

73, Mark WA9IVH 

© 2011 Klocksin Consulting

Mark Klocksin, WA9IVH