The Importance of Backup Systems — Part 2

By Ronald Pacchiano | Posted May 02, 2006

In part I of our look at backup practices, we discussed the importance of keeping a regular schedule. In Part 2, we'll show you how to do that by reviewing some of today's popular backup mediums. We'll also take a look at various software packages for automating this important task.

For years, whenever anyone needed to backup large quantities of data, they almost inevitably turned to tape drives. There were a variety of reasons for this. For starters, tape cartridges were fairly inexpensive, had a long shelf life, were easily transportable for off-site storage and could be purchased in a wide range of sizes.

Despite these benefits, tape drives did have one major drawback. While the tapes were affordable, the drives themselves could be quite expensive. For large companies, this wasn't much of a concern. However, for small businesses and home users in particular, this proved to be a deterrent. Ironically, this situation hasn't changed all that much today. High-speed DLT, LTO and DAT/DDS tape drives from companies like HP and Quantum still provide highly reliable and fast backup solutions, but their cost still keeps them out of the reach of many small office and home users.

Fortunately, today we have a variety of other options available that make backing up, transporting and storing our data easier and, in many cases, quicker than ever before. Let's take a look at some of the more popular ones aimed specifically at home and small networks.

The Hardware
For backing up relatively small amounts of data, a quick and convenient medium is a USB flash drive. These are small key-chain sized hard drives, ranging in capacities from 128MB to more than 4GB. Due to their size, these obviously won't be large enough to back up your entire system, but one should be able to easily handle the average "My Documents" folder. These will cost you anywhere between $30 and $200.

A more cost-effective backup solution is one that most of us already own: the CD or DVD burner built into most new computers. CD and DVD media is cheap and have very good storage capacities. CDs can hold approximately 800MB of data, while DVDs can support almost 5GB. If that's not enough, new generation dual-layer DVD burners can hold more than 8GB of data at a cost of less than $5 a disk. The only down side to the CD/DVD solution is that writing large amounts of data to the disk could take a while to complete. Yet for the price, it's a fair trade off.

If you have to contend with large data capacities, but still want to be able to easily move backups to off-site storage, then you might want to take a look at an Iomega REV Drive. The Iomega REV is a removable hard disk, similar to a Zip disk, but it has the capacity to hold 35GB of data on a rugged and compact disk. And like a hard drive, data can be added, deleted or edited quickly and easily. Plus they have an estimated 30-year shelf life, which makes them excellent for long-term storage. This is a particularly good option for small business owners.

If you're looking to backup your entire system, then one of simplest backup methods on the market comes from Maxtor in the form of its One Touch family of external hard drives. These drives attach directly to your system via a USB 2.0 or Firewire connection. Pressing a single button on the front of the drive initiates the backup process, which will then backup everything on the local drives, including Internet favorites, address books, My Documents folders, Outlook Express mail folders, operating system folders, applications and more. Best of all, it works without complex menus or commands.

While this is a good solution for an individual, you can expand upon this concept using a Network Attached Storage device (NAS). This is similar to an external hard drive, but instead of attaching it to an individual PC, the NAS device is connected to a network switch. This makes the additional storage available to all network users and backup applications.

NAS Servers provide a simple solution to protect manage and share your critical information. In fact, since the cost of NAS devices have dropped considerably in recent years and their storage sizes have grown so rapidly, they are quickly becoming the standard for data backups in small businesses. There are numerous reasons for this. For starters, tapes read data sequentially, so restoring data from tape could be a very time-consuming process.

NAS devices are made up of hard drives that search for data randomly and are thus much, much quicker. In addition, because NAS devices are always online, backed up data is always available for review. Whereas with tape, the proper tape first needs to be found and loaded into the tape drive before any data could be restored. You can take a look at some NAS products PracticallyNetworked has reviewed here.

The Software
Once you've decided which backup medium best suits your needs, you'll need to find software that automates the backup process for you. This way you won't need to remember to do it yourself and you'll be assured that you have a reliable backup when you need it. Numerous options available exist, so let's take a look a few them.

FolderWatch is a simple application that lets you automatically backup specific folders on your system to another location such as a USB flash drive, a second hard drive or even a network drive. FolderWatch does this by monitoring a given number of folders on your hard drive such as your Windows folder or your My Documents folder. It will continue to poll these as long as the computer is on. Any time a change is detected, no matter how minute, Folder Watch automatically makes a backup copy and places it in a designated folder. Best of all, this is performed seamlessly in the background while you work. There are no programs to launch or extra buttons to push.

The FolderWatch approach is good for a limited amount of data, but for a more traditional and regular backup, you may want to look into a full-featured backup application. There are tons of backup applications out there, many of which are inexpensive. For example, applications such as Second Copy and Backup4All can automatically backup your data files to a local or network drive, USB and flash drives, CD/DVD discs and remote servers over the Internet.

Some products take it a step further and offer the added capability to perform image-based backups. To that end, Norton Ghost 10 does a good job of handling not only regularly scheduled backups, but also performs an image backup of your entire system. The advantage here is that in the event of a hard drive failure, you can use this image to rebuild your system onto a fresh hard drive in about a tenth of the time it would take to restore it without it. It's a true lifesaver.

Another option gaining in popularity is online backups. With an online backup, you're essentially transferring your data to a storage server somewhere on the Internet. The biggest advantage to this type of system is that you never have to carry any data with you, minimizing the chances of it being lost or damaged. The data resides on a secure server that you can access from any PC with an Internet connection. The only real limitation here is the speed of your broadband connection. Depending on the amount of data you need to backup, the process could take some time. On the plus side, though, once your data has been uploaded, it is safe from fire, theft or any other typical hazard.

Many online backup services are available and the costs vary depending on the amount of storage space you need. One of the more popular services available is offered by iBackup for Windows.

If you're using a tape drive for your backups, you'll need to use an application that supports it. Unfortunately, the ones mentioned above don't. In that situation, you'll need to use a higher-end (and more expensive) package such as BackupAssist or Symantec Backup Exec. BackupAssist is better suited for home and small office use, whereas Backup Exec is aimed more toward larger organizations and has additional support for SQL and Exchange servers.

If you run a small business and need the capabilities of a Backup Exec, but don't want to spend the money, take look at UltraBac software. Prices vary depending on the features you need, but all the important stuff should cost you about $1,000. It doesn't have the most intuitive interface, but its wizard-based to help ease the pain, and once it's setup it's rock solid. The greatest thing about this application is its disaster-recovery capabilities.

Unlike other disaster-recovery products, which are often convoluted and usually fail miserably when you need them, UltraBac can perform an image backup on the server (similar to a Ghost image). In the event of a server failure, you need only insert the universal UBDR Pro CD, boot the machine and start the wizard to initiate a restore of an image backup with just a few clicks of the mouse. No advance setup is required. After restoring from a snapshot, your system will be 100 percent recovered. (We've have had to take advantage of this feature on one or two occasions, and the program is well worth the investment.)

With all of the options available for you to backup your systems, there is no excuse for you not to be doing it. And the first time you suffer a system failure due to data corruption, virus and spyware attacks, theft or hardware failure, you'll be happy you did. Remember, everything can be replaced — everything, that is, except your data. Be sure to protect it.

Adapted from PracticallyNetworked.com, part of the EarthWeb.com Network.

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