Thinking About PC Backup Strategies

When it comes to PC backup, one size doesn’t fit all. Not only does the built-in backup functionality in Windows vary—sometimes wildly—from version to version, but users’ needs and wants vary. With that in mind, and guided by your feedback, I’d like to start thinking about—and then writing—a series about PC backup. Here’s where my head is at right now.

While I’m generally not a fan of technical people micro-managing and over-thinking everything on their PCs—it’s fair to say that backup is one area where one might make the argument that it’s not possible to be overly-compulsive. Indeed, it’s equally fair to point out that far too many people don’t backup at all, or assume their valuable data is being backed up when it’s not.

Whatever. Backups are important.

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And if you’re going to trust your personal memories—photo collections, personal videos, and perhaps scanned cards and other personal documents—and/or important work data to digital solutions, you need to be sure that none of it is going to disappear instantly because of a catastrophic event like a fire, a theft, or other mishap.

So whatever backup regimen you follow, you should achieve at least all three of the following:

Backup. Your important data should be backed up locally so that you can access it immediately. Locally means to a second hard drive in your PC, an external USB 3.0 hard disk (or whatever), or a network location (another PC on your home network, a home server, or a NAS).

Off-site backup. In addition to your local backup—and, please, read that again: in addition to your local backup—your important data should be backed up to an offsite location. Today, in 2015, that means to the cloud.

Automatic. Both backup types should be automatic. You set it and forget it, and if you’re lucky you never need any of it. Hint: you won’t always be lucky.

I’ve been following these general guidelines for many years, though of course technology changes—in particular, more recently syncing capabilities—have triggered some rethinking.

In the very early days of the 1990s, I used to back up to tape drives and ZIP discs, and the notion of offsite backup—and, usually, any automation—was just a dream.

By the time optical discs became common, I shifted in turn to CD-R and then various writeable DVD formats. Here, there was not automation but I was able to achieve a non-regular form of off-site backup by bringing duplicate disc backup sets to my parent’s home, which was convenient since they lived in the same town.

Then, in late 2004—over 10 years ago—I purchased two LaCie 1 TB Bigger Disks in an effort to simplify matters a bit. These devices were enormous and heavy, and at $1000 each they were quite expensive. Oddly, they were also based on Firewire 800, which never took off in the Windows world, but I had purchased an adapter card so I could use them with my Windows Server. Backup back then was ponderous, but simple: Each week I would manually copy my Server-based data set to one of the Bigger Disks. And then I would bring it to my parent’s house, swapping it out for the other Bigger Disk. So one backup set would always be here in the house (the backup). And one would be at my parent’s house (the off-site backup).

Implicit in that scheme was that I was using a Windows Server-based PC as the center, so to speak of my home network. I still have such a machine in the cellar, though over the years I’ve migrated across mainstream Windows Server versions to Windows Home Server (all versions) and then Windows Server 2012 Essentials most recently. I don’t recall the exact timeline for any of that, but during this ten years-ish time period, another change occurred.

The cloud.

Without getting into the mess of Microsoft’s slow evolution/devolution from Live Mesh to a bunch of other stuff to OneDrive, let’s just say that OneDrive—and services like it—have transformed PC backups instituting a real change in how we might do things. Not everyone will do so—some will simply stick with tried-and-true traditional backup methods.

I’m going to write about all this. And my own backup strategy is always open to future changes. (Indeed, I’ll be testing a Western Digital NAS solution—one possibility for replacing my aging Windows Server—starting in a few days.)

But here’s what I do now.

I don’t back up individual PCs at all. Part of this is because I’m always testing new PCs and devices, and moving from machine to machine. But that’s an excuse, not a reason: even if I intended to use just a single PC going forward, I wouldn’t back it up using traditional means. And that’s because my ongoing work data is synced to the cloud using OneDrive, and my most important personal data—those photos and personal videos—are copied to the home server and backed up from there. (More on that in a moment.)

For me, a PC is a clean slate on which I install the OS and the applications, and all of the data that is on there is either synced to OneDrive—using methods similar to that described in OneDrive Tip: Use Documents and Other Libraries with OneDrive—or moved off to the home server. I get work done and I move on. If that PC is lost or stolen or wiped out, no worries: my data is synced or already offloaded. The master copy of no data is on any PC for any amount of time, ever.

The coming changes to OneDrive sync in Windows 10 are of course troubling. You can read all about it in What to Expect from OneDrive in 2015, but long story short the wonderful sync client from Windows 8.1 is going away. That’s a shame, and it complicates—but doesn’t change—my plans. I will deal with this issue more as Windows 10 evolves this year. For now, understand that this is top of mind for me.

So, the home server.

Today’s “home server”—this could be a beefy PC, an actual server, a NAS, or whatever—is an HP Microserver running Windows Server 2012 Essentials, which is a sort-of successor to Windows Home Server. This machine is bursting with storage: There are three 3 TB internal hard disks in there (with the system drive) and three 3 TB external discs too, and it’s a mess. Across these disks, I’m doing what I believe to be a good practices backup strategy:

First, I’m using Storage Spaces to ensure that my most critical data—documents, photos and personal videos, but not music or commercial videos—are replicated across two physical disks to help with potential hardware failures. That’s your basic redundancy.

I’m also performing local backup of that same critical data only, using Server Backup (part of Windows Server) to an external hard disk.

And I’m performing automatic cloud backup of the whole thing to CrashPlan for offsite backup. Crashplan explicitly supported Essentials when I installed it, but my understanding is that the firm has since backed off that support. It works, and while this isn’t the reason I’m looking past the home server (performance is the big one), it’s a reason.

(With OneDrive offering Office 365 subscribers unlimited storage, I’ve been experimenting with using OneDrive for what I think of as deep archive backups, which are mostly documents from the past that take up a ton of space but will never/rarely be accessed. There’s no efficient way to move stuff from the home server to OneDrive, but I’ll write about that as well as part of this series.)

For me, this system works. Others may store more and more important data on their PCs and will want to use more traditional backup solutions, either what’s built into Windows or a third party solution. I’ll try to cover all the bases moving forward. There are a lot of pieces, a lot of possibilities.

In the meantime, I’m curious what you think about all this of course. And I’m particularly interested in how you handle this most important but unglamorous part of our personal computing regimen. Let me know what you think.

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