Evaluating your computer backup strategy

World Backup Day is March 31 — a good reminder to take a moment to think about how you’re doing your backups, and whether or not there’s something you’d like to adjust. Consider the following points:

Are you backing up all your critical files?

Some backup tools will back up everything on your computer. Others won’t backup your software programs (Microsoft Office, Evernote, TurboTax, etc.), assuming you can simply reinstall those. Some may depend on you to list exactly which files you want to back up. And you may use an entirely manual process rather than a program, which also means you need to determine the files you include in your backup.

In the final two cases, especially, be sure you’re thinking about all your important files. I’ve seen people lose extensive collections of bookmarks/favorites from their favorite browser because the relevant files weren’t backed up. (They aren’t stored in the same place as documents and photos.)

Do your backup programs fit your needs?

You may choose to run one backup program or multiple ones for added protection (one local backup and one in the cloud, for example). In either case, consider the following guidelines:

  • Make sure at least one backup program runs automatically. Everyone’s busy, and almost everyone is a bit lazy about backups. Having a program that runs automatically can save you from yourself.
  • Make sure at least one program creates an offsite backup. That usually means using a cloud backup service, but it could also involve taking a backup drive and putting it in a safe deposit box. This will protect you if there’s a theft, a fire, or some other tragedy that could affect everything in your home.
  • Make sure at least one program saves files you’ve deleted from your computer as well as older versions of files you still have. If your only backup is one that mirrors your computer as it is at the time of the last backup, you’ll be in trouble if you delete a file by mistake, make an update you didn’t want to make, or wind up with a corrupted file because of a hardware problem.
  • If having a new or repaired computer fully functional as quickly as possible is critical to you, look for a program that will create a bootable external backup drive. This means you can start your computer using an external hard drive as the data source, rather than your computer’s internal hard drive. SuperDuper and Carbon Copy Cloner are two alternatives for those using Macs, and I’ve been very happy with SuperDuper. I’m not as familiar with what’s available for those using PCs.

Do you check your backup status messages?

Programs will handle this differently, but all will provide some status indicator. For my cloud backup service, for example, I get daily emails. It’s easy to overlook these repetitive messages, but don’t do that. Take the time to make sure they aren’t alerting you to a problem.

Have you tested your backups?

As Gabe Weatherhead of MacDrifter tweeted, “A backup doesn’t count until you’ve done a restore from it at least once.”

While restoring all files for testing purposes is usually not practical, you can certainly try restoring a file or two and making sure things look okay. I knew someone who had to restore a great many files, and had never tested her backups until that time. Sadly, she found that while that files got restored, the date stamp on the files was not correct, which caused her numerous problems.

If you’re creating a bootable external backup drive, try booting from that drive and making sure everything seems to work okay.

Do you have the license keys and/or serial numbers for all your software?

In order to get your software programs reinstalled or to get them running again after you’ve restored them from a backup, you’re likely to need your license information. Do you have that information readily available? If not, gather it up now so you don’t need to scramble around for it when there’s a problem.

3 Comments for “Evaluating your computer backup strategy”

  1. posted by DebF on

    There’s a rather good program that allows you to find the license keys on your PC. https://www.magicaljellybean.com/keyfinder/. I’d suggest if you haven’t written them down, it might be worth thinking about running something like that.

    I also have trouble with trusting automated backups completely, so I often back up certain things manually to an external hard disk. I recently discovered ‘Beyond Compare 4’ http://www.scootersoftware.com/download.php, which is amazing at allowing you to copy and paste stuff, and verify that it got where it was supposed to be.

  2. posted by Jackie Pettus on

    Great advice. I’ve used Mozy, a cloud-based service, for years. It’s not expensive, but I kind of resented paying for it every year because I never needed to use it. Until this January.
    When I dutifully installed an update to my financial software it scrambled ten years worth of data. Fortunately I was able to un-install it and recover my data from the back-up service. Another tip: keep copies of your tax returns forever, not just seven years. You never know when you might need them. I recently went through a divorce and needed older tax returns. The IRS doesn’t keep copies beyond seven years, either.

  3. posted by skiptheBS on

    Test your backup after you make it. My Seagate portable hard drive has two backups on it, and their proprietary software won’t open them. Yeah-yeah-yeah, they brag on cloud backup, but I use offline backup exclusively for security reasons. Seagate’s tech support crew’s canned response was to follow the software prompts, already proven useless. Seagate also sells costly hard drive recovery, which suggests they are profiting from poor quality control.

    I’d already run a reinstall on Windows before discovering that Seagate is holding my music and docs for ransom.

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