Backups: What You Should Know

Aron Schatz
September 29, 2006
Backups: What You Should Know
How important is your data? Not an easy question to answer, but are you prepared to lose all that data on your computer if it died right now? Most will say no and you should read this article.

Page 1: Intro, How much?, Optical, Flash


Let me begin this article by asking a question to you, the reader; if your hard drive died right now, do you have a backup of the data that you need? Alright, let me ask you another question; How much is your data worth? Many readers are scratching their heads right now asking what that last question actually means. I will rephrase the question; how much are you willing to pay to retrieve your lost data? Most people would put the number in the $100 or around there range. Some people will go higher into the thousands, even more for people that have vital business information contained on the drive. I know of someone that paid over $10,000 to get data off of a few hard drives caught in a fire because they did not have a proper backup plan. Now that I have your attention, we can go through the options of each price level.

How much did you say?

Asking the question about how much you would pay to retrieve your lost data is your benchmark about how much to spend to make a backup plan and hardware to achieve this plan. Generally, this will cost you much less than the amount you would be willing to spend. Consider a typical home user. Generally, they would be willing to spend about $100 to retrieve lost data. With that in mind, we can go with something that would be suitable for their needs such as a DVD burner that costs less than $100. Taking this basic strategy, we can go through the different backup technology and then the backup strategy.


DVD Example

This is the most common type of home backup solution. Optical media includes CDs and DVDs. It will soon include the higher density HD and BD type disks. For now, we will stick to media that does not cost an arm and a leg. Optical media is inexpensive and the drives are just the same. Considering the quality of the drive and the type of media you use to backup is very important. When I used to work in CompUSA, many people »would ask me how good a cheap drive is and if that cheap drive is as good as a more expensive drive. Notice that I use the word cheap instead of inexpensive (The difference meaning the quality). A brand such as Hival or Iomagic is cheap while a brand such as Memorex is sometimes inexpensive. I have used Memorex drives for years and they are quality and not very expensive for the quality that you get. On the upper end of the spectrum are manufactures such as Plextor, HP, and perhaps even Sony. I will not recommend any Sony products for their use of DRM in many of their next generation products and coercive tactics against consumers. Do not bother with gimmicks such as Lightscribe or any other labeling technology. Take a Sharpie and write on the disk, plain and simple. Though, many drives do come with this new technology and can write perfectly fine on regular or even dual layer DVD disks. Do not bother buying a regular CD writer anymore; it is not worth it in the long run.

Write speeds and read speeds of the drive you consider will not be much of an issue with most drives offering 16x (for DVD) or higher write speeds today. I still do not go above 16x for CD writing because I value the integrity of my data being written on the disk and while the drives that I use support buffer-underrun protection, I would rather not take the chance. As a side note, if you are making a music CD to play in a CD player use the slowest possible burn speed. While I burn DVDs, I do use the fastest speed possible up to a reasonable time. Remember that a 16x DVD being recorded takes much more information and will complete in about 6 or 7 minutes while a 16x CD burn will take about 5 minutes. Writing to DVDs is about 9 times faster at the same 'speed' as writing to CDs.

While drive selection is very important, so is the media that you buy for your backups. Most people that plan to use optical media use a rewritable type disk of varying formats. To really break it down into simple terms, there are two types of disks that you can purchase to burn; Write once (R) and write many times (RW). The first disk type that is write once is usually termed DVD-R or DVD+R. What is the difference between + and -? Well, there were two competing standards when the DVD recording technology was being introduced and the drives became fragmented. In the past, some drives only wrote (and even could read!) one type of disk. I have two drives that only write to +R and +RW media while they can read everything else. Today, these differences are meaningless because all drives write to both standards. Why would you use write once media? For backing up, this is not the best choice unless you want to waste DVDs or keep a very large archive of DVDs by date. Write once media is for things such as movies or Linux DVDs. Things that will not be changing, ever. For backups, a DVDRW is the better choice. The media can be erased and rewritten to many times.

The quality of the media is VERY important to the integrity of your data. Do you value your data to the cheap no name brand CDs or DVDs you bought? Most cheap media will either stop working after a bit of time or just not function as well as better made disks. You will probably not need something as expensive as archival media, but a good brand such as Memorex, Fujitsu, TDK, or Verbatim would be a good choice for a disk and these disks can be had for less than $1 per disk (even better while stores have sales). Archival media is for very long storage times. There is a true purpose for this type of media such as generational storage. Would you like your grand kids to see that home movie you made today in 15 years? Archival media is your best bet. Most DVD media will have a life of a few years. The most common cause of problems is handling by people. Doing things like leaving your disks out in humid or high heat areas are very bad and will drastically shorten the life of the data being stored on the disk. Just make sure you get media that will handle itself while you are using it. Generally, you will replace media about every year with optical disks just to be on the safe side and the media is inexpensive enough to do this.

Solid State Storage (Flash):

USB Flash

Flash drives have really taken over where optical and floppy disks once roamed. Most new computer do not come with any sort of floppy drive and the USB flash drives are priced low enough to be a commodity. Most (if not all these days) people that own a computer have a USB flash drive because they use it, or »they think they would need it for some reason. Flash storage is simple and comes in varying size drives up to a huge 16GB currently and more on the horizon. These types of drives encompass the drive and the media in one device and as such are more dangerous with failures. While the erase/write cycle of a flash drive far exceeds a typical optical media (optical disks typical top at about 1000 rewrite cycles) at 500,000 rewrite cycles. Flash storage, when treated well, lasts nearly forever. I still use a three year old 128MB flash drive daily and there are no bad sectors detected in the storage yet. I say yet because in time there will be. There are many people that do not treat there flash drives well and really increase the chance of early failure. The common cause is using the flash drive as a hard drive type storage device and it is surely not to be used in this way. A few people complained to me that the one file they were working on was corrupted after using it for months. In reality the filesystem should handle this type of problem, but it does show that if you are constantly writing over and over to the same area on the flash storage, it will fail quicker. In some extreme cases, some people were using their drive to do big work on them and they failed quickly while programs continued to write information to the device.

Use your flash drive as removable storage for best results. When you want to store something on your drive, plug it in and then copy the data to the drive. Now remove the drive and be done with it. Do not start working from the USB drive itself. This is not the only cause of failure for the drive. I have seen the electronic part of the USB drive fail and stop being recognized by a computer. This is very unfortunate because most computer shops will not know how to handle a situation like this and they really should not bother since there is a bit of work involved to rescue a device in this situation. Flash storage is great for transporting files, but should not be used as your ONLY backup source.


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