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.

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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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Removable Hard Drives:

USB Hard Drive

Removable hard drives have really come into play when the USB mass storage standard went into force with the flash drives. Since the drive would work on pretty much any computer, you could tote around a huge piece of storage between many computers. The other good thing is that a hard drive should be more reliable than flash memory. It is true that a hard drive can fail abruptly due to mechanical errors that flash does not have, but generally the hard drive is much more robust in terms of erase/write cycles than their flash counterparts. You can purchase drives that store whatever the current internal hard drives store. Look for new terabyte drives to come soon. With this much space as a backup solution, you can potentially store multiple days of backups on one piece of media.

As with flash drives, you are taking an increased risk of data loss due to the media being integrated with the drive itself. Even so, a removable hard drive will provide a good backup solution incase of a failure. Also, unlike flash drives, you can really work while the drive is attached to the computer. When searching for a removable hard drive, make sure that the drive can be adequately cooled. Many removable hard drives fail due to excess heat that cannot be dissipated. Higher end units will be made of metal and will come with fans for extra cooling support. This is very important since hard drive do get very hot with high use. I also suggest that if you are going to use a removable hard drive for a backup, treat it as a backup. Do not use it as a second hard drive. Copy the data to it and unplug it. Backup media should be just that and should be ready in case of a problem with the primary location of the data. It would be terrible if you are using the drive that data is backed up on while working on the computer and a virus gets in and deletes everything. Yes, this does happen to people. This is also the reason that RAID is not a backup solution. I will go more into that later.

Iomega Rev

There have been new kinds of removable hard drive solutions that have really interested me. The Rev from Iomega is basically a hard drive in a cassette. You can treat this just as you would a hard drive, but in any event if you are backing up data, do not. The Rev drive is great for people that want a tape-like solution. You can really just leave the media in the drive. When I say media, the rev disk is basically just a hard drive platter in a case. It really is an elegant solution. The entry cost for this solution is much more than a couple of regular removable drives, but you get increased integrity.



Tape has been the best backup solution for computers that serve companies for the past 30 years and continues to this day. No other medium to date has the capacity to rival a tape cassette. There are individual tapes that hold over 1TB and even more with prices very low for the amount of space you can backup. The drawback to tape is that the reading and writing is very slow compared to any of the other backup solutions. The primary use of tape is for overnight backups of an extremely large supply of data.

Tape is generally not suited for the home or even small business use if the data size of the backup is less than a few GB. Once you are backing up more than 70GB or so, it may be beneficial to start transitioning to tape for price and integrity issues. Modern tape drives and cassettes can outlast any of the other storage medium listed in this article and is a great solution for set and forget it type backups. Pop a tape in and let the job batch up and remove it the next day and stick a fresh tape in. The simplicity is the same as a Rev drive. The difference is that a tape cannot be used for anything other than backup or restores. Rather, I should say you would not ever want to use it for other than that. Tape has no random access. If the data is on the other end of the tape, you will wait awhile to get that data you want.

Tape drive technology is beyond the scope of this article and will be presented in a follow up at a later date.

Another Computer:

Many forms of data storage fall under this category. Use of a NAS is a perfect example of backing up to another computer or device. A NAS is a network attached storage device. Most NAS builds are implemented with full blown computers, but there are some consumer grade products that can get the job done for home use. The same caveats of a removable hard drive apply plus the added burden of making sure that all this data is backed up as well.

The major point for the use of a NAS is the ease of backing data up. Instead of having to backup all the different servers and clients individually, you can force them to use the NAS for their data storage and back the NAS up in one shot. This is great for recovery if a problem happens. You can pair NAS devices together to form a SAN (storage area network). A SAN is beyond the scope of this article, but can provide a business with fault tolerant, high availability storage.

Home users that do backups to another computer on their network must also be concerned about things such as power issues and disasters such as fire. Just having data on two locations may not be enough to protect yourself if a fire hits your home. Also, during a lightning storm, both computers can be knocked down for the count and without any other backups, what are you going to do? The basic point is to make sure that you have a sane backup strategy.

Backup Strategy:

This article is really focused on the home and small business crowd. I will refrain from discussing things such as incremental or differential backups and such and stick with a normal 'copy everything' type backup.

When making a backup strategy, it is important to determine how often you want to back data up. To determine this, you have to gauge how much trouble it will be to back data up against how much of a problem if the data is lost since the last backup. A typical home user would backup things every two weeks or so. There are times when people will backup things daily in instances such as writing a term paper or other very important document. You do not want two weeks of work down the drain due to a hard drive failure.

For simplicity, we will say that a weekly backup is fine and that we will be using a combination of a removable hard drive and optical media. Since the removable hard drive is the easier way to back things up, each week you would copy all the files that you would want to keep (or are important) to the removable hard drive into a folder labeled by the date. This way you could have multiple copies of data just in case something happened during one week. Things do happen, so keeping multiple backups is important.

Now that we have the weekly backups all said and done, a backup to optical media would be a smart thing every few weeks. Perhaps every four weeks, you would burn a DVD or CD of the data you need to save. Doing this step is very important for one single reason. What if a fire happens in your house and your only backup is contained in the house? Yes, this is a problem. Placing a backup on an easily portable and inexpensive media allows you to move the backup to an offsite location. Basically, when you create the optical media backup, take the disk to work and leave it there. The chances of both buildings having disasters are fairly minimal. There are even online services that will backup your data for you, but I do not trust anyone else with my data and neither should you.

You can tweak the basic strategy to suit your needs and depending on the amount of storage space you need and the availability, you could potentially do automatic daily backups and have it become second nature. Another thing to test is restoring all the backed up data just to see how it works out. There are software programs that allow you to basically backup entire drives so you could just load up from when your last backup was. I do not suggest doing this unless you know your software (meaning OS and drivers and other stuff being critical to the computer) is functioning perfectly. Backing up the data that you need should be more than enough.


Repeat after me; RAID is not a backup solution. RAID will provide fault tolerance. A typical home computer that would use RAID would come in primarily two types: RAID 0 and RAID 1. RAID 0 (striping) provide no fault tolerance at all is only for performance use. If you are using RAID 0, chances are you are backing up your data regularly. You should be if you are not. RAID 1 (mirroring) takes two drive and basically mirrors the content on both of them. You lose half of the space you would otherwise have had. RAID 1 may seem like a backup solution because both drives contain identical copies of data on it, but it is not. I will go back to the example earlier in the article about a virus. If a virus comes in and delete files off of your RAID array, that change will be mirrored across the array and your data is now gone. RAID does not provide backup! There are many other types of RAID that will be covered in another article at a later date.

Now when your friend says that he is safe when he does not backup his data because he is using RAID, you can tell him he is wrong and why.


I hope that you appreciate how easy it is to backup that important data that you cannot afford to be without. Backing up data is often overlooked, but very important. The process can be simple if planned correctly and when done, a very important tool in your data integrity arsenal. What are you waiting for? Backup that data now!

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