What is the best personal data backup scheme?
March 24, 2009 12:06 PM   Subscribe

My data backup procedure is in shambles. What is the best personal data backup scheme to protect my data?

My data backup procedure is in shambles, which is partly my fault and partly some ongoing hardware issues. I'll do my best to detail the issues. I've gone through Ask MeFi but I can't find a recent, definitive answer.

I've got a Windows XP desktop, which is the only reliable computer in the house. I've attached two identical external hard drives, each 500 GB. Until now, we've (Mrs. burnfirewalls and I) been saving everything important to one of the external hard drives, and then I manually copy all of that over to the second hard drive once a week or so.

This provides no data redundancy, in the case that the files on the first drive get corrupted.

The backup is also dependent on the operator (me) not being lazy.

Compounding the problem is that my computer will routinely not recognize the USB drives - every other time my computer is booted, it hangs in BIOS loading until I unplug the drives, and I have to then unplug and replug the power cords on the USB hard drives after Windows is booted. I also have issues with other USB devices. If I don't plug my printer into the exact same USB port every time, it re-installs the drivers. The two issues may not be related, but I wanted to include relevant details and not jump to conclusions.

I also need to retrieve the files off of three old devices - an unreliable Sony Vaio laptop, an old external hard drive, and an old internal hard drive - and incorporate the files into my backup. This is not a major issue since I have external hard drives, but, again, I want to lay out the whole problem.

The things that I absolutely need to protect from hard drive failure, file corruption, and my apartment building setting on fire are my personal photos/videos, my writing, my wife's project folder, and our website backups. Commercial music, videos, and all that shit is much, much less of a priority.

So, in short, what are your recommendations for automatic backup software (points if it doesn't require me to use said backup software to retrieve files later), offsite backups, and anything else that will keep my data safe?

Money's not a huge obstacle if it means an end to my anxiety over this!
posted by burnfirewalls to Computers & Internet (21 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
I've been happy with Mozy for offsite backup, and I've successfully used it to restore lost files.
posted by zeoslap at 12:17 PM on March 24, 2009

Carbonite or Mozy. Get your data backed up and off site for a pretty cheap monthly subscription.
posted by jenkinsEar at 12:18 PM on March 24, 2009

Mozy or JungleDisk
posted by iamabot at 12:19 PM on March 24, 2009

Maybe this will help.
posted by tdreyer at 12:19 PM on March 24, 2009

posted by trotter at 12:23 PM on March 24, 2009

You might look into a Windows Home Server (one example would be the HP Media Smart, which I have).

If you have all Windows PCs in your house, the thing is fantastic. The backup software runs on the client machines each night and gives you a snapshot of your machine you can restore to at any time, you even get a CD your machine can boot off of to restore a backup from. It's smart enough to only back up one copy of each file so even if the file exists on more than one machine. It really is a great fire and forget backup solution.

Windows Home Server doesn't use the traditional RAID model, instead you make a bunch of different shares and can set each one to be duplicated (content is mirrored across two drives) or not. For example, I duplicate my pictures share but not my MP3 share because worst case I can re-rip all my CDs.

People have also written plugins to back up stuff from WHS to the cloud, there's a pretty good community starting up around add ins for Windows Home Server.

You also get some nice features like remote access to your systems and remote file sharing, if you care.

I've been running Windows Home Server since the before the beta and it really is a great piece of software, you should take a look at the offerings there.
posted by mge at 12:25 PM on March 24, 2009

Don't backup 'everything important'. Back up everything. Big hard drives are cheap, time spent deciding what passes the 'important' test is not. Buy two or three of the same type and size. If you have more than a terabyte of data on your desktop machine, then you can start excluding stuff.

If you're having trouble with USB, stick a hot swappable drive caddy in a 5.25in drive slot (IDE or SATA depending on what your PC supports). Clone your desktop box. Or if you're feeling brave, buy a castoff PC that's not too old, bung a big hard drive in it, and run OpenFiler with backups over the local network.
posted by holgate at 12:27 PM on March 24, 2009

Seconding Jungle Disk for offsite backup. Just be sure to keep a copy of your Amazon S3 keys somewhere offsite, so if you do have to restore after a total loss, you'll be able to access your stored data.

I'm in a Mac household and we use Time Machine and a Time Capsule for automatic backup over WiFi. We used to use an old notebook as a Retrospect server. Perhaps that would work for your local backup.
posted by brianogilvie at 12:31 PM on March 24, 2009

as a side note, your USB issues may just require more patience. The larger the USB drive, the longer it seems to take windows to recognize it fully during the bootup process. On my machine with 4 1-tb external drives, it takes a good 30-45 mins to boot up with all the drives plugged in.

also, nthing the mozy recommend. I've been using them for about 6 months now, and in spite of my woefully slow uploads speeds (thanx comcast!), they have managed to keep things sync'd up, though the initial backup took forever.
posted by nomisxid at 12:47 PM on March 24, 2009

SyncBack is pretty good. There's a free version (SyncBack Freeware) and a pay version (SyncBack SE). I used the free version for a few years w/o any issues. You don't need any special tools to restore your backups, just pick a common compression format. It uses Windows own scheduler to handle automation, and it supports FTP for offsite backups.

I'm with holgate and selective backups will leave you miserable eventually. At a minimum, I'd backup up the entire My Documents folder.

LifeHacker has a good article on this very topic.
posted by wheat at 12:47 PM on March 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Well, if the consensus is "back everything up" then so shall it be. I have enough room to handle it. What about verifying data integrity? Is there a more systematic or thorough way besides opening up three or four files at random?
posted by burnfirewalls at 12:57 PM on March 24, 2009

Definitely go for a combination of a full hard-disk-based backup (the various 'home server' appliances are well worth considering) and an online backup service (omitting really large media files if it's not feasible to upload them).

It's also handy to occasionally take a bootable snapshot of your main machine's hard drive so you can get up and running quickly if it gets trashed (on my Mac I use SuperDuper for this).
posted by malevolent at 2:27 PM on March 24, 2009

hangs in BIOS loading until I unplug the drives

Thats because your BIOS is trying to boot from USB. Set your boot order so that USB booting is the last option.

If I don't plug my printer into the exact same USB port every time, it re-installs the drivers.

Thats a feature not a bug. Windows is supposed to do this.

Well, if the consensus is "back everything up" then so shall it be.

That may not be the best strategy if you use Jungledisk or Mozy, as media files add up to quite a bit in size.

I've attached two identical external hard drives, each 500 GB.

Id buy a cheap RAID1 card and put those hard drives inside the computer. Now you have a RAID1 array that will insure you against disk loss. Make sure your case has appropriate cooling. You can automate copies using xcopy and a batch file and the windows schedular (google about this or if you have XP pro you can use the built in backup tool). Once thats set you would use Mozy or whatever for your offsite backup.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:40 PM on March 24, 2009

You might find rsync helpful - it's a program that scans a directory tree and copies everything over to another directory (potentially on another computer). On subsequent syncs, only the pieces of files that have changed are copied. It's very fast. (It has a lot of options, but "rsync -a from to" should mostly do the right thing. You'll need to grab the Windows version, cwRsync.)

I run it automatically every night to copy stuff onto a second hard drive, and my important stuff (which is, by and large, small text files - I'm a programmer) is in version control and copied remotely.

The most important part is to set up something automatic, though - you probably won't always remember to run your backup stuff frequently enough.
posted by silentbicycle at 4:31 PM on March 24, 2009

rsync is fantastic, but to really get the most out of it you'll need a Unix server to sync to. On a system that can do hard links, you can create "rolling backups" that look like complete snapshots of your files. The "2008-03-07" directory is an exact copy of your files as they looked on the 7th, likewise for the 2008-03-06 directory, etc. But since rsync can automatically use hard links and only create new copies of the files that change, storing 30 snapshots of the 100GB you needed to backup probably still only fills up 200GB.
posted by roystgnr at 4:52 PM on March 24, 2009

Definitely go with something like Carbonite or Mozy for the stuff you can't stand to lose in case of fire, water, theft, etc. I prefer Carbonite to Mozy, I think its quicker, and I like its integration with explorer, but you need to be careful that if you select a directory for backup that the files in that are actually selected for backup (by default it excludes certain file types, such as drivers).

I use Carbonite for such files, and keep a mirror of each harddrive I have in a fire safe box. About once a week I update the mirrors. Still dependent on not being lazy, but at least you have Carbonite as a second backup.
posted by miscbuff at 5:31 PM on March 24, 2009

+1 Syncback SE.

a) You can set it up to store versions so that if a file gets corrupted, you can go back to a previous version. Do this for the essentials - such as password lists.

b) It can verify data integrity by re-reading both the source & destination files.

Get a network drive & put it in another room. If it can be password protected (Syncback can fill in the password) so much the better for protecting you from viruses etc. Also it'll solve the shaky USB problem - who knows what's causing that & I'd hate to hear from you 6 months from now when you pronounce both USB drives dead because they were attached to the computer.

Then go for a Mozy/Jungledisk/Carbonite option for off-site stuff.

This is very close to my setup & I've chugged through two total computer failures (the computer won't boot, I bought a new one & gave the old one away) in the past 5 years.
posted by MesoFilter at 10:03 PM on March 24, 2009

Nthing Mozy.
posted by dmd at 8:56 AM on March 25, 2009

See my approach in this related question.

Unrelated, but very important: If any of your hard disks are Seagates, be careful -- there's a bad batch out there. See here.
posted by Simon Barclay at 9:12 AM on March 25, 2009

I do not recommend Mozy. After paying for it for a year, I used it to transfer files from a failing computer to a new one. I found that it transferred nothing from my itunes folder, and EVERYTHING else I had ever downloaded and then deleted. This was less than useless.

It is possible that I configured Mozy incorrectly, although I took care when doing so.

Extra points off for the website very successfully hiding how to cancel online. I had the usual annoying experience with offshore support and then received a series of canned e-mails, causing me to doubt whether the cancellation had happened.
posted by Lizzle at 1:39 PM on March 25, 2009

Extra points off for the website very successfully hiding how to cancel online.


My Profile → Delete Account
posted by dmd at 8:31 AM on March 26, 2009

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