Computer Backup for Home Users

March 31st is World Backup Day, a day that some folks have set up to remind everyone to back up their computer data. And it’s worth taking time to think about it, because at some point, you ARE going to lose data. Computer storage will inevitably fail, and the time to plan for that failure is the moment you start saving anything on your computer — pictures, tax documents, emails, contacts, or anything else that you don’t want to lose.

“But backups are really complex!” Well, they have been in the past, but new products and technologies make it much easier to protect your data without risking your sanity! The best solutions will cost you something, but there are some really inexpensive or free ways to get the job done.

Normally, I’d run down some options, and then give my recommendations at the end. This time, though, I’m going to start by laying out my preferred recommendation for a long-term backup strategy. Then I’ll give you some intermediate steps to get you backing things up now, with an eye to moving to that strategy.

The Best Way to Backup

The most effective solution is to have both a local and a remote backup, managed by software that does both continuously through the day. Why both local and remote? A local backup can be made quickly, and restored quickly, but since it’s right next to your original data, it’s subject to the same risks (theft, flood, fire, etc) that the original data is. A remote backup is physically isolated from your original data, but it is slower to backup and restore. The combination of the two gives you the most security and flexibility.

So — how do you do this? I recommend Code42’s CrashPlan software, and specifically their CrashPlan+ Unlimited service. For just under $3.00 a month (if you buy four years of service, as of this writing), you can backup everything on a single computer to both a local and remote location. CrashPlan hosts backup servers at their secure data centers, on high-availability networks, so you can always retrieve your files when you need to. You can even access those files using your smartphone, using custom applications for iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. Plus, you can backup to an external hard drive, with the same software, and with just a few more clicks in the setup.

The CrashPlan software is available for Mac OS X and Windows (and even Linux!), and using it is pretty simple. Install it, and it will prompt you through the process of creating an account with CrashPlan (which is used to identify your data if you need to restore it to a different location), selecting what files and folders to back up, and the destination for those backups. From there, the program works in the background, and you’ll rarely notice that it’s even there.

CrashPlan also maintains multiple versions of files, in case you need to go back to an earlier version of that budget spreadsheet, or recover the original of a digital photo that you edited.

(Note: I am not sponsored or compensated by CrashPlan or Code42. In fact, I’m a paying customer, with no agenda other than giving you information about a very good product)

If you have more than one computer in your home (and an increasing number of us do!), then consider CrashPlan+ Family Unlimited. The cost for a four-year service agreement comes to just under $6 a month, and covers up to ten computers. The other advantage of the Family Unlimited package is that you can also back up from one computer to another within your home network. With this feature, you can add a huge hard drive or two to one system, and have all the other computers run their CrashPlan backups to it. Combining this with the remote backup for all of your systems, and you’ve got a great setup!

There are several other great online backup services, such as Carbonite, Mozy, Backblaze, and SpiderOak,just to name a few. The prices and features vary a bit, so shop around. It seems to me that CrashPlan has the best features AND the best prices. Even if you pay month-to-month, their Unlimited plan is just $5.00 a month, and the Family Unlimited plan is $12.00 a month.

Let’s Dial It Back a Bit

If the costs of the CrashPlan services seem a little high to you, there are some options that are less expensive.

If you’re not the kind of person who saves a lot of pictures, music, or videos on your computer, then you probably aren’t using that much space on your computer. I know a few people whose entire collection of electronic data would fit on a single DVD! For these folks, the CrashPlan+ account will give you 10 GB of online space, for under $1.50 a month (again, if you buy a four-year plan — it’s $2.50 month-to-month). The software works exactly the same, it just limits how much space you get.

If you just don’t want to spend any money on an online backup service, CrashPlan has a solution for you, as well. Can you say, “Free?” Without paying a dime, you can download and use their software to backup to an external drive, or to another computer on your network, or even to a friend’s computer across the Internet! All you and your friend need is the CrashPlan software, enough extra space so that you can share it with them, and a reasonably fast Internet connection. You exchange the codes that the software generates for you, and your friend’s computer shows up as a backup destination for you, and vice versa.

These backups are secure, too: If you store your backups on your friend’s computer, they won’t be able to see your actual files, just the encrypted, compressed files that CrashPlan stores backups in, with cryptic names and no real way of opening them.

Getting Your Data Back

One thing that very few people think about when it comes to backups is the restore process, and that’s unfortunate. After all, backups are only good if you can get your data back!

With CrashPlan, restoring your data is pretty simple. If your computer has failed and you repair or replace it, and have to start from scratch, you simply install the CrashPlan software, and once you have connected it to either your backup drive or the CrashPlan servers, you choose a tab in the program, select the computer you want to restore from, and tell it where to put the data on your working computer. Restoring from a local drive is reasonably fast; restoring from an Internet location is much slower — but it works.

At The Very Least

If you don’t want to go with CrashPlan, or any of the other services I’ve mentioned, then at least use the backup options that came with your computer.

Windows 7 includes a “Backup and Restore” control panel item, which will let you set up a schedule to backup all of your system or just selected folders, and gives you the option of storing backups on an external drive, CDs or DVDs, or on another computer on your network.

Mac OS X includes TimeMachine, which is amazingly simple to set up. When you first connect an external drive to your Mac, you will be asked if you want to use it for a TimeMachine backup drive. If you allow that, then it automatically starts backing up everything on your system. There are ways to make it backup to network drives (most significantly to Apple’s TimeCapsule hardware), if you want to do that, as well.

What Can You Afford To Lose?

If you’re not sure if you really need backup software, ask yourself this: “If I lost my computer, what would I need to get back from it?” If your answer is, “Nothing,” then you don’t need backup software. But if you have things that you don’t want to lose, or can’t afford to lose, then get a backup strategy going now. Feel free to contact me with any questions you have.