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October 14, 2011

Beyond Windows Backup

I’m sure as a knowledgeable Windows user you regularly back up your data. You are backing up your data, right? If not, then please remember that Windows 7 includes Backup and Restore which you can find off the Start Menu in the Maintenance folder. There is some great information on using Windows Backup and Restore on the Windows website.

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As a techie I don’t need to extoll the virtues to you of creating regular backups. But backups are only useful if you can restore what you want when you want to. Over the years I’ve learned some tips and techniques (the hard way in some cases) to help make sure my backup system comes through when I need it. As I was backing up my systems at home to prepare for a move it occurred to me to that I should post about my approach to safeguarding my data and making recovery simple if I need to do it.

None of these tips do any good if you don’t backup regularly though so please do that. None of them apply exclusively to the backup features included in Windows either so you can use them no matter what your preference is for backup software.


If at all possible, test whatever method you use. I’ve heard stories from people about going back to a backup only to discover they hadn’t really prepared as well as they thought. Quite often this is because they were not backing up all their data. Perhaps they had added a new drive at some point or moved where they were storing files but the point is the data they needed wasn’t there. Another situation that I’ve experienced personally is where I thought that the backup would be easy to restore to a ‘bare metal’ or ‘clean’ system if I had a major failure which turned out not to be the case.

You can reduce the chances of a surprise like this by testing your backup system. Not everyone will have what is needed for a full blown test of all scenarios but if you are like me you build and upgrade systems often enough that you occasionally have some ‘spare’ hardware on hand. If you’ve got the hardware you might want to test recovering from a hardware failure such as a disk drive. With a ‘spare’ drive you can carefully disconnect the working one from your system, attach the empty one and practice restoring the whole system. Can you find your system repair disk to get the system booted to access the backup? Did the backup restore properly?

For more simple scenarios you don’t need anything special at all. Simply grab your backup and try to restore a file or two as if you overwrote or deleted it. Did it work? Was it easy?

Covering your bases

Take a few minutes to think about what scenarios you might need to recover from. We all know that backups are important if you need to restore a deleted file or a failed disk but what other scenarios might you want to cover? For instance what about theft or complete loss from flood or fire? What if it wasn’t that your drive failed but that someone stole your laptop? What if someone broke into your home and took your system? Do you use a portable backup disk that is normally connected to the system? What if they took that too? Do you backup to Windows Home Server? What if it was stolen along with your PC?

Certainly covering every possible case is not realistic but I’d say it’s worth it to at least consider which ones you’d want to be prepared for. Keeping the portable backup disk somewhere separate from your other equipment, in a safe or at least well hidden place may help protect against the theft scenario. Backups are insurance and like buying insurance it’s all about what you wish to protect yourself against and what it’s worth to you.

A little help from your friends

Enterprises rely on offsite backups for critical data and it’s actually easier than you think for us ‘non-enterprise’ types to do this too. One of my favorite ways to cover this is with a friend or relative. If you consider it worthwhile you can invest in a portable USB or eSATA backup disk and occasionally relocate it to a secure ‘undisclosed location’ which in my case is commonly known as ‘my mother’s house’. Just take your spare backup drive to a relative’s house when you visit for thanksgiving and leave it there. A few times a year simply bring your latest backup and exchange drives. As an added bonus you can do the same for your relatives by taking theirs home with you. If you are like me you’ll be checking on mom’s system to make sure it’s backed up properly when you visit for the holidays anyway.

You can do this just as easily with other types of media. Instead of an external drive you could occasionally burn critical files to DVD or Blu-Ray and store them at a friends or relatives house. This is a reasonably simple way to cover for theft and fire. I should note that there are backup services that allow you to store data in the cloud that cover this scenario very conveniently. The most common reason I hear for not using them for offsite backups is size. For example a sizable music collection is something you might want to protect that represents a big investment, takes a lot of space and doesn’t change frequently. This is exactly the type of data well suited to archiving remotely.

To wrap this up I’d say that just putting a bit of thought and time in up front can pay off in the end as it always seems like things fail at the worst possible time. I have had hardware failures that could have induced a heart attack but since I was confident that the backups were there and worked properly they were rather stress free and as expected, were easy to recover from.

I’ve captured the tips covered here in a Wiki entry in the Windows Experts Community. If you’ve got more tips or tricks for protecting your data please consider adding them by signing in and editing the page.