De-Geekify-ing the Backup

Category: Backup

The simple sounding task of backing up one’s data is not so simple when you start reading advertisements and reviews of backup software. “It does full, partial, and incremental backups; mirrors and clones disk drives…” If that makes your head spin, let's take these terms and explain them all in plain English. Read on!

Making a Backup: Options and Terminology

What do all these geeky buzzwords mean, and what kind of backups should you being doing? If you're just as confused about backups as the guys on the Seinfeld show, you'll find this article helpful. Let’s start by explaining some common types of backups, without the techie jargon.

A “full backup” is also called a “system image” in computer parlance. It is a copy of an entire hard drive’s contents, from the boot record to the last file you created or changed by clicking Save or Send. System settings, the Windows registry, hidden files such as the page file and hibernation file, everything on your hard drive is saved as a single file on your backup media (usually an external hard drive or network-attached storage device). If you've ever created a ZIP file, it's similar in concept -- lots of files combined into one large file.

Sometimes compression or encryption techniques are used to save space or secure the image file. The advantage of an image file over just copying a bunch of files to a backup device is the convenience of having just one file, especially if you want to store the backup in more than one location.

backup terminology

Full backups are somtimes made when a system is “just right,” with everything installed and set the way its owner wants it. A computer can be restored to that ideal state from a full backup copy. Another benefit of a full backup is that it’s easily restored; just read the whole file, unravel the digital “packing material” from each system file, and write it to the hard drive.

If you need to recover from a disk disaster quickly, a full image backup is good to have. Depending on your needs, and how often you add, delete or update files, you might decide to make an image backup on a weekly, monthly or other timeframes.

But full backups can take a long time, and a lot of storage space, so it's generally not a good idea to do them on a daily basis. Only a small percentage of files change from one day to the next. So why should they be copied and stored in a backup file again and again? That's where incrementals come in handy.

Incremental and Differential Backups

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Incremental backups make backup copies only of files that have been modified or created since the last backup session. First a full backup is made; it serves as a reference point. Thereafter, only the files that have been created or changed (since the last full or incremental backup) are backed up. To restore a crashed system, you need to start by restoring the full backup copy. Then every incremental backup made since that full backup was created must be applied in the order they were made.

A differential backup is similar, in that it saves data that has changed (or been created) since the last full backup. Each differential backup contains ALL of the differences between the last full backup and the current state of the hard drive. It has the advantage of requiring only two sets of data – the full backup and the latest differential backup – to restore a system to its most recent state. The downside is that more data needs to be backed up in each differential since the last full backup.

Here's a simplified illustation to make that a bit clearer. Let's say you make a full image backup every Sunday morning, then every day, you create one new document. Daily incremental backups would each contain ONLY that one new file. But the daily differential backups would contain one, then two, then three, and finally six files by the end of the week. The nuances of incremental and differential really aren't so important. Years ago, when hard drives were much slower, storage space was more expensive, and processing power was limited, it made more of a difference. The more important thing is that you actually DO make an image backup on a regular schedule, and supplement it as files are created or updated.

More Backup Buzzwords

A bit of confusion exists over the terms “image,” “clone,” and “mirror.” All three are full backups of a hard drive, but they're each distinct. I've already defined image, which is basically the entire contents of a hard drive rolled up into one large file. Cloning means making an exact file-for-file copy of one hard drive on another drive. Mirroring is an ongoing process; as data is added, deleted or changed on the original disk, it is mirrored to the backup disk.

Synchronization, or “sync,” is a two-way street. In a traditional backup, data from the source drive is backed up to a destination drive. In syncing, data is continuously copied from drive to drive so each drive contains exactly the same files and versions of those files as the other. Syncing is most commonly used on a folder basis, for example, when you want all of your music or documents to be available on multiple devices.

Versioning is a feature that some backup programs offer, which allows you to keep multiple backups of frequently updated files. If you have a document or spreadsheet that's updated on a daily basis, and you want to see what it looked like yesterday, last week or last month, versioning is just the ticket. It can also save your bacon if you make accidental changes to a file and then save it, wiping out the original. Think of versioning as the "undo button" you can use *after* you save and close a file.

Whatever sort of backup you do, you will end up with multiple backup copies taken at different points in time. How long you want to keep backup copies is up to you, unless you’re in a business whose “records retention” policies are regulated by law.

Are you using backup software to protect your most important data? Post a comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "De-Geekify-ing the Backup"

Posted by:

21 Oct 2019

I do a full backup at least once a month, using Acronis True Image, and I back up the "Documents" folder almost daily, using GoodSync. I paid for those programs, but there's free versions as well. I've heard good things about Macrium Reflect which is free.

I really like the idea of differential backups of documents, because sometimes you want to go back to a previous version of a document that you have already replaced. I'll have to try that out!

Posted by:

21 Oct 2019

I make a clone of my hard drive using Aomei Backupper Pro. I do this about every three weeks, that way I can boot to the back up drive if, for some reason, the C drive fails to boot or were to get a virus. Once I boot to the cloned drive, I have access to the old C drive to copy emails, game saves, etc.. to my cloned drive, which is now my C drive. Once I've completed the updates, I make a new clone of the current C drive on what used to be my C drive and the cycle continues.

Posted by:

22 Oct 2019

I havent had good luck with back up programs so use Windows and to an ext HD. Also had to reinstall a few times over the years and with documents I once a month copy to extHD and take off one month previous so usually 2 on board just in case. If something real important it gets backed up to HD immediately.
My immediate problem looms on 14.1.20 when W7 no longer patched. What to do is the question on many forums right now. What will you do Bob or maybe already all devices already on W10? Some say thinking of going to Enterprise 7

Posted by:

22 Oct 2019

"...just read the whole file, unravel the digital “packing material” from each system file, and write it to the hard drive."

That description is vague. What I never see explained about backups is the exact procedure to use when restoring a compromised computer from an image backup. Unlike simpler backups that merely consist of selected folders of important files, full image backups are typically needed after serious things have happened to the computer as a whole. For example: Ransomware may have left you unable to see anything except their message demanding payment, or a hard drive failed, or there are corrupted system files that prevent Windows from booting at all. So how do you get a restore process going under these common circumstances? The PC itself may not be working enough to initiate that process or even recognize the removable media that your backup is stored on. Does an image backup itself provide a surefire way of being "seen" by the system and getting written to the hard drive, regardless of how disabled the computer may be? If so, what are the steps?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Kevin, the backup program should ask you to make a recovery disk, which will boot the computer, start the backup program, and prompt for the location of the backup image.

Posted by:

Edvins Briedums
22 Oct 2019

Thank you Bob for keeping this 84 year-old IT savvy.
One thing about "CLONE". I have given up Easeus and Macrium and now I use AOMEI.
When I select "CLONE", then I am given another three (3) options.
1) System Clone, 2) Disk Clone and/or 3) Partition Clone.
All I want is to make another identical "C" drive which I can exchange with the existing "C" and use as the now-C-drive.
Which of the 3 options should I use? Thank you in anticipation of your reply. - Edvins

EDITOR'S NOTE: I'm not familiar with AOMEI, but it sounds like Disk Clone is the one you want. Check the program's help info to be sure.

Posted by:

22 Oct 2019

Another useful article, Bob!

Two comments:

1) If you take a system image backup, is it made in a standardised format that can be read by any restore program or is it done in a proprietary format that only the original backup software can read?

2) Many modern PC systems have a dual-disk setup: an SSD of 128GB or 256GB capacity for booting, Windows files and program files plus a larger (1TB, 2TB, etc) conventional hard disk for storing data such as documents and pictures. Maybe you could expand the article to cover how people should approach the backing up of such systems?


Posted by:

D. Werth
22 Oct 2019

I've been using Macrium Reflect for about a year now. Easy to learn and setup and then you're off and running!

Posted by:

Dave S.
23 Oct 2019

After reading your e-book on backups, I followed one of your recommendations and bought the paid version of Macrium Reflect. I do a full backup every Sunday and an incremental every day. The program works great and I learned to keep hands off the computer while the backup is going on--has never failed a backup when I do this.

Posted by:

23 Oct 2019

I do six scheduled backups every day using Macrium Reflect. These include an image backup of my C drive and data backups from the C drive and an external drive. I use a mesh of four external disks to which the backups are made, so that there is a backup of a backup for both the C drive and the external drive.

I have used Macrium's feature to send an email to myself as soon as a backup is made indicating whether the backup was successful or not. This way I know that everything was backed up properly when I check my emails daily. All I need to see are six emails telling me that the backups were successful and that is the only day to day interaction that I have with my backup process.

I have done an image restore for the C drive many times and it has never failed me. The restore process took up to four minutes each time and was pretty simple to do.

I also do a continuous backup to a remote service and occasional backups to two external disks other than the ones I mentioned earlier.

Critical files are backed up on schedule during the day too.

You can never have too few backups! This is a lesson that you learn whenever you lose data and you have to resort to a backup if you have one.

Posted by:

24 Oct 2019

Thanks for another helpful article, Bob. Our enterprise has CrashPlan, a cloud-based backup service. I've found its versioning feature to be essential in "saving my bacon", as you so eloquently put it, when I have accidentally deleted or overwritten a file I meant to save. Restoration of the affected files was straightforward and fast each time I needed to do it (I hate to admit how many times I've needed to use this feature of CrashPlan). I've never tried it for a complete system recovery, though...

Posted by:

Dave Leippe
26 Oct 2019

The article was a good review of backing up PCs. However, the comment that a full backup is a system image is true, but only some of the time. The term image is important in that if the software is capable of creating an image of a drive or partition, then it has special features that allow it to see and copy the hidden partitions and boot sector that you can't see in Windows. These are the unlettered partitions that make the image bootable if the drive or partitions contain boot information.
I can make a full backup of a hard drive by using copy and paste and it will contain everything except the objects that make it bootable.

Posted by:

28 Oct 2019

This guy wants you to put him out of business by doing backups.

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