Should You Backup Everything?

Category: Backup

All I can say is THANKS... and Wow! Since my Tuesday post laying out 9 Good Reasons for Backups, I have received so much positive feedback about my upcoming ebook 'Everything You Need to Know About Backups'. Since we've covered the WHY, today I'm going to talk about WHAT you need to back up. (Do YOU have all the bases covered?) Read on...

What Files and Data MUST Be Backed Up?

Before I begin, I want to share something that happened to me. The doorbell rang, the dog barked, and I could see the mailman waiting there, with two packages and a stack of letters. One in particular caught my attention. It was a handwritten letter from James, one of my AskBob readers.

The final paragraph of his letter absolutely made my day: "I love what you are doing in providing so much information about computers and internet... There is no one like you. You are an answer to the prayers of all of the computer-internet technology ignorant people like me. Thanks, and keep it up, please!"

I hope you don't mind me sharing that. I've been writing about computers and the Internet since 1994, answering questions, and as another reader put it, "translating for the technology impaired." Feedback that like really inspires me to keep pressing on.

Backup Everything

So let's get down to business. One of the most common things I've heard from readers when discussing backups is confusion (or strong opinions) about what really needs to be backed up. Some say they occasionally copy their documents to a CD or flash drive. Others have a list of folders that they routinely back up to an external hard drive. A few mentioned that they use Google Drive or Dropbox to keep files or folders synced to online storage. Some prefer the simplicity of online backups with IDrive, Mozy, or Carbonite, which attempt to identify and back up your "important" files.

Others make a clean distinction between "system files", "program files" and "user files". Some create partitions on their hard drive to separate each type of data. They do backups for all files and folders that are created by them or the software they use. But they don't back up the operating system and installed software, because it can be re-downloaded or re-installed from CDs in the event of a hard drive crash.

Theory and Practice

In theory, there's nothing wrong with any of those ideas. But in practice, it's not the best approach, unless you're a bit geeky AND have lots of time on your hands. If your hard drive fails, you'll need to re-install the operating system, apply any needed security patches and updates, reconfigure all your customizations and personal settings, then install all your programs. Locating the software installation media (CDs or downloaded files) and license keys for paid software can be a big hassle. Only then can you restore your user files from backup.

That whole process can take MANY hours, often requires a bit of technical know-how, and you're never quite sure that everthing is put back the way it was. Quite often, people find that they forgot something. A critical file, folder or program is missing from the backup.

A Better Way (and my success story)...

By contrast, I recently had a hard drive go bad. It took me just 23 minutes to restore 60+ gigabytes of data, and I was back up and running like nothing happened. I was able to recover so quickly and easily because I do full system backups (also called "image backups") every Sunday, and incremental backups every weekday at 3AM.

An image backup rolls EVERYTHING on your hard drive into a single file that can be stored on a flash drive or external hard drive. It can be used to restore the entire drive, or just selected files and folders. All that happens automatically with my favorite free backup software, so I never have to worry about remembering to do it.

There's a chapter in my ebook with step-by-step instructions and screen grabs for doing exactly that. When my hard drive refused to boot up, and I couldn't even detect a single file on it, I didn't panic because I knew that every single file was safely backed up. As I mentioned in my last posting, CONFIDENCE beats HOPE every time! (I actually take my backups 2 or 3 steps further, but I'll discuss my personal backup strategy in my posting next Monday.)

To those who say "I don't need to do backups" let me point out that I've had TWO instances in the past six months where a NEW HARD DRIVE went on the fritz, and it seemed like a total loss. Stuff happens... hardware failure, viruses, power surges, data breaches and natural disasters. Things can get lost, stolen, wet or broken. And there's always human error and those annoying "senior moments".

So YES! Everyone who uses a computer needs a backup. And ideally, you should backup everything, automatically, and often.

Hard Drive, CHECK. What Else?

Any backup is better than nothing, but hopefully I've convinced you that it's a good idea to make full system (image) backups. Free software is available to make it a simple and automatic process. All you need is an inexpensive USB flash drive or an external hard drive. And in my book, you'll learn about free online backup options.

So that covers the hard drive on your desktop or laptop. Have you thought about the data on your mobile gadgets? If your phone was stolen, or went through the wash, just imagine losing your address book, photos, apps and text messages. And here's something else to consider. More and more, our lives are moving online. What would you do if your email, your Facebook account, or online files got hacked, wiped out, or your password was lost?

Continuing the Conversation...

I want to hear YOUR backup success stories! Have you had a hard drive failure or data loss, and then recovered with a backup? Tell your fellow readers about it here, by posting in the comment section below. Next Monday, I'll share your stories, talk about what else needs to be backed up, and answer more of the questions you submitted in my ebook survey. See you then! -- Bob

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Most recent comments on "Should You Backup Everything?"

(See all 32 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

marilyn colby
19 Jan 2017

what i do not understand is how a back-up system works. i do not want to have 100 back-ups of the same thing. will a back-up entirely erase the previous back-up, or just add what is more recent to the old back-up.

Posted by:

John C
19 Jan 2017

My backup story...

Being a retired IT guy, MIS computer operator then network/system administrator, I always spent the time backing up data. Backups are truly an under estimated thing, and should be made part of the computer routine.

What to backup versus what not to is an answer and question equivalent to what's someone else's garbage is another's treasure. The best solution is to backup data only.

Doing a full versus incremental backup is something to consider as well. A full backup means a lot of extra time, but everything will be backed up no matter what. Incremental backups mean going through multiple backups to bring the data up-to-date, and there's a chance that something might have been lost in between, though there are some advantages to incremental backups as well if one is prone to Oops moments and deletes stuff all too often.

In the end I opted for a full data backup daily, well nightly as that ensured I got everything.

The mantra I was taught many years ago is programs can be reinstalled easily and with the cloud-based installers for many applications these days including games, such as those on Steam, for example, the programs are installed quickly.

Data though, well that's truly the most important and once that's lost it's lost. Once the data is gone it's gone. There's rarely a way to get it back, and unless we have a lot of money to spend on truly critical data, the drive recovery services are the only solution but not always guaranteed.

Now being one that touted backing up, and did multiple system backups professionally, I was not always kind to my own stuff. Needless to say I learned the hard way after a catastrophic hardware failure with a blown power supply which killed not just my boot drive, but also took out my data drive along with the motherboard and video card.

Let's say I didn't follow my own practices and got lazy and got burned!

After that I perform daily backups of my data using a simple file copy program called FastCopy. With FastCopy, I can queue up various backup jobs by running multiple instances of the program. I'll have one instance backing up my documents folder to my external drive which will end and then the next job will take over and backup my extensive Trainz data folder, which contains nearly 800GB of data. Losing that data would mean nearly 14 years of content creation gone and the end result would be quite devastating. Not that my storm-chasing pictures, videos, personal music performances, and important documents are not important either.

With an immanent hard disk failure approaching recently, I replaced the drive and simply restored the data in about 8 hours. Sure this wasn't a drive image or a VHD, but individual files and folders. I did the hardware replacement quickly then started the restores (copies) from backup sources to internal drives when I went to bed. Overnight my data was restored on the data drives and I was up and running the next morning.

Having a reliable backup solution is really important - case in point - I found this out the hard way many years ago. I used to use a tape backup system to backup my "important" data. Periodically I would test the backups and restore the data to another system. Well, the drive was okay, but the tapes were not. I was doing fake backups as I called them. This was not good and was the same as no backup at all but with a lot of extra work.

So in the end even if we do backups, even to an external hard drive, or even to the cloud for that matter, check that the data is there. You don't want to find out at the critical time that the only backup you thought you had is not even a backup!

Posted by:

Scott Brooks
19 Jan 2017

I realize that everyone has their own organizational system and the organizational system of one person may not work for someone else. So, with this said, here is an organizational thing I do that may or may not be of help to any of you. On my C: drive, I have a folder called +HomeData. Over time I have added an entire directory structure of many levels of subfolders and files under C:\+HomeData. I do image backups for my whole drive, but for individual files that I want to backup (so I can restore them without having to do a whole image restore), I include the whole C:\+HomeData directory as well as other important files. The reason the name starts with a plus sign is so that it sorts to the top of the list when I open Windows Explorer – which makes it easy to find. Over time this has helped me in knowing that any files that I would like to put under +HomeData will get backed up.

Posted by:

John Wafford
19 Jan 2017

"I do a full image weekly & differentials every other day. I notice that you do incrementals. What is the difference between them?"

I suspect these are different terminology for the same thing. In other words, just making any changes that took place since the last backup.

Posted by:

John Wafford
19 Jan 2017

@Marilyn Colby
"what i do not understand is how a back-up system works. i do not want to have 100 back-ups of the same thing. will a back-up entirely erase the previous back-up, or just add what is more recent to the old back-up."

If you do a full backup, it will overwrite whatever is there. An incremental backup just adds any changes that have been made.

Posted by:

Roger Woody
19 Jan 2017

The last 5 years I've used Acronis to make 2 ongoing differential/full backups, full image (entire C drive) and Users only to an external USB hard drive. I spend about $20 every other year to keep it current. The real beauty of the system is how easy it is to recover a file that I deleted by mistake. I go to the backup folder, find the file and reinstall it where it belongs on my computer hard drive.

Posted by:

Thomas T
19 Jan 2017

Just a quick reminder to Scott Brooks... I use Macrium Free backup and I only make Image backups of my entire disk.

With reference to your comment: "I do image backups for my whole drive, but for individual files that I want to backup (so I can restore them without having to do a whole image restore), I include the whole C:\+HomeData directory as well as other important files."

If I want to restore an individual file or files or a folder, Macrium Restore function gives me a complete file tree of the backup file and allows me to pick any files/folders I want without having to restore the entire backup image. I suspect that other image backup programs can do this too.

So the one image backup can be used to restore any number of individual files easily. No need to do a separate backup of important files.

For example, you could easily find your +Homedata directory in the Macrium backup image and restore it or any files from it.

Posted by:

bob rice
19 Jan 2017

I have a file by file clone backup, but more important, it's bootable. This is not the case with most backups. So twice a year, I enter Bios/setup and change the boot sequence to my backup drive, then start up.

The backup drive is tested. The process takes about two minutes. If the primary drive fails, I replace it and use the backup to populate the new drive.

Posted by:

19 Jan 2017

Paul & John Wafford

To restore if you do differentials, you need the original full image (or file backup) + the last differential.

To restore if you do incrementals, you need the original full image + all the incrementals in-between.

So incrementals are quicker and take less space (each of them), but if a single one is corrupted then you'll only be able to restore up to the date where the chain of incrementals has not been broken.

Some people mix full, differential and incremental in their routine, so as to balance the advantages and drawbacks of each.

Posted by:

19 Jan 2017

I back up every day or two to a USB external disk, alternating differentials between two disks.

Weekly, I copy the latest backup to another pair of disks, alternating between two disks. (Four disks altogether.)

At the beginning of each month, I make a full image backup of all partitions on the "C" drive, and a full file backup of my precious data files that I keep on an external disk.

Every month, I have to copy the two new full backups ("C" drive and my data) to three other disks.

The sizes of the image backup files are a nuisance. A month's backup of the "C" drive grows to 300 GB, which I reduce to 130 GB by deleting earlier differentials.

I don't use incremental backups because a failure in the chain of backups renders all subsequent backups inaccessible.

I use Macrium Reflect Home 64-bit (UEFI).

Aside: I haven't figured out what's making the backup program produce such large differential backups. I don't defrag the disk.

I've had two WD portable USB disks fail. Ironically, they were backup disks.

Posted by:

Calvin Brown
19 Jan 2017

I use easeus todo backups home 8.9
to me this backup program is tops, It will put my computer back to the way it was when the backup was done. I mean everything it's like a copy of the hard Drive or file exactly, it does the hole Dr. Oper,system,programs,everything. I've been using it for over 5 years, I have not had it fall me yet,



You the man when it comes to helpful hints for computers.

Posted by:

John Elliot
19 Jan 2017

Is a disk image the same as a clone? If not which one is recommended as a safeguard to protect against a disk crash?

Posted by:

Gary Hataway
19 Jan 2017

I used to consider myself one step above novice but not so much anymore. This whole backup thing confuses me.

I downloaded the restore information on my HP to a restore disk which I assume will restore me to factory but it will restore to Win 8. But that will delete all data. Should I have a full drive image besides this and will it work to restore my HP? I could care less if I have the proprietary stuff but what happens to the shared F keys and the touchpad? I would prefer a clean install and just restore the important files. I am using IDrive and IDrive cloud. Love your Bob Rankin. Read it faithfully.
Lost in Missouri.

Posted by:

Stephen Earle
19 Jan 2017

Hi Bob,

I read your newsletter pretty religiously (unless it covers something that doesn't apply to me). You do great work, and I hope you continue for as long as you can. I've taken several of your suggestions and put them to use -- thanks!

I use the same backup strategy as you: Full image Monday morning, incrementals the other six days of the week. I use Macrium Reflect and recommend it highly. It has saved me a couple of times with full restores, and a couple of times when I needed to restore specific files or folders. I back up to a 2 Tb external drive and copy them immediately to another 1 Tb external. The copy is done with the handy scripting utility in Macrium - it's great. I only wish I had a reasonable way to further copy them somewhere in "the cloud." The problem is that my full images are ranging aroud 145 Gb and my daily incrementals from 1.5 - 9 Gb. Even at my maximum upload speed, this would take a whole lot of time, especially for the full image. Any suggestions on how to get around this limitation would be appreciated. Meanwhile, keep up the great work!

Posted by:

John Wafford
19 Jan 2017

That's true for images, but not clones. With a clone, an incremental backup updates the original full clone, so that however many incremental backups you do, you will only have one updated full clone. That's the advantage of clones over images.

Posted by:

20 Jan 2017

Hi all. Some of you have said that Program Files are easily re-installed from discs on hand after a crash, but that is partially untrue. In my case the PC Technicians at the shop where I bought my PC installed my Internet connection and I had to take the machine back to them so that I could call up my User Interface when I needed to see how much data I still had on hand. I don't think they used an installation disc, but rather a wand, like Harry Potter). So now, I don't neglect that first step.

Posted by:

23 Jan 2017

@ John Elliot

A clone is a unretouched photograph of your disk.

An image is a compressed and retouched photograph of your disk. Free space has been taken out. Files, which are scattered all over the place on your disk, are defragmented in the image (all the bits of the same file a grouped in the same place).

Typical use of a clone is when you want to upgrade to a bigger disk or an SSD. You then copy your old disk to the new as a clone.

Typical use of an image is when you want to backup your disk in case something bad happens. You then copy it to a single file as an image (on another disk, obviously), and restore it to the original disk if you need to.

Posted by:

23 Jan 2017

I just do a full bootable clone once or twice a week, which takes a little longer, but I do it at the end of my session and click on the auto-shutoff feature. Restoring from a clone does not require a workable bootable CD, which can get outdated or misplaced!

A clone will fully protect you from a complete hard drive failure - but will also enable full access to each individual file on the backup - should you want to only restore part of your data. Each time I choose to overwrite my previous clone, but extra external drives can be used to keep a series of back clones, if so desired

Posted by:

27 Jan 2017

Using cloning as an exclusive backup strategy seems unrealistic to me. It's incredibly greedy in terms of space, unless you keep only one backup. Which, in turn, would be dangerous, because how do you know that the last good version (uncorrupted by malware or by software defects) will be the one you just made ?

You don't know, that's why you need a history of backups to fall upon. Images plus incrementals, or differentials (or both) provide that. Plus, they are smaller. And they still allow selective file browsing and restoration.

Now it might make sense to have one extra disk on which you clone once a week, for instance. This might allow you to boot directly from it if anything happens. Provided that backup was not already infected by ransomware, for instance.

Posted by:

Lady Fitzgerald
02 Jun 2017

I use a set of four backup drives for each data drive in my computer: two of each set is kept onsite and the other two are kept offsite. I now use FreeFileSync to update the backups, giving me essentially clones without the disadvantages of frequent cloning. When updating the backups, I run each drive of each onsite set separately, one after the other. I also have a Carbonite account for recovering data that hasn't been backed up on my backup drives yet.

The number of backup drives may seem excessive but having the seemingly extra backup drive saved my once. I tried to backup one of my data drives on a Friday evening, not realizing it had somehow became corrupted, and wound up corrupting and crashing the backup drive (I was still cloning back then). If I hadn't had that second backup drive, I would have had to wait until Tuesday (of, course, it was a three day holiday weekend) to retrieve my offsite backup from my safe deposit box at my credit union, recover what I could from that drive, then retrieve the rest of the data I had added and changed since I put the backup drive in my safe deposit box from Carbonite which would have taken a few hours.

However, since I had the second backup drive, I was able to use it to recover my data drive and the crashed backup drive after reformatting them. Since I knew what data I had added since the previous backup, I was able to copy it to another drive before formatting the corrupted drive (fortunately, that data wasn't corrupted, sparing me from having to download it from Carbonite.

Thanks to that second backup drive, I was able to recover in just four hours instead of five days. Keep in mind that any drive, including backup drives, can fail irrecoverably at anytime with no warning so having more than one backup is essential (data should exist in at least three places, such as on a computer, on an onsite backup, and on an offsite backup). Also, you can't recover data that hasn't been backed up so it is essential to keep backups as up to date as possible.

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