A simple and robust way of preserving your computer files

Most of us have learned the importance of backing up our computer files after loosing priceless baby pictures as a result of a hard-drive failure, or after loosing all of our financial data files during tax season. There is the option to pay a couple thousand dollars to a data recovery company, but this can get expensive over time, and there is no guarantee that the data will be restored.

‘Back up your data’ ranks up there with ‘eat your fish oil’, ‘pay your taxes’, or ‘have that cavity fixed’, as less-than-glamorous activities that are good for us, or required from us, but for which it is difficult to summon the motivation and energy to perform regularly and efficiently.

Part of the problem is that the various backup systems in the market are somewhat confusing for the average computer user, and perhaps more importantly, these systems do not provide a good methodology for backing up and archiving our assets. This article aims to provide a simple archival, backup and recovery methodology suitable for a home computer user, or a small company with a small IT department.

That said, the same principles apply for larger organizations as a way to mitigate risk and reduce the cost of business continuity procedures (a fancy term that means ‘ensuring that you can continue to run your business after bad unforeseen things happen like spilling coffee on your laptop, or a terrorist attack’).

1. Get pen and paper, or your favorite word processor or text editor

In order to create a successful methodology that works for you, it is important that you write it down so that you can remember it, and so you can refine it later when you find ways to improve it.

You will see below that there are various pieces of information that it would be good to commit to memory and/or write down if your memory is not infallible.

2. Identify your most important data, your most voluminous data, and how long you need/want to retain this data

I like to think about my computer data in the following three simple tiers:

Tier 1 – highly critical data

In my experience, and unless you are a videographer or such heavy digital power user, most of our critical data is rather small in size. Financial data, passwords, text documents, power point presentations, etcetera.

financial data
passwords and other security assets (keys, digital certificates)
text documents
light-way digital assets like small image files, pdf files, or power-point presentations
web sites
server configurations and other operational data
(DNS records, firewall & network config)
software source code and assets
software, project documentation
Current VM templates
any other critical business data

Tier 2 – voluminous data that must be archived

Archival/backup/historical data that may be less critical but more voluminous,
or requires long-term ‘cold’ storage for compliance reasons.

email
backup files
cached software repositories

Tier 3 – low value data

This is everything else, the bulk of your Windows/Mac files (or other OS) files, software that you can easily re-install, old backups of unwanted mail, assorted contents of disk-drives of junk that nobody owns, and are over N years old.

3. Backup your most critical data right now

Now that you know what you want/need to back up, use a backup tool with which you feel comfortable (External drive, DVD, Online) and backup right now, as best you can, your most critical data, if you have not done so recently.

If you have never backed up your computer before, ask/hire a techie to help you identify a backup solution (External Drive, DVD, Online Service) with which you would be most comfortable.

If you don’t have one, you may also want to do a ‘full backup’ of your system to make sure that you have a starting point. Again, ask/hire a techie to help you do this.

4. Define and write down a backup policy and schedule

Determine how long you want/need to keep the data that you identified further above. For critical data, it may be ‘forever’.

For Tier2-data like old work mail, or old software backups, it may be 3-5 years.

5.Implement automated backups if you can, and get in the habit of doing periodic manual backups

Re-organize your files so that it is easy to backup your most critical files. Ask/hire a techie if you need help to do this.

Think and devise about the cheapest way to store and maintain the voluminous set of data files that don’t change often, and may not be as critical.

6. Start now to ‘stop the bleeding’ going forward, and handle the past as best you can

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