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Data Backup Essentials

Computer security is so multifaceted that it cannot be tailored to fit any one specific definition or approach. Comprehensive computer security comprises numerous subcategories that together add up to form a single, coherent structure. One of these subcategories that we haven’t yet touched on is data backup and the part it plays in keeping valuable data safe. Here, we are making up for this omission by reviewing the different approaches to data backup and how they work.

Backup = Insurance

Data backup enables you to save your information to a safe place and restore it later if something happens to the device on which your data normally resides. It is an indispensable tool if you want to be sure your original work, or files, or whatever data you value stays intact no matter what may threaten that data; it means you can always roll back to a previous state and restore what’s been lost or compromised. When critical information is at risk, data backup is your primary resort to be safe in knowledge that your digital valuables are not jeopardized. Data backup is especially helpful in the following situations:
  • When you’re about to install a new application or a major update and you’re unsure whether it’s going to cause systems disruptions or compatibility or interoperability problems. Ironically, this application could be a security program or Windows Service Pack that introduces significant modifications to your existing OS configuration which may in turn cause other problems. Backing up is also a sensible precaution for users who like to experiment with advanced system settings, like manually tweaking registry entries and testing different system drivers or services.
  • When you experience, foresee, or want to preempt hardware malfunctions. There could be a number of indicators suggesting your hardware may be failing, such as system instability or overheating, or your hard drive is degrading. Hard drive problems really need a whole article to themselves, but for the purposes of this article, there are a few warning signs you should be aware of. When a hard drive is nearing the end of its life, Windows starts to report disk readability or writeabilty issues, or the SMART hard disk diagnostics system warns of an impending crash and recommends you promptly save and transfer your data to a safe place. Backing up is also advisable if you don’t use a UPS (uninterruptible power supply), as an electric surge can make your hard disk or motherboard unusable beyond repair. It’s hard to predict a future malfunction, but not impossible. Experienced users know of potential problem indicators, but for everyone else, here’s some advice: the older your system is, the more chance there is of it failing because of lack of proper servicing or care. If it’s kept in a dusty, humid or hot environment, the likelihood of failure is higher. It’s a good idea to run a free-to-try diagnostics utility such Sisoftware’s Sandra or Everest from time to time, as these tools can be helpful in predicting hardware crashes.
  • Backing up also makes sense if you want to mitigate the impact of viruses and other malware programs that may get past your defenses. Beyond their primary mission of stealing information, malware can be more directly destructive by damaging system configuration settings, corrupting files, and blocking or diverting network connections. As we’ve repeated many times in Security Insight, the use of security software is only one layer in the quest to safeguard your data, and no security solution can keep you safe from every threat. Backups can often be a more effective way to restore your system after a malware infection than antivirus.
  • You intend to use your computer on-the-go and are concerned about data integrity or safety. If you lose your laptop or if it ends up in the water, a backup of your important data will save the day.
  • You may be the unofficial tech support person for your friends and relatives. If anything goes wrong with one of their machines, you can simply roll it back to the last backup data.
  • A backup is handy if you plan to change to a new PC. Just save all your files and restore them on the new PC. It’s important to remember, however, that if the configuration of a new PC significantly differs from your old one, restoring the operating system and all installed programs won’t be possible, because the different hardware will likely require different settings.

What can be backed up

When you select items to back up, consider what is important to you. Essentially, the following can be backed up:
  • Individual files and folders (documents, photos, music, etc). With your backup software, simply designate those items that you want to be backed up and it will save them automatically. Don’t forget to update your backups regularly to take care of new files and updated originals.
  • Local and remote storage, including logical disks (partitions) and physical disks. In addition to files, your backup system can save the entire contents of selected hard drives and later restore their contents to a new or old destination.
  • Removable storage, such as USB flash drives, DVDs and other external devices.
  • Your operating system and its settings, including all installed software. You can save the state of your operating system and then revert back to the last image point when needed.

How it works

Modern backup software is relatively easy and straightforward to use. Generally, after you’ve installed it, you select the locations that you intend to backup, specify the location where these objects will be stored and press ok. Once the backups are created, you can restore them when needed. Your first backup should always be a full copy of the original location, whereas subsequent backups are incremental, backing up only content that is new or changed since the last backup. This saves time and disk space needed for backup.

Later backups can be either on-demand (you ask the program to perform backup at a desired time) or on schedule. On-schedule backups can be set to occur at regular intervals specified in the backup program itself. You might also want to consider on-event backups offered with select programs, which can be set to occur when a certain event, such as prolonged idle time or a power problem, are indicated.

Backup storage

When you back up your data, you save it to a specific destination. Usually, this destination is a large compressed file on a local device – either a removable hard drive or a high-capacity memory card. The backup location can be customized and it’s very important to keep in mind that the place where you store your backup copy should be secure – if your primary data source fails, you need to be sure you can access and use your backup. Keeping your backed-up data in a safe, dry place disconnected from the power circuit will ensure your backup will stay in good shape and enable you to get your data back in case of emergency. It’s not a good idea to keep your backup copy on your primary hard drive or an old ROM disk, because these can be exposed to disaster as much as your main storage.
You can back up your data to remote storage or use one of the free or commercial online backup services available. Bear in mind that storing your data at somebody else’s facilities has advantages and drawbacks. The advantages are:
  • Your backup is not affected by local events, such as power surges, lightning, fire, flooding, earthquakes and other natural disasters.
  • Storing your data with a credible organization that has expertise in data storage and continuity operations is generally reliable. Such organizations generally run fault-tolerant systems with multiple backups that should ensure your data will be safe.

Disadvantages are:
  • You have to trust the organization where you store your data, to be sure its confidentiality is maintained.
  • Uploading your saved data and later downloading it to restore from will require a lot of bandwidth and data support, so your ISP account should allow for unlimited data and high throughput.
  • There’s some concern over the security of your data when it is in transit. The risk is small, but it could be accessed by third parties. In that regard, check with your backup provider concerning the precautions they take to make sure this process is safe.
  • Managing your remote backups may not be as simple as local backups, and remote backups don’t always give you the full benefits of local backups. As an extreme case, you would not be able to restore a backup if your computer is so damaged that it cannot boot the OS. You’d have to use another computer to connect to the internet, download the required remote image and initiate the restoration process. In contrast, local backup software usually offers the option to create a CD-ROM boot disk that will initiate restoration to the desired point if your computer cannot be started in the usual way. You simply insert the CD, connect to the device on which you keep your backup, and your hard disk is restored in an hour or so.

Forms of backups:

The following forms of backup exist:
  • Disk cloning, where your entire physical drive is copied onto another hard drive. In case anything happens to your original drive, you can simply connect a new drive to your PC and it will boot from it. The new drive will be an exact copy of your original drive, and will have all the files and documents as existed on the old one at the moment of cloning operations. If the size of the disks differs, your partitions (logical disks such as C, D, etc) will be shrunk or expanded proportionally. If you make a clone of the disk, remember that the computer configuration should stay the same.
  • File storage, where all backup data is compressed and stored in one single file. This file is compressed to save space and can be password-protected to ensure other people can’t view its contents.
  • Restore points selectable within your backup software. Restore points are assigned according to the date a backup was made, and if anything happens to your PC, you can always revert to the last restore point from within the program interface.

Different flavors of backup solutions

Computer backup solutions exist in both software and hardware forms. Hardware systems are usually automated, always-connected devices that copy the contents of the primary hard drive to an embedded magnetic tape or hard drive. Mirrored Raid Arrays (RAID-1) are two internal hard drives running in parallel mode, where the second drives automatically backs up the contents of the first drive on the fly. If the primary drive becomes corrupted, the contents can be recovered from the second drive. Effective against hardware HDD failure, RAID arrays are of no use in case a virus harms your main system, because the same infection will be instantly duplicated to the second drive as well, negating all efforts. RAID systems are relatively easy and inexpensive to deploy, but require a degree of expertise to manage in the first configuration stages.

Back-up functionality is present in many of today’s software applications, from Security Suites such as Norton360 to OS-bundled software such as Apple’s Time Machine and Windows’ Backup or Restore Wizard. These programs usually offer less functionality than dedicated, specialized backup tools such as Acronis True Image, but still perform basic backup tasks and are quite sufficient for many people.

Conclusion

Backing up your system is a very good habit to develop. It will save you a lot of hassle and stress in case a system malfunction or virus infection occurs. There you have it, folks – I hope you found this article informative and useful.
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