Searching for the perfect backup solution

Backing up your data is like flossing teeth: We all know we should do it daily, but how many of us really do? That's why I'm setting out to find the best combination of hardware and software to keep my data safe.

COMMENTARY-- Everybody knows how important it is to back up your data. So why is it so hard?

Windows doesn't help much. The default installation routine for Windows XP Home, for example, doesn't even load the backup utility; you have to find it on the Windows CD-ROM and install it yourself. And even if you do that, backing up is a hassle. Windows makes it difficult to select only the important files you want to back up--so the only way to be really sure you've protected your vital files is to back up your whole system.

Then there's the media issue. When hard drives were smaller, you could reasonably back up to floppy disks. But how do you back up an 80GB or 100GB drive easily and inexpensively? Do the math: CDs hold hundreds of megabytes, DVDs about 4.7GB--how many disks do you need to back up a 100GB drive?

MOST PEOPLE just say, forget it. I know I do. I store copies of my most important files on the fusionOne synchronization service as a hedge against disaster. But if my hard drive actually crashed, getting everything back to working order would still require a huge commitment of time.

That's why I've started a new project. The ultimate goal: To find the best combination of software and media to do automated backups on my small Windows XP network.

In the first phase of this project, I looked at some of the backup software available here on ZDNet. I played with a couple of these utilities, but didn't fall in love. I also considered Roxio's GoBack . But that's more a system restoration utility than a real backup tool. For the time being, when I want a quick software fix, I choose to stick with Dantz's Retrospect, my backup software of choice.

Then I had to pick my media. I considered using my OnStream USB 1.1 tape drive. I've recommended the OnStream in the past because it's so inexpensive (around $400 for the drive and $1 per GB for the tapes). But my OnStream has been sitting idle ever since I got XP, waiting for drivers.

IN ITS STEAD, I went out and purchased a Que M3 120GB portable hard drive. Portable drives have become so inexpensive that, for five or fewer computers, they make sense as backup tools. The Que M3 works with the 1394 port on my HP PC and the FireWire port on my Macs; I bought a 1394 card for the one desktop that didn't already have its own high-speed data port.

I could have chosen a device that uses USB 2.0. The new high-speed connector standard is backward-compatible to USB 1.1, yet much faster (480mbps vs. 12mbps). But I opted for the older standard, because, backward compatibility or not, I know USB 1.1 devices can connect to pretty much anything. I'll be looking at USB 2.0 later in this project.

My plan is to use the 120GB Que drive to back up four machines--two laptops and two desktops. Their combined capacity is about 160MB, so I could run into problems if and when all the drives are full. But they aren't full--one has an 80GB drive that's filling slowly--so I'm not too concerned about running out of room on the backup drive just yet.

I'll also take advantage of a feature in Retrospect that treats all the backup files as a single collection. This means the OS files from the four machines--all using XP--will only be backed up once. Likewise, the Microsoft Office applications and all the other code the machines have in common. I'm still trying to find out how much disk space that feature will save me; once I get all the machines set up as Retrospect clients, I'll know.

THE ONLY GLITCHES so far: I had to reformat the 120GB drive to NTFS to support the huge files Retrospect creates. And I had to create a Retrospect backup set manually, because its EasyScript wizard doesn't know about backing up to a hard drive, just tapes, removable media, and CD or DVDs.

But as I sit here writing on my HP Pavilion, I'm watching as its 40GB drive is being copied over to the 120GB backup drive. It looks like I need to be sure all my apps are closed before I back them up--it appears my Outlook mail files didn't get copied--but that's a minor problem. Because once I'm really rolling, these backups will all happen automatically in the middle of the night.

My next step is setting up the other computers on the network. Once I'm safely backing up everything every night, I'll run an expense report on this option, hardware and software, and then start looking at the alternatives.

It may not be as fun as my month (or three) with an iMac. But fun or not, backups should be an integral part of computing life. I'll see what I can do to make them part of mine.

What do you think? If you have something you'd like me to cover during the project, or have product suggestions, drop me a line. Otherwise, TalkBack to me below.


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