Why is backing up data such a chore?

Why is backing up data such a chore?

Summary: The other day I came across a sobering statistic - nearly half of computer users (43% to be exact) don't back up any of the data stored on their PCs. Why is it that that people don't back up? I think it's down to one thing - backing up is a chore!

TOPICS: Big Data

The other day I came across a sobering statistic - nearly half of computer users (43% to be exact) don't back up any of the data stored on their PCs.  The data makes interesting reading and you can see different breakdowns of the data here and here.

There's a lot of data to work through but some of the numbers are interesting:

  • Digital photos make up the bulk (71%) of data stored on the PCs of those surveyed
  • Next (at 58%) is personal contact information (contacts lists, email and such)
  • 9% stored no data whatsoever on their PCs
  • Of those that back up, 57% back up all their data
  • 37% back up digital pictures
  • Financial files, address books and work-related files come in at the mid-20% mark
  • Only 15% back up music and only 7% back up video and movies
  • 24% have lost stored data in the last 6 months

We seem to be busy creating more Windows could do a better job of separating data away from system filesand more data (in the form of digital photos, video, email, downloaded music and so on) but we don't seem to be backing it up.  Looking at the problem objectively, I think I can see why.

Backing up data is still a huge chore.

There are three options open to most users:

  • USB flash drives
  • External hard drives
  • CD/DVD discs

USB flash drives are only any good if you have small amounts of data (for someone who regularly goes out and fills up a 512MB memory card with photos, they'd need to take out a second mortgage to be able to buy enough flash drives to keep up with their backup demands). 

External hard drives are a another option but it's very easy to fill up even a big drive, especially if you don't delete old backups.  After that, it's back to the shops to buy another one.  Also, external hard drives leave the data open to deletion by viruses and other malware, not to mention hardware failure.

That leaves CD and DVD.  For most users CDs are too small for general backup and that leaves the DVD.  Single layer allows for 4.7GB to be crammed onto a single disc, but with drives capable of burning dual-layer now readily available and affordable, it makes sense to go for that because of the 8.4GB of storage that that can be crammed onto a single dual-layer disc.

(I'm ignoring Blu-ray for now, that's a long way off being a viable backup system, with recordable media costing more per GB than hard drives.)

OK, you've got your dual-layer DVD writer installed and you've got a stack of discs and you're ready to do some serious backing up.  Sorry, but even with the best gear (and the best software installed) backing up 8.4GB is going to take most people well over an hour.  I know, I've watched people going through the process.  It's physically painful to watch.  The process involves digging about for the files that need backing up (since they are stored everywhere on the hard drive), selecting the right files for backing up, dragging them about, zipping them up if they are a fraction over the appropriate size for a disc.  Once that's done the user can look forward to a good half an hour of sitting back and watching the progress bar move towards completion.

Things could be a lot better.

  • First off, Windows could do a better job of separating data away from system files (keeping user settings all separate would be nice too).  That's not likely to happen any time soon so I may as well come back down to reality.
  • More realistically, better backup tools in Windows would be nice. 
  • More sophisticated disc burning tools would also be nice.  Being able to run queries like "find all Word and Excel documents changed or created since last backup" would be really handy.  Another handy feature would be automatic disc spanning.  One DVD disc not big enough?  No worries!  It prompts for another. 
  • How about built-in compression?  That would be a nice feature.
  • Finally, what about creating a simple text file index file of all files stored on the disc. 

We're making more and more data. It’s all data that is important to us in one way or another – otherwise we wouldn't bother taking that photo or video or downloading that song.  It's about time that we had a decent way of backing it up…

Topic: Big Data

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  • Windows and email

    Using Outlook 2003, archive folders and standard pst's are stored in a HIDDEN folder for crying out loud!

    Outlook Express has identity folders which use GUIDs, how is the average user supposed to back that up?

    Windows OneCare can't even backup to a networked drive and it's their latest offering!

    I'm about frustrated enough to write an open-source backup application in .Net and release it for free.
    • backing up a networked drive

      Just curious, but why should OneCare back up a networked drive? If the drive is on another computer, that's the system that should be handling its backup. If the drive is on a SAN, then the SAN should handle backup (and you're kind of out of the basic home user's league at that point anyway, at least for now).

      Am I missing something?
      diane wilson
      • rtp!

        He said "back up <b>to<\b> a networked drive.
    • Where does OneCare backup to?

      I've not used OneCare ... tell me it doesn't backup to the same drive!!!!
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
      • Okay, I Will

        It doesn't back up to the same drive.

        mark d.
      • to removable media and usb drives

        Not good enough for me yet
  • There are good third-party apps

    that image an entire partition. I have found software from this company to be reliable and very reasonably priced:
  • Maybe I can answer why backing up is a chore.

    I've done backups myself, and I always try to do so every month. I even have it scheduled in my System Agent for monthy full-backups. The problem is, the agent hasn't started it in sometime, meaning I have to start it manually.

    There are other reasons as well, not all can be atributed to sloth:

    [b]System Downers[/b]
    I'm running a 700MHz Athlon system with a 40GB "system" drive and a 30GB "data" drive, with a DVD+RW that I use for backups. While the drives are not entirely full, the last backup I did took nearly [i]three hours[/i] to complete. That time includes the time to verify the backups in case I needed to restore something (which I had to after another wipe of XP :p ). Considering I work 40hrs/week, that means I have to sacrifice part of my weekend to do the backups.

    Also, my system can dual-boot between XP and 98SE, both of which are on my "system" drive. While backing up both OSs at the same time is possible, I found that restoring one (XP) from the other did not work properly. That made me question the time spent backing up.

    [b]Media Mishaps[/b]
    Currently, it takes 4 DVD+RWs to do a full backup of my system. Before I used Ditto 2GB tapes, but eventually they broke. That's when I switched to CDRWs, then DVD+RWs. The DVDs are working for me for now, but I'm considering switching back to tapes. I may have to before long.

    [b]Bad Backup Tools[/b]
    I thought about using the backup utility from my XP install CD, but when I read how it can't span a backup across multiple disks, I thought that duct tape would be a better backup tool. Fortunately, I use HP's Simple Backup utility (it came with the drivers for my DVD+RW drive) since it can span disks. Best of all, if I use it for backups and need to restore my system, I just load my first backup DVD and it installs a restore driver; No need to reinstall the backup utility.

    [b]The Price is... OUCH.[/b]
    I have some major upgrading to do. I need to upgrade my system to make it worth backing up. Then I need a tape drive or a BluRay-HD-10-Layer-Quad-Density DVD burnner. Then the necessary media. Finally, the backup utility... I might stick with Simple Backup if my new backup device doesn't have one. All that is going to cost $$$$$.

    I'm a bit more technicaly skilled than the average user, but if I consider backups a chore you can imagine how the typical end-(l)user would feel.
    Mr. Roboto
    • Good points!

      That's exactly why people don't back up!
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
    • Simple, But Long, Answer

      Okay, it's simple but long and not free. USB drives. The article author gives these short shrift and I've excoriated him elsewhere for that. Two USB external drives ($200/ea for 500-GB on buy.com) greatly simplify back-up. I use Back-up MyPC (the old Veritas software, which is the old Windows software) for my back-ups. But Windows Live OneCare also supports USB drives. Monthly back-ups are very simple: Connect the drive, tell it to run. Come back an hour later and 80-GB of data are completely backed-up and verified.

      As eluded to elsewhere: Don't bother backing up OSs and applications. The restores are really iffy. And don't bother backing up data you can restore from the Internet (say, your website). It's a waste of time and drive space.

      I also have automatic, nightly back-ups between networked computers in my home, as well as to DVD. But these are just differential back-ups. They allow quick restore of what I worked on yesterday. If I lose a data drive (NO!! NEVER KEEP DATA ON THE SAME DRIVE AS OS/APPLICATIONS!!!), I'll have to visit my safe deposit box. But most restores can be done with last month's USB drive (stored at my home), or the most recent diffential back-ups (two copies, one on another computer, the other on DVD). All of this has saved my bottom a couple times!

      mark d.
      • Good point ...

        My solution is to back up to a separate PC with removable drives ... less hassle than external drives and I can do all the systems to one PC. I've got plenty of spare drives so I can pull them out and move them to a fireproof safe in a separate location ...

        Problem is, just as with your 2 x $200 external drive scenario (I've excoriated you elsewhere for that idea ...) is that most users don't have access to that kind of kit and wouldn't pay for it because they didn't see the value in it. Off-site backups and safety deposit boxes puts the whole idea in the realm of Star Trek for most users.
        Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
  • Better to combine backup with archive than try to only do backup.

    Since the blog talks about picture files, etc, my points are relating to home PCs, not work. In this case, the thing is the vast majority of your key data (pics, music, video, etc) doesn't need to be [i]backed up[/i] in the traditional sense. Unlike spreadsheets and documents, once you take a picture, rip a music file, or store a movie you generally aren't doing frequent edits. You may do a small amount of editing up front, but then you want it to stay as it is.

    I archive my photos/video/music files whenever I have enough to almost fill a DVD. For pictures and home movies, I organize everything in a folder structure by month so this is easy to copy over to a separate archive folder tree on my hard drive, burn to dvd, and restore if I ever need to. All of my data files which aren't archived are in a single main directory (with sub dirs) which I back up to DVD RW discs regularly. I don't back up the OS or the apps in either windows or linux, I just keep the source discs handy for that.

    I probably have over 50 gigs of data protected this way, but as I said I never have to "back up" more than a single DVD worth of data; it really is pretty easy if you think about it the right way.
  • Backup is easy !

    I used to face the same problem with backing up huge number of photos, music, etc - until I discovered the Briefcase in Windows Explorer.

    With this you can keep any files anywhere in the system and change them any number of times (though I keep them in one place). You maintain the briefcase in an external usb drive (try the mini drives that don't need a power cable) and then in one click it syncs all the files that are included in the briefcase. I keep two USB drives - one backed up 6 months before and the other for weekly backup. The whole backup process takes less than 2 minutes for 20 GB of data. And before the actual change, it shows you a list of all files created, deleted and changed so you know exactly what is happening in your system.

    I'm also worried about some virus corrupting data so I take DVD backups of the most important data every 6 months or so. A copy of my mails are in the internet servers so no need for backups. The only drawback in this plan is that you should remember to save your contact list and favourites
    frequently so that they get included in the briefcase sync.

    With this plan, backup is not a problem anymore ..
    • System crash - no problem

      Just another point about system crashes - if ever the system gets unstable or if I suspect spyware, etc, I just use the system recovery disc that came with my machine and bring it back to its factory settings (2 hours). And then copy all my data back to the machine (2 hours). Installing all other software may take more time but the effort is worth it because of the dramatic improvement in the performance.
  • The problem is two-fold, and the answer simple...

    Hi Adrian,

    Many users do not perform backups because (1) they don't really understand the risk, and (2) nobody ever taught them how to do one.

    I agree that dual-layer DVD is the media of choice for home use. However, I disagree that it has to be a pain. A little up-front planning can make the chore a lot less onerous : and really save you in case of system infection or hard disk failure.

    Most musical and photographic data is static, by which I mean that unlike spreadsheets or documents it doesn't change often. Once transcribed to a backup you don't need to keep making additional "incremental" copies of it.

    Therefore, while the initial backup is a pain in terms of time invested (several hours at least), the subsequent backups should not be. If you keep your data segregated from your system, either in the "My Documents" folder or on a separate data drive, you should only have to invest an hour each month to update your picture and music archives.

    Thus, each month you only have to backup new pictures, new music, and changing files (such as the aforementioned XLS, DOC, VSD, etc...)

    In this way you can always recover your changing files from the most recent backup, and your static picture/music files from the appropriate month's backup disk.

    This is a lot easier and a lot faster than constantly doing full backups or incremental of files which haven't changed -- and doesn't require special investment in additional backup software.

    By putting a little thought into the process ahead of time, the pain can be minimized and the benefits maximized.

    Just my $0.02, your opinion may vary...

    • Good points

      Very good points Jonathan. There should be a distinction made between archives and backups however. Data that cannot be recreated easily (such as photos taken on vacation with a digital camera) should be archived to a more permanent medium (e.g. CD-ROM or CD-RW) as soon as they come off the camera - the risk of loss is just that much higher. Data files that are reproduceable or are updated often can be left to a backup. Most of the user data files in Windows are in the users My Documents directory which can be backed up incrementally by creatively using the search feature in Windows Explorer. This will allow searching of files based on their modification date and they can then be dragged into a CD-ROM or CD-RW. The trick with handling volume is getting the frequency right. Other directories that this could be done on are the Program Files directory although I am not sure how Windows would behave if this directory was recovered from zero without properly updating the registry. Backups and archives are something that need to be played with until an individual comes up with a scheme that works for them. Then it becomes routine, just like flossing your teeth <grin>.
    • Make more use of the archive attribute

      Incremental backup is a sound system (we need good backup tools that make more use of the archive attribute), but for many the problem comes when you ask them to find old CDs or DVDs ... the expression on the face of someone why knows they made a backup but has since lost the disc is painful to watch.
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
  • What Good is a Backup. . .

    . . .if it's on a usb drive connected to the system or on DVDs in the desk drawer next to the system -- AND YOUR HOUSE BURNS DOWN?!? To put it another way, why is it that people talk about backing up their data but not protecting their data. Backups and off-site storage should be synonymous and there should be no discussion of one without the other.

    I live in Houston. My important data (genealogy, photos, etc.) goes to my son in California either as zip files attached to emails or on DVDs and I regularly send files to my computer at work (financial info, etc.) where I store them in a personal folder set up for that purpose. At very least, take a set of DVDs to work with you once a month or store them with a relative or friend.

    My phone (Motorola MPx220) syncs my Outlook tasks, contact info and calendar info between my home system and my work system so that data is both current and protected (it also stores and displays that info when I need it). I would not buy a phone without that capability.
    • An excellent point! Thanks PR Smith!

      Yes! That's great advice! If the data is really important, like family pictures, then a duplicate (up-to-date) copy of your archive should always be kept off-site.

      You can always rip copies of those musical CDs again and your work files are saved up on the corporate server, but if your house burns down and those pictures of your baby's first steps burn with it you'll be crying about it long after the house is rebuilt.

      Duplicate those backup DVDs and keep a copy at your parent's, sibling's, or child's place (whichever, depending on your age and circumstance). The small investment in dollars could save those precious memories from disaster.

      Should have thought of that myself. I know what I'll be doing at lunch today...

      • Just Say No to DVDs

        "Duplicate those backup DVDs and keep a copy at ..."

        Well, a much more elegant solution is two USB drives. Disk swaps are a pain. They hark back to the days of floppy disk drives. Two USB drives can back up 99.9% of home user's data files. Run monthly or so back-ups and swap them between an off-site storage--your second most recent back-up is at home, where it's convenient if it's needed.

        Then run nightly differential back-ups between hard drives, networked computers, and even to DVD--whatever your architecture supports. This will provide restore capability of most files you've worked the last few weeks. If all else fails, the off-site USB drive is your lifesaver (fire, tornado, etc).

        DVDs (as the article author and you propose) are too small for most users. And too much of a pain in the rear end because of disk swapping.

        mark d.