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02/09/2005 Archived Entry: "Affordable backup"

You wouldn't have noticed, but Wendy's hard drive failed about ten days ago, making her computer unable to even boot the operating system.

Fortunately I'd just done her weekly backup to CD-ROM, and I was ready with Plan A: restore her files to our laptop so she could keep working. But she really prefers her desktop to the laptop, so she took a few hours' break while I proceeded to Plan B. This involved using a Linux Crash Recovery Kit to format some spare partitions on her hard drive (which I had prudently left available), installing Linux on a new partition (upgrading to Xandros 3 in the process), and then copying her (still-readable) personal files from the old partition to the new. (Plan C involves a new hard drive, which I've bought and will install any day now, because the old drive's days seem to be numbered.)

The reason I indulge in this orgy of self-congratulation is that we just heard from one of our correspondents that his hard drive failed. No backups. No contingency plan. In a word: screwed.

He claims to have been unable to afford even the most inexpensive backup device for his computer. So, on the assumption that there are others in similar straits, let me outline a variety of backup devices and techniques that are very light on the pocketbook. Some of them do require a bit of effort; this of course is always the tradeoff.

Online backup services. There are companies on the Internet which will back up your data on their servers. Most charge a small monthly fee (I've seen $5/month listed), but a quick Google search for "free backup" found one service that doesn't charge a storage fee -- they only charge for retrieval. (With luck you'll never need to retrieve your backups; if you do, it'll seem like a bargain.) Try Googling for "online backup" and you should find more services. I can't comment on any of them, since I refuse to trust our private data to strangers; besides which, we have a slow Internet connection.

Web hosting services. If you have a web page, there are still many outfits offering free web hosting services -- they display their ads with your web pages. These days they frequently offer tens or hundreds of megabytes of storage. You could certainly upload files to some of that unused space. Be advised, though: at least one free host that I've used considers this a violation of their rules, so if you're going to do this, check periodically that your files haven't been deleted. If you're using a paid web hosting service, such limitations don't apply...but either way, always be aware of the security risk of putting your files on a public server.

CD-ROM/DVD-ROM backup. We use CD-ROMs for weekly backup. Once this was expensive, but now blank disks are about $0.25 apiece, so I can burn three disks a week to save all our user files. (If I were really pinching pennies, I'd use an "incremental" backup which saves only the files changed in the last week.) CD writers are available for $25. If you have lots of data to backup, DVD-ROM media are now cheaper per megabyte, and DVD writers are available for under $100. I predict that the advent of affordable DVD writers is going to make CD writers a drug on the market, so older, used, or refurbished CD writers should be dirt cheap.

Second hard drive. It may seem silly to use a hard drive to back up a hard drive, but remember, the purpose is to protect your files from a random hardware failure. It's not likely that two drives will fail simultaneously; the second drive only needs to keep working long enough for you to replace the first. One advantage is that backing up from one hard drive to another is super fast; you can do this daily and not even notice it. The only significant cost is installation -- I have people giving me small (under 1GB) hard drives. If you can do your own computer hardware work (or have a helpful friend) this can be essentially free.

Networked computer. If -- like us -- you have more than one computer, and they're networked together, consider using each computer to back up the other. File transfer over Ethernet isn't as fast as a hard drive backup, but it's lots faster than burning a CD-ROM. Again, you can do this daily. Total cost: zero.

USB drives. These are getting really cheap, but I don't know anything about them, having never used one. I see that a 128 MB drive is available for $23 locally. The upside is that, if your computer has a USB port (and all modern PCs do), they don't require any hardware modification at all.

ZIP and tape drives. If you have some computer hardware skills, you might install a ZIP drive or even an old cartridge tape drive. CD writers made these a drug on the market; I picked up a used external ZIP drive at a yard sale last year for $10. ZIP media are expensive if bought new, but you only need a few -- each holds 100 MB, and like floppy disks, they're endlessly rewritable. Cartridge tape drives are not for the faint of heart or the weak of skill -- most require custom software and are only supported under a few operating systems, the media are hard to find and don't last as long; and the drives require care and maintenance. And they're slow. I mention them for completeness' sake.

Floppy disks. If you are really, really, desperate, and nothing I've mentioned so far is possible for you, then for heaven's sake, buy a box of floppy disks! If you're an "average" user, it's almost certain that you are not editing or creating 1.4 MB worth of data on any given day. This means your day's work can be saved to a floppy disk...and most operating systems can do this with one command. Seven disks will back up a week, and then you can address the problem of archiving your week's work. Even the old DOS PKZIP program (no relation to the ZIP disk) can create incremental archives, and split an oversize archive across multiple floppy disks.

There you go. Only a small amount of money is needed for a good backup system, and a smidgen of creativity plus a bit of work can take the place of that money. No more excuses. Back up your data.


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