Real-world backup lessons

I had back-to-back reminders last week of the importance of having regular backups.

On Monday, I helped a friend and occasional client restore Windows 7 to his notebook after Dell replaced his hard drive under warranty and helpfully (ha ha ha) included a spanking clean Windows XP image. Gee, thanks.

Early this year when I helped him upgrade to Windows 7, I had impressed on him the need to get an external hard drive and do regular backups. He assured me he had backing up religiously, but when we tried to restore those backups the process failed. It turned out that he wasn’t using the Windows Image Backup utility. Instead, he had installed the NTI backup program that had come with his external hard drive. Those "full backups" contained way too little data to be full images and were unrecoverable anyway.

Fortunately, he had hung on to the original hard drive, which was still readable. With the help of an external SATA-to-USB converter I was able to get all his data back with no problems. If the original drive had been dead instead of just flaky, this story would have had a much unhappier ending. Still, what should have been a 10-minute image restore turned into a two-hour wild goose chase followed by a clean install and manual file transfer. Tedious. Not fun.

Then, on Thursday, our friendly local appliance repairman came by the house to look at our misbehaving dishwasher. As he disassembled it, he mentioned in passing that he and his wife had been having a world of problems with their PC, which was now displaying error messages about the hard disk at startup and then locking up. We talked about the probable solution (get a new hard drive), and when I asked about backups he sheepishly admitted he didn’t have any. He’d been thinking about it, especially given that this drive had acted up earlier, but he hadn’t gotten around to it. His wife could retype her resumes and if they lost some music, no big deal. He was thinking about getting another iPod so he could have his music collection in two places.

I told him he’d get much better bang for his backup buck by getting an external hard drive and upgrading from Windows Vista Home Premium to the equivalent edition of Windows 7, which includes the image backup program. He was shocked when I told him how far the prices of good-sized external hard drives had dropped. We’ll see if he gets backup religion.

Anyway, the moral of these two stories is pretty straightforward: Back up. And make sure you’re actually backing up everything you think you are.

What’s your backup strategy? And have you checked your backups lately?

30 thoughts on “Real-world backup lessons

  1. I have yet to see a successful backup on Windows… All the cases I had to deal with were with backups that were completely useless… Could never actually restore the data with them, or very partially. All programs had to be reinstalled and reconfigured manually (and for some, importing their data back was hell).
    I think all the hard-drive-vendor solutions that come with hard drives are basically crap (in my experience anyway).

    I hope the Windows 7 built-in backup thing does indeed work. Set it up in several places, time will tell if it actually works.

    I had only one successful (ie: easy-peasy, without wasting hours reconfiguring stuff) backup restoration so far in my life: on a mac, using a (OSX built-in) time-machine backup.

  2. Windows Home Server works everytime. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Only trouble I’ve had is with a flaky gigabit network switch that forced the restore into a network at 100MB ethernet and restore time went from 20 minutes to an hour for a pretty decent sized drive, but it got it done!

    Most vendor software for backups are crap. They are typically nerfed copies of larger enterprise oriented solutions that aren’t written specifically for the home or small business user.

    Time Machine has it’s own problems as well (am a Mac user at work). It’s a little flaky on laptops with externally connected drives that you let power down with the laptop in sleep. Likewise, if the drive gets a little wonky, the typical underlying problems in Mac file stuctures that are unrecoverable like p-node linking problems and what not still apply (what killed me the last time in fact).

    I haven’t tried to use something like Disk Warrior on a Time Machine disk. No idea if it’d work or not.

  3. i have a win2k8 r2 server with a raid 6 array. backup exec 12.5 backs up every night to an external drive and also to tape. keep next to nothing on my windows 7 systems. even my pst is on the server.

    so, if i lost one of the drives in my workstation, all i’d do is do a clean install and put my programs back. if i was in a hurry, i’d boot from another drive in the system that has ultimate on it and use that until i got win7 pro rebuilt on a new drive. wouldn’t bother me all that much.

  4. RE: “Back up. And make sure youโ€™re actually backing up everything you think you are.”

    Testing your backup solution can also be fatal. After all, for most consumers, the only way to really test it is to do a full restore from backup. But, if that fails? Depending on how it fails, that can be The End. It’s best to select and test your solution very early in the life of a new system, before you put your life on it.

  5. (Home computer) I just periodically copy/paste my documents, pictures, and outlook.pst to an external hard drive – no backup software to fail. (grin)

  6. Windows Home Server makes it a no-brainer for backing up all of the PCs in my house, from my main workhorse to my daughter’s desktop to my trusty laptop. I even save nightly backups from my Windows Phone on its file shares too, but WHS doesn’t actually perform them. I actually just purchased a new system today and am installing the new WHS Codename Vail on it. So far, I’m quite impressed on what was already (in my opinion) a great product.

  7. If you are still using Windows XP pro/2003, create an ASR (Automated System Recovery)and schedule daily backups to any external media via the backup utility supplied with windows. This works just fine and is reliable. Note: On Windows 2003, there is an issue with daily large 25Gb+ backups of software mirrored drives. As long as you have your original OS media, you can even restore the ASR to a different platform. You should consider using a third party backup solution if you have large backups to perform. CA Arcserve is fabulous for this. It has great utilities, uses VSS and other fabulous options that make it my backup software of choice. I test these methods all the time by creating fully functional doppleganger clones. I haven’t lost one bit of data in 25+ years…

    I haven’t tested the vista/7/2008s methods yet, but all in the fullness of time. As for home versions of windows, I’ll bet Ed can recommend a good utility to backup these system.

    Failure is not an option and neither are backups!!!


  8. I nag you from time to time about this…so here it comes again: How about an article on RoboCopy with simple and easy to understand instructions. (not the insanely geeky “help” files that Microsoft cobbled up years ago)

    Posting a simple batch file example similar to:

    robocopy “D:\Documents” “E:\documents backup folder on the USB drive” /mir

    would do the world a big service.

  9. Windows Home Server backs up all our desktops and laptops nightly… and as much as I push my laptop installing various utilities on it to try them out, etc… its bailed me out a few times over the last few years (restores are mind numbingly easy).

  10. the build-in Windows Image Backup is pretty useless. You have to have almost the same hdds to make a successfull restoration. I made only one successfull migration to the new hdd with this tool.

    For all other cases Acronis was used (and saved my data). And (sic!) you could pretty easy restore from vhd images (i did a backup with ms tool, but could not restore)

  11. I use Cobian Backup 9.x to back up my laptop and a desktop to an external hard disk. It’s the best free solution I could find.

  12. Having listened to Leo Laporte and his TWiT network for years (including Windows Weekly), I must say that I really like using Carbonite for doing automatic off site backup.

    And if you have a HD giving you trouble, Steve Gibson’s Spinrite software really does work.

  13. Proving once again that it’s not a backup unless you can restore it. ๐Ÿ™‚

    My home backup strategy is to store everything on my home server (6x 1tb drives using FreeNAS ZFS RAIDZ2). I then use multiple external enclosures (RAID1) to backup the data.

    Plan is to eventually have an online off-site backup once 3TB drives come out.

  14. Funny coincidence. Just yesterday a friend came with a fried laptop. I pulled the HD and copied the data to a removable drive with a SATA to USB interface cable. I thought, What if it were the HD that fried instead of the motherboard. I immediately ran a backup of my data. (I don’t do image backups because I figure when it comes time to restore, I might as well get the benefit of a clean install, even if it does take a week or 2 to get things back to where I like them.)

  15. I’m running W7 Ultimate 64-bit. My central strategy is Acronis True Image latest version. In addition, I copy My Docs, Music, Pics, to another drive / partition. I usually have that stuff in at least 3 places and on at least 2 different machines.

    I recently tried the Windows Backup utility for backing up my mail (Outlook 2010). It works fine. I also backup the *.pst manually as I do with My Docs.

  16. You Acronis users are living dangerously.

    Acronis installs a filter driver, plus their own shadow copy provider. The filter driver is used to enable Snap Restore (which is itself too clever by half). The Acronis VSS provider is used instead of the Microsoft VSS provider during backups. In contrast, most other enterprise backup programs use the Microsoft VSS provider — including the leaders: Tivoli, Retrospect, etc.

    So on one side, you’ve got a bunch of backup vendors, many servicing huge enterprise accounts with all sorts of strange hardware configurations, all reporting bugs and edge cases back to Microsoft. On the other side, you’ve got the Acronis VSS provider.

    Windows Backup is pretty touchy for restores, but only if you need bare-metal restores. If, on the other hand, you prefer to reinstall programs and restore only the data, then this doesn’t matter because you can just mount the VHD and copy the files off.

  17. I know its kinda crazy, but I use a combination of Backblaze, JungleDisk and external HDD’s ๐Ÿ™‚ With Backblaze I can recover my computer hdd for the past 30 days. With JungleDisk i upload everything I dont want on my computer, but need a place to stash like pictures, documents, garbage etc. External HDD’s are for regular backups as well. I should do a test of my external hdd’s but how? Just by looking through files and see they’re okay? ๐Ÿ™‚

  18. I’ve got an old flaky computer, so I’ve been religious about making backups. I use Carbonite (downside to Carbonite is that if you want to restore your backup to a Mac, you are out of luck – you can download a Mac version of Carbonite, but the files you backed up in Windows using Carbonite are useless – this assumes you decided to move from Windows to Mac)

    I also use an external drive and make sure I have copies of any files (My Documents,etc) on them as well.

    And I’ve started using Dropbox for a few critical files (they have a 2GB file limit for free accounts), which it turns out is quite useful, in that you can access your files from any computer and can sync them across your own computers (sort of like a home network).

    One of these days, I’ll give one of the cloning tools a try, which would be nice to have in the event of an all out disaster.


  19. @Tom:

    that is why I use Acronis to restore and Windows Image Backup to backup ๐Ÿ™‚

  20. 3 copies of everything.
    2 different media types
    1 (or more) off-site locations.

    I use SyncBackSE to backup computers to external drives. The drives are encrypted with Truecrypt, so if I lose a drive in transit, no big concerns. SyncBackSE allows me to sync the backups across multiple systems.

    Note that I’m backing up data here, and not an operating system install. I figure I can afford the time to reinstall an OS. But I can’t afford to lose the data.

    And I’ve learned from my mistakes over the years:

  21. Mozy for the most immediately important data, and I have Windows 7 running once-a-week system-image backups for the whole of the main drive. So there’s generally two copies of the most crucial, current data, and one copy of everything.

    The last time I lost data due to actual hardware failure was a good ten years ago or more. Before then I’ve had hard drives go bad on me, but curiously enough they’ve gone bad in such a way that I could still start them up and copy data from them before they failed completely.

  22. I use Windows Home Server, both at work and at home. The most important work files (billing data, accounting software, job files) are also synced to my home computer via live mesh. A few years ago our company was bit hard by an accidental “restore” that took our accounting software back 8 months. Ever since I’ve had computer backup OCD.

    Depending on the computer some one already has, WHS can be just about as economical as an external hard drive. You can find deals for $300 machines, which isn’t too far off from the price to upgrade from XP to vista/7 and buy a HDD. And if you have multiple networked computers it’s hard to be beat WHS!

  23. Two PC’s, two Macs. I have a portable HDD to backup files to both PC’s (no images for the Windows machines, just pics, music etc). I have two other HDD each dedicated to one of the two Macs where I use Time Machine that does full file system + image backups. I also have plenty of TB’s of available storage on one of my sites, so I backup important files to a file server online to a secured directory.


  24. Good post Ed and very timely. External storage is very cheap these days and there is no excuse for not backing up essential data regularly. Its almost like there has to be a major catastrophe before people get the message. I must admit I am quite impressed with the built in backup utility in Windows 7. As a reader pointed out above Dropbox is a neat PC to PC and cloud based solution.

  25. Daily backups to the WHS. I have my Documents synced between my laptop and dekstop and I keep my Pictures folder on my laptop, my WHS as a share and on my wifes laptop. My music is on my laptop and WHS as a share and to top it off I have Carbonite running on my laptop (my main machine). I also have Windows 7 images of the pristine systems with basic apps (my laptop, my desktop, my wife and sons laptops). Btw I learned the hard way – as everyone else does. It seems to be that we are all idiots as Bismarck defined it (Only idiots learn from their own mistakes – the smart ones learns from others mistakes)
    Great post Ed, it cannot be said to often: back-up, back-up, back-up!

  26. HP MediaSmart Server (EX470) with about a half terabyte of HDD storage across two drives. That covers 2 Mac Time Machine backups and all household music and photos are stored on the server as well.

    To back the MSS up, I have a home-made WHS, which covers backups for my personal desktop and laptop, and archives all my recorded TV shows. That’s one 250 GB “system” drive and a 2 TB secondary drive. I’d like to add another couple 2 TB drives to that server (with a eSATA multi-drive housing) to make sure everything is duplicated.

    When online backup solutions become a bit more affordable, I’ll consider backing everything up with something like Carbonite, which I have been impressed with, but dread the start-up upload of 2+ TB of data…

  27. Thanks for sharing Ed. It’s so often everybody realizes its important to backup after they lose everything.

  28. My old boss at TRW used to joke that there are 10 (base 2) kinds of people in the world, those who have lost data and those who will. And those that have lost data are evangelical followers of the church of BABU โ€“ the Born Again Backer-Uppers.

    RAID systems are not the ultimate solution either โ€“ Iโ€™ve seen several that have 5, 6 or more drives, and EVERY DRIVE IS FROM THE SAME MANUFACTURER AND BATCH.

    So what happens?

    THEY ALL FAIL AT THE SAME TIME (or close to it).

    I watched a RAID 5 array with 7 drives โ€“ all top-rated ones with 5 year warranties, and every drive died during it’s 67th month. Sometimes quality control is too good.

    I told this story to a gentleman that works in the IT group at Bank of America. He grinned and said โ€œYou too, huh?โ€ It seems that he got bit badly a few years ago in the same way, and changed how they do things. Now when they get a new server into the department the drives from it get date labels and are distributed, one each, to other servers, and the drives that come out of the other servers, get plugged into the new server. And each drive in the new server is from a different year (if they can) or at least a different half-year.

    So spend some time and think of how Murphy could bite you in the back end, and adjust your procedures to prevent him from getting even a nibble.

    Oh โ€“ and check out โ€œA driveโ€. Like mosy but bigger.


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