How To Backup Your PCs and Macs

Small businesses need a plan for backing up and restoring their data.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 10/1/2007; Law Practice magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; American Bar Association

I have lost no data (knock on wood) since October 2002. And in that case, I purchased a 15-year-old Macintosh to restore the one file that I lost. (See Zen And The Art Of Data Restoration, nothing.but.net, May 2003.) I have three Macintosh computers and five Windows computers, and all of them are backed up – twice. Here’s my backup plan. Including how much my backup obsession costs.

Keep Change Logs On All Computers

It is good programming practice to note changes to files in the headers of the files (and/or in README files), and I’ve been doing this for years for my software.

Similarly, I have a plain text file in the root directory of each computer named changelog-computername.txt in which I manually log all hardware and software changes to each computer. Keeping a changelog is not as hard as it sounds. I configure each admin account to automatically open the changelog file when I log on, which reminds me to update the changelog when I make changes to the computer’s hardware or software.

In an earlier life, I did quality assurance on both hardware and software (at BBN, if you’re curious). Whenever the hardware engineers changed the hardware and broke the system, they suspected bad software. Whenever the software engineers changed the software and broke the system, they suspected bad hardware. I learned that if you broke a system that was working before you touched it, then whatever you changed last is what caused the system to break. Software engineers broke software, hardware engineers broke hardware.

If you are having a problem with a computer, check the changelog. Whatever you changed last (hardware of software) most likely caused your problem. You will be amazed at how much debugging time a simple changelog file will save.

Here’s a snippet from my changelog for this computer:

#2007-07-07 - EJH - Upgraded OpenOffice from 2.2 to 2.2.1.
#2007-07-06 - EJH - Upgraded RealVNC from 4.0 to 4.1.2

Local Live Backup

If you have a few computers on your network, then consider purchasing a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device so that you can have a live backup of each computer on your network. I use the Snap Server for this purpose. (See Fun With File Servers, nothing.but.net, Nov. 2003). My 250 GB Snap Server includes backups of 100% of the hard drives for three computers, two Macs and one PC. I use PowerQuest DataKeeper software (included with the Snap Server) to backup the PC, PsyncX to backup the Macs.

Offsite Backup

I use Mozy on all of my Macs and PCs to backup all of my user data offsite. Although I was initially critical of Mozy, its new offsite backup service has been improving. As the price of broadband Internet connections and storage space decreases, offsite backup becomes both technically feasible and affordable.

On every single Windows computer, I backup the “Documents and Settings” directory, which contains all of my user data. I have about 35 GB of PC data backed up offsite with Mozy (about 7 GB per PC). Mozy’s restore feature is integrated with Windows Explorer, so you can right-click in any directory to restore accidentally deleted files to that directory.

On every single Macintosh computer, I backup the “Users” directory, which contains all of my user data. I have about 75 GB of Macintosh data backed up offsite with Mozy (about 25 GB per Mac). All of my personal media (MP3s, movies, photos, and the like) is stored on the Macintosh, which is why each Macintosh stores more data, on average, than each PC.

For both Mac and PC versions of Mozy, I use a private encryption key, which means that my data is encrypted on Mozy’s servers with a key that only I know. Mozy can be configured to backup when your computer is idle or at a specified time.

Finally, since I believe in a belt-and-suspenders approach, the computer that contains all of my client files is also backup up offsite with Connected.com.

Backing Up Non-User Data

I do not backup the Windows “Program Files” or the Macintosh “Applications” directories offsite. In my experience, if you need to restore part of an application, then you are better off reinstalling that application. As such, I store all installers, license, and documentation for each software program with the user data (i.e. somewhere in the “Users” directory for Macs and in the “Documents and Settings” folder for PCs), so my software installers are all backed up.

Restore – The Other Half Of Backup

It does you no good to have a good backup plan if you don’t periodically test it by restoring data. Fortunately, I manage to accidentally delete a file about once per quarter. I am pleased to report that I can always restore the file I am looking for either from the local Snap Server or from the remote Mozy and Connected.com accounts.

The Cost Of Backup

So how much does my backup plan cost?

  • A 250 GB Snap Server 110 costs $850. If the Snap Server lasts five years (a pretty safe assumption), it will cost $170/year.
  • Each Macintosh Mozy account costs $5/month for unlimited storage. That’s another $180/year for three Macs.
  • Each Windows Mozy account costs $4/month plus $25/month for 50 GB of storage. Note that I purchased 10 GB per PC but am only using 7 GB per PC. That’s another $540/year for five PCs.
  • Finally, my “extra” Connected.com account costs $75/month for 30 GB of storage. That’s another $900/year for one PC.
  • The grand total is $1790/year for 330 GB of storage for 8 computers. That’s $223.75 per computer per year for a redundant backup plan.

The Cost Of Not Backing Up

How much does your time cost? How much time will you save by properly backing up your data? How much time will it cost to replace data that you’ve accidentally deleted? How valuable is your client data? Your photos? Your music?

Three things in life are certain: death, taxes, and computer failures. Computers are machines that will eventually break. The components that break first are likely to be those with moving parts, such as fans and hard disks. A good backup plan is not inexpensive, but it is less costly than the alternative.

3 Replies to “How To Backup Your PCs and Macs”

  1. I set up most backup systems on inexpensive Dell boxes with Centos Linux with a general cost saving of $300. (Approximately $400 for stripped down Dell). Software was free. I recommend this system as an alternative to Snapservers which have a tendency to fail. Also, if you set up the system using rsync, you can configure archival storage with versioning on a hourly, daily or custom defined basis.

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