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  • Windows Backup Strategies

    By Jon Chappell |


    Re-Examining a Critical Process


    By Jon Chappell


    I never really had a cohesive computer backup strategy plan until recently. I decided to get serious once a friend had a catastrophic hard disk failure (actually both of his internal disks failed irretrievably due to a lightning strike and power surge), and had to spend hundreds of dollars at a specialized facility to get only part of his valuable data back. And even with many of his documents retrieved, he still faced weeks of reconstruction work ahead of him.


    “We Can Rebuild It, We Have the Technology”—Sure, at a Price

    It was the “reconstruction” part that got to me. I always thought of the truly valuable stuff as the documents I created with my applications, not the applications themselves nor the look and structure of the hard disk. Once my friend got the data back, I witnessed weeks of work, anxiety, and delay as he tried to “reinstall his life,” as he put it. My thinking had always been, “I can reinstall the applications from my binder of installation disks. The truly irreplaceable things were the documents created from the apps.”

    In my “document centric” approach, I created a master folder of documents, inside of which were directories broken out by activity or media (family photos, work DAW and doc files, etc.). Even with all these different file types, the master folder was fairly small, storage-wise. So to back up all the documents was just a simple drag-and-drop action to another, usually external, FireWire or USB drive.

    But being in on a painful resuscitation of a computing environment made me realize how naïve that notion is, especially when you have to rebuild everything, including an operating system install. (And if you have an OEM computer, like a Dell, you may not even have OS install disks.) So I looked into a bona fide software-supported backup strategy. The best solution for me was disk imaging, and the best program was Acronis True Image.


    A Disk in My Own Image

    The main advantage of disk imaging over other types of backup is that you clone your entire hard disk, including applications, operating system, settings, and of course, documents. So while there are specific backup program that don’t do disk imaging—and disk imaging isn’t just limited to backup—you can use disk imaging as a backup solution, and it works flawlessly.

    And as a dedicated backup program, True Image is quite versatile in its options. For example you can choose incremental backup vs. a differential backup; the installation CD can function as a boot disk, and will run a full restore on a damaged or corrupted hard drive. The kicker is, Acronis True Image costs about $39. So even if it took me three full work days to restore my computer from installation disks rather than a disk image (and that would be highly optimistic), it means that I would have saved $39 over three days—making my time worth about $1.65 an hour. See how shortsighted I was?



    Fig. 1: Acronis True Image is a disk imaging program, which means it makes an exact clone of your hard drive—including the operating system and all settings and configurations.


    Scatter the Data, It’s a RAID

    Once you understand how your particular program works (Norton Ghost is another popular disk imaging program), you must choose what to back up to. Conventional wisdom dictates that you back up to a drive you can remove from the immediate area, in case the “mechanical failure” your hard disk incurs is the result of a house fire, flood, earthquake, or theft. So imaging to an external drive is a good idea, followed up by removal of the drive to an off-site location.

    But I’m always worried that the backup disk will fail, too, and for folks like me there’s something called RAID. RAID stands for Redundant Array of Independent Disks, and in this case, “redundant” is a good thing. RAID scatters data over different physical drives, either for speedy retrieval or data security or both. RAID has several modes (there’s an excellent tutorial on the subject in Wikipedia), but the best one for small studios and home users is RAID 1. It’s where two disks are used to store data, and that data can be retrieved from either disk, should the other one fail. In a RAID system, it’s best to use two disks of the same size and type, so I opted for a PCI-to-ESATA (external SATA) card that breaks out into two SATA drive ports (cost: $25). Keep in mind, a RAID system won’t protect you from a virus, because it will corrupt both disks. But as a measure for mechanical redundancy, RAID 1 is the way to go.



    Fig. 2. This PCI-to-ESATA card allows you to hook up two ESATA drives—ideal for hard disk backup and disk imaging.


    Using a PCI card allows me to put in two removable eSATA drives, which is much faster than FireWire or USB 2.0. Plus, should I ever have to boot from a drive other than my internal one, it’s much easier to swap out my original SATA boot drive with another SATA disk. As an alternative, you can always use an eSATA to USB connection. There are many possible solutions, including the lowly bus-powered USB external drive. Anything is better than nothing, though if your boot drive gets damaged (and that’s why you’re having to do a restore in the first place), you might consider backing up to a bootable drive platform.


    Fig. 3. You can always use an ESATA dock, which connects a hard drive to your computer via a USB port.


    Verstehen Sie WinDirStat?

    When you get into the habit of doing regular backups, you realize that it’s possible to back up all your data all the time. But you find that you end up wasting hours, electrons, and bandwidth for stuff you don’t need. So how do you cull the biggest culprits? Before backing up, I try to rid my drives of sector-hogging files with WinDirStat, a wonderful little utility that indexes your hard drive and organizes the files by size.

    The great thing about WinDirStat is that it has a graphic interface that correlates with the hierarchical directory-tree display. You’re presented with a colorful “checkerboard” with different-sized squares, and the colors and patterns help you quickly distinguish the separate squares. The size of the squares represent the amount of data. Clicking on a square causes the menu tree to jump to the appropriate file or folder. Clicking on a folder in the top pane puts a white frame around the corresponding square in the graphic display below. The squares represent additional folders and files. “Textured” squares are actually folders comprised of individual squares (files).



    Fig. 4. Drilling down to a single file by selecting squares (indicated with white border) containing more folders and even more files. “Textured” squares are folders made up of files (individual squares).


    Drilling down the menu tree also selects the corresponding square, indicated with a white frame. When on the hunt for deletion-worthy files, I use the checkerboard—it’s much faster and more intuitive than drilling down through the menus, though of course you don’t know what the squares are in advance. But it works quickly.


    Restore Complete

    So my three tools for backup are as follows: 1) Acronis True Image, a disk imaging program; 2) external drives in a RAID 1 configuration; and 3) WinDirStat to regularly inspect my discs for large files that can be jettisoned. It should go without saying that I regularly employ two utilities built right into windows: Disk Cleanup and Defragmentation. But I’ve found with backup and computer maintenance, you can’t really assume anything as “goes without saying.” Many times it has to be said. Even for people who should know better.


    5318ee86b5f72.jpg.f463dfeee1b0daad1d4aad2762afe0da.jpgJon Chappell is a guitarist and Associate Editor at Harmony Central. He has contributed numerous musical pieces to film and TV, including Northern Exposure, Walker, Texas Ranger, All My Children,  and the feature film Bleeding Hearts, directed by actor-dancer Gregory Hines. He is the author of  The Recording Guitarist: A Guide for Home and Studio (Hal Leonard), Essential Scales & Modes (Backbeat Books), and Build Your Own PC Recording Studio (McGraw-Hill), and has written six books in the popular For Dummies series (Wiley Publishing).

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