Published Sep 19, 2004

Only a geek backs up his (or her!) data, right? So I must be an uber-geek, because I have two levels of data backup going on: backup to external media, and CVS. Both are pretty easy to get running on your Windows machine, and everybody should do them!

Main thing — and what you should definitely do, because it’s pretty cheap and easy — is back up to external media. This could be a USB, USB2 or FireWire hard drive you buy, it could be a CD, or it could be one of those Internet backup people (in fact, if it’s really essential data, you should probably back it up to external media you have at home and one of those Internet backup companies, so that the data’s still fine if your house burns down). CDs are incredibly cheap, but can’t be reused much (even the CD-RW kind), and, these days, prices are down to about $1/GB for those external drives.

I had an old external FireWire drive left over from when I put a larger hard drive in my old PowerBook, so I just kept that drive and bought a FireWire card for my new Dell Latitude. Now I back up my data weekly to that drive; my Quicken file, all my schoolwork, photos, etc. (my music gets backed up to my iPod). I use a simple and cheap little app called Argentum Backup. Substantially free of many of the whiz-bang features you find out there, Argentum is really easy-to-use and doesn’t have many requirements at all — simple and stays out of your way is my kind of program! Just select the folders you want to back up and let the thing go. Since it just zips everything up, to save space, you don’t even need to go through some complicated, time-consuming process to restore a lost or broken file. Oh, but do turn off Norton’s “scan inside archives” feature when you’re restoring files, unless you have plenty of time to waste waiting and waiting. This system came in handy just last week, when a broken sync between Outlook and my cell phone resulted in some lost contacts — I just grabbed the old Outlook .pst from the previous week and imported the missing contacts back into Outlook.

The second backup method I use is CVS. This is a simple tool, built for software developers, that lets you keep multiple versions of a single file at the same time (it offers a lot more features than that, but this is what it’s useful for in this context). CVS works in a pretty easy way; you tell it what files it should track, and, each time you save changes to a file, you tell CVS that you updated the file — you can even leave a note in CVS specifying what changes were made. If, at a later point, you want to go back to an earlier version, you just ask CVS to tell you what versions of the file you have and you can restore any one or several of those files. This came in particularly handy earlier this week when I wanted to play around with some changes to a presentation my group was making. I checked the presentation into CVS, made a series of changes, looked at them, decided that the end product didn’t work, and restored an earlier version (with some changes) from CVS. The notes in CVS even told me which earlier version I wanted to go back to! All of this without various meaningless “presentation.doc” “presentation2.doc” “presentation3.doc” files. I use a great GUI for CVS called TortoiseCVS, which integrates CVS into Windows Explorer in a really seamless way.

So, all this — yes, it’s geeky, but it’s useful, too, and it requires very little effort. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Take a look at your files, and imagine what you’d cry over if you lost, and what you’d have to recreate straight away
  2. Now you’ve got a good idea of what files you need to back up. So, how often do those files change? For instance, you may add new photos every month when you go on vacation, but never touch your old photos.
  3. For files that change only once, just back up to CD when you put them on the computer — almost everybody has a CD burner on their computer these days.
  4. For files that change more often — your novel, your Quicken file — a CD can be inconvenient. Also, CD-RWs are inexpensive, and may have a limited life. For stuff you’re backing up more regularly, an external hard drive may be more useful. You can just plug in and back up every day.
  5. Now make a plan. How often will you back up? Weekly may be OK.
  6. Now lay in your supplies. Do you need to buy a new external drive? A spindle of CDs? Make sure your backup materials are on hand.
  7. If you’re just backing up a few files, you can copy them over by hand. If not, you might need to buy a program to do it. I recommend one above.
  8. Now run your first backup.
  9. If you want to run CVS, install it now.
  10. Now check all your files into CVS and commit the initial version.
  11. You’re pretty safe!

[Specific instructions added in response to post below]


how do you recommend i back my stuff up?

Check out the instructions above and tell me what questions you have after!

Ok, I’ve checked out the instructions above. How do you recommend I back up my stuff? ;-)

Well, Master Control Program, if that’s really who you are, I’d recommend one of two things, either singly or in combination:

  • Back up all of your once-changing files (MP3s, pics) to CD
  • Back up all of your often-changing file, or at least the most recent projects that you haven’t finished needing yet (will study for a test, haven’t turned in yet) to either your space on the school network drive, if you have some, or using this nifty service I just had recommended and that I might sign up for, iBackup, which offers a cheap little plan with enough space to save your really critical stuff you’ll die without (50MB) for just $30/year.