|Here's an overview of my
process(es) for back-ups. This isn't an instruction manual, just
a walk-through that includes some fairly technical bits that will get
you ready to take the plunge. This guide emphasizes one specific
program for back-ups, but the principles described apply to any back-up
method if you want to explore other options. No matter what
approach you take, you definitely need more baskets for your eggs,
especially when baskets are susceptible to fire, theft, and foxes.
Hard Drive Back-ups
You need two external
hard drives. Ideally, you need them to be twice the size of your
computer's hard drive or more unless you don't work with media (i.e.,
video or music) very much. The extra capacity will give you
flexibility to grow and to continue using them beyond the life of your
current computer. Additionally, you might use them for other
purposes beyond back-ups such as:
- Archiving files you want to
save but don't want to waste space on your computer.
- Transferring movies or other
large files between friends.
- Backing up a second (e.g.,
work, friend's) computer.
External hard drives are usually a
little more than $100. As of this writing, a 1TB is about $100
and a 4TB is about $150. In another six months a 4TB will be $130
and they won't make 1TB drives anymore, so the entire investment will
be under $300 in any case. I currently have a 1TB and a 2TB (the
latter bought after I dropped the 1TB while trying to carry it along
with a toddler and library books). They've lasted for years
because I only plug them in about once a month. I planning to
replace them with a pair of 4TB drives simply because I collect a lot
of digital junk (e.g., complete discographies, CBR comic books, etc.),
but that would be excessive for most folks.
There are a lot of ways you can
back up things, but each either has a learning curve and/or has
flaws. For example, you can back up everything manually (i.e.,
drag entire folders over). That's very easy, but it's the most
flawed approach because it's an indiscriminate transfer. You're
going to get everything backed up the first time you do it, but the
second time you try, you're going to run into two main problems as well
as some minor ones (I break these down more specifically in the
Switches section below):
1) You either need to
recopy everything or you aren't going to update any files that have be
2) Your back-up will contain
files that have since been deleted from the original, and these will
only accumulate over time unless you engage in a tedious process of
I use XXCopy for all my
back-ups. It's completely free. You probably haven't heard
of it, but if the name sounds familiar, that's mainly because it's a
play on the XCopy command from Windows. However, the program is
completely unrelated except in terms of some of its functions.
Like I said, there's a learning curve, but what I wrote below will get
you more than halfway over it.
Basically, it's a command-line
program, but I simply write these commands into a series of batch
files. (Batch files are just text files that run commands.
They just have the .bat extension that tells the computer they contain
a command rather than text for humans. If you had a computer in
the early '90s, you probably remember the autoexec.bat and maybe even
edited it. It's that simple.) By saving it as a batch file,
I never have to type the command again; I just click the file, and the
command is executed.
Each of my batch files deal with
just one big folder (and its subfolders) at a time so that I don't have
to do the entire hard drive at once. You don't have to do it that
way, of course, but there are several advantages such as letting you
skip over a folder while you clean it up before you back it up or not
making the hard drive run continuously for several hours if you have a
lot to back up and want to break things into more than one
session. Almost all of them look the same other than the folder
names, basically falling into two groups that address the above
Group #1: Copy without
updating/overwriting anything (i.e., just add new stuff since last
Group #2: Copy but update the
modified files (i.e., replace old files with the newer version).
Additionally, I have things
configured so the program deletes any extra files or subdirectories on
the back-up drive that are no longer present on the original. For
example, say you no longer like a particular band and delete their
music from your mp3 collection. Those songs got backed up last
time, but now they're gone from the original hard drive. This
ensures that they're scrubbed from the back-up drive too, otherwise
these unwanted files would accumulate over the years. (An
alternative scenario might be simply that you moved the original files,
so the back-up drive needs them gone from the original location since
they'll be copied to the new folder when you run the back-up.)
Most of my folders fall under the
Group #1 heading: I just need them backed up, not updated. They
are files that are never modified once they are created or
downloaded. This describes all your movies, photos, mp3s, and any
other media that won't change. (Note: I may edit them, but if so,
I'm going to save them under a new name to indicate that it's an edit.)
A typical command might look like:
xxcopy "c:\my movies" "e:\my
movies" /BB /S /Z
- The quotes are because
there's a space in the folder's name, and that confuses DOS because it
doesn't recognize where the names end and the next item begins.
Quotation marks package it all to the syntax is comprehensible.
If the name didn't have a space, it would be fine to do without quotes,
such as: xxcopy c:\mp3-jazz e:\mp3-jazz /BB /S /Z
- I have the external drive
listed as "E:" but that's not necessarily the case. I have a
work-around I won't detail here, but I can still do everything just
fine if my external drive happens to identify itself as, say, J: or K:
or L: and so on.
- I gave the destination
folder the same name as the source. You don't have to, but it
sure makes life simple.
- The things at the end of the
line are the "switches," which are covered below.
Group #2 includes folders where
you are modifying files. In other words, the file name stays the
same, but you're going in and editing or adding to it
periodically. This includes anything that involves writing such
as text documents (e.g., short stories, school assignments, journals,
address book, etc.) or spreadsheets (e.g., taxes, bills) or any code
(e.g., web pages, programming code, etc.).
A typical command might look like:
xxcopy "c:\my documents" "e:\my
documents" /D /S /Z
Note the different switches (/BB
vs. /D) from one group to the other. See below for what they do.
These are modifiers (or
modulators) of the command. In a way they're qualifiers or
adjectives that specify conditions for what/how to copy and/or
delete. As you can see in the examples above, it may take a
string of switches to get XXCopy to do everything you want in one
pass. Fortunately my examples are a shortcut: I've probably
already figured out the switches you need.
Here are the switches I use for my
back-ups (as in the examples above):
/BB Backs up
brand new files only (does not overwrite existing ones).
/D Copies newer files and brand
/S Copies directories and
subdirectories except empty ones.
/Z Deletes extra files or
subdirectories in destination.
To take it backwards, you can
think of it as four scenarios and which switch addresses each to best
mirror the contents of your hard drive:
- The file exists on hard
drive, but does not exist on the back-up drive = needs to be copied
over = /BB
- A newer version of the file
exists on hard drive, but the old version exists on the back-up drive =
needs to be overwritten to new version = /D
- The file has been deleted
from hard drive, but still exists on the back-up drive = needs to be
deleted from back-up drive = /Z
- The file exists on the hard
drive, but already exists on the back-up drive = no action needed, but
do not overwrite = both /BB and /D include this by default without
prompting to ask about wasteful overwrites.
Additionally, we are dealing with
not just a folder full of files, but with sub-folders and the
respective files contained in each, so the /S switch makes certain they
are included in all the above conditions as well.
Note that there are many, many
more switches than just these. I found that the above suit my
needs perfectly, but you may be more particular, depending on your
requirements for a given set of files.
But why two hard drives?
The hard drives are kept
in two places: on-site and off-site. Neither are ever connected
to the computer until they're needed to run a back up or to restore
On-site = It's right there
in your home, just not connected to your computer. Should your
hard drive fail (and it will, eventually), you can plug it in and
restore your computer right away.
Off-site = It's away from
the home. Because maybe it isn't your computer that fails.
It could be the house burned down or was robbed. This hard drive
was somewhere else, so your family photos, dissertation, and your
band's demo are safe.
For me, "off-site" means one drive
stays in a bank safety deposit box. I don't have to worry about
someone looking through it, it getting damaged, etc. I rotate
these out every couple months, otherwise the off-site back-up would
increasingly grow "stale" with old data. At some point a
back-upis too old to be of much use because your spreadsheets are
missing the last two months, you don't have the things you downloaded
for the latest project, etc.
In addition to the
external hard drives, I also burn DVD back-ups of a few things.
Mainly I focus on just My Docs and web pages (i.e., things I created)
and my pictures and movies (i.e., things that cannot be replaced).
DVDs may sound archaic and overly
redundant (read: paranoid) in an era of flash drives and clouds, but
they address two problems to which hard drive back-ups are susceptible.
- Error propagation -
The problem with updating files on your back-up (as opposed to saving
all versions of each) is that you can potentially back up corrupt files
without knowing it. And there are a lot of ways you can end up
with corrupt files: a physical error on your hard drive, a
virus/malware that rewrites files (e.g., inserts spam links into html
code), etc. However, a DVD is written once, then kept away from
the computer, so it's safe from read/write errors as well as anything
running in the background that might modify it. Problem solved.
- Unnoticed deletions -
What if you accidentally deleted a file you created? If you
notice it in time, then you can look it up on the back-up. But
what if you run the back-up before you notice the deletion? Now
it's gone from the back-up too. That's a problem. But DVDs
are forever (well, for our purposes). Problem solved.
Sure, a DVD can get scratched, but
if you keep them safely out of reach, they're likely to remain
untouched for decades, and these are your Plan D in any case, the two
external hard drives serving as secondary and tertiary sources while
you use your hard drive daily.
When's the best time to
do things? That depends on how much you hard drive changes.
For example, if you take loads of pictures daily, maybe you need to do
it weekly? I don't know. It's a cost/benefits analysis
you'll have to make, but I think monthly is a reasonable schedule for
me. If you do it more often, you probably haven't accumulated
much more work than that, but if you do it less, then you might have
lost quite a bit. Immediately after the birth of my kids I backed
things up more than once a week simply because I didn't want to lose
those images/video, but after those were safe, I went back to a more
I also clean up hard drive right
before each back-up (i.e., put the temp files where they belong, get
the files properly named, etc.). I always do this on the 1st of
the month, so it's easy to remember, and it forces me to file away
things that I needed to finish up with anyway. This all coincides
with other related activities like cleaning off the phones and
cameras. All the pictures and movies move off other devices, then
they get properly renamed, all before I back up the hard drive.
Other events include:
- Every other month: Rotate
out the on-site vs. off-site hard drives
- Annually: Burn a dvd of My
Docs and web pages
- Every 700MB of pics: Burn
dvds of pics. When I accumulate a DVD's worth of pictures, that's
when I burn a new DVD. There's no fixed time. I just make a
note where I left off, and about once a year or so I have to burn it,
so I check just about annually, though that period will depend on your
First step: Get organized
It's going to be a messy
back-up if you don't have the contents of your hard drive
organized. You have to do what works for you, but some things I
do that help me include:
- Keep things in or near the
root. In other works, have a real "My Documents" folder.
Don't use the Windows defaults like \Users\Alex\blah\blah\blah\.
The same applies to pictures and other media. Sure, you can back
them up, but it's more complicated to track something three or four
levels down, whereas I can get a good overview of all my belongings
just looking at the folder listing under C:\.
- Create "temp" folders.
Maybe you just need one, but I have three. This is where I put
new downloads or unzip files. I also have a temp folder
specifically for incoming pictures and videos from the phones and
cameras so I can delete the unwanted/bad shots and rename everything
before I move it where it belongs. These folders never get backed
up, so the don't catch anything that I may not save or have in the
- Make a "Stuff" folder.
This is a good catch-all for the misc. things you save. I've been
a digital pack-rat since long before Pinterest came online. For
example, "stuff" has the following sub-folders:
- art - Collection of
classical and modern art.
- books - An ebook
archive. (I like to have searchable versions of things I've read.)
- halloween - Photo
references (screen caps, etc.) for costumes and decorations.
- house - Ideas for projects
plus a lot of wiring diagrams.
- manuals - PDF files of
manuals for tools, appliances, electronics, and so on. (Easier to
find and search than paper!)
- media - Stuff from movies.
- posters - A collection of
- software - Installation
files. I have sub-folders for this too: drivers, games, graphics,
music, and web, just to keep it from turning into a massive list of
- Note: I also have a
"guitar" folder, but that had so many subs that I pulled it into the
- Create archive
folders. When a particular chapter of your life is complete, put
the associated files into a folder that can be skipped when you do your
back-ups. For example, course-work/assignments that will never be
revisited, your term papers and thesis, old tax records (you can pull
them out if you're ever audited, but you won't need to add to them),
etc. Similarly, I keep my photos grouped by year. When I
run a back-up, it skips over everything but the folder for the current
calendar year. At the end of the year, I edit the batch file to
read "2015" instead of "2014," and so on.
Postscript: What NOT to back up
I've already mentioned
by example many things you should back up. A good heading might
be "things that cannot be replaced," but it might also include "things
that could be replaced that would just be a big headache to download
again." For me, all of the above falls into three categories:
1. Personal - Files
pertaining to finances, photos, scans, home movies, etc.
2. Creations - Any art
(written or visual) you've made.
3. Mass-media - Music, movies,
and programs you've downloaded and want to save.
Pretty much everything that isn't
something you made or is meaningful to you = Don't bother backing it
- Don't back up program files,
just the installation file (See my "Stuff" folder above).
- Don't back up operating
systems. If your hard drive ever fails, you'll have to reinstall,
so just go with the installation disc(s).
- Don't back up things you
consume. If you download tv shows and watch them next week, you
don't need to waste the space they'll take up. They'll be gone
from the hard drive days later, but they'll stay on the back-up drive
for a month, long after you had any use for them. The same
applies to podcasts and other media.
- Don't back up temp
folders. Like I said above, I put a lot of things in temp
folders: recent downloads, files I need to rename, files I need to
convert, etc. But then I process them and put them where they
belong. It doesn't make sense to back up things you 1) may not
keep or 2) aren't in their final form yet. I usually go ahead and
process everything in my pre-back-up "clean-up" so everything new gets
Similarly, as mentioned above, you
can skip over folders that are rarely (if ever) updated such as the
"archived" folders or folders associated with last calendar year and
This is just an
overview. I'm emphasizing principles, not really the
nuts-and-bolts of what this will look like on your computer.
However, most of it is easy to apply, and I even have my collection of
batch files that are easy enough to adapt to your use. So here's
your "to do" list:
- Clean up your hard drive.
- Get a couple external hard
- Do the first back-up manually.
- When you feel like you have
everything backed up, that's the template for all future back-ups, so
you (or I) can create the batch files required.
- Run the back-ups every month
- Sleep easier.