Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

Looking Forward, Backing Up

February 2007

By Mike Gould

Stuff Happens. "The best-typed data o' Mice an' Men, Gang aft agley", as poet Robert Burns once said (translation: Stuff Happens, especially to computers. Especially to un-backed up computers). In the poem, the poet apologizes to his mouse for accidentally formatting his hard drive and losing that series of poems he was getting ready to email to the Aberdeen AdVisor. Pretty prescient for someone living in 1785, if you ask me.

I recently had the unhappy task of helping someone with a dead hard drive, and it was not a pretty sight. To help prevent such misery, this article attempts to beat some sense into advise everyone out there in BizMo land that next to learning how to type, learning how to back up is the most important computer skill in today's business computing environment.

Backing up is the process by which you copy your files onto another volume, such as a server or external drive, or to some form of removable media, such as a CD, DVD, or whatever the current medium of choice is.

The Rules
Rule number one: always have your data in at least two places.
Rule number two: make sure that second place is secure, tested, and in a future-proof format, preferably off-site.
Rule three: Stuff happens, and at some point you will be very, very glad that you followed rules one and two.

What to Back up
Anything that will take time to re-create. Your files, your email, your settings, your downloaded music and movies (these you can backup to your iPod), pretty much everything on your computer's hard drive except the system and applications. System and apps you can re-load from your installation CDs; in a sense they are already backed up. And you do know where your appropriate CDs and DVDs are, right? In that shoebox in your second desk drawer?

If you are fortunate enough to have an IT person at your business, she or he has hopefully already trained you how to do all the above, probably backing up to a server on your company's network. That server is also probably backed up, so you should be covered. But don't assume that is always the case; automated backup systems can fail just like anything else. If a file or folder full of files is mission-critical, a quick dump to CD or USB Flashdrive can be just the ticket, with some security caveats covered below.

If you practice tidy computing and keep all your files in your Documents folder (Mac or PC), all you have to do is keep that backed up. That will usually keep your email backed up, depending on which flavor of email you use. If you use web-based email, your messages and address book should be on your ISP's server, which should be backed up regularly by the postmaster. If you use a client-based email program such as Eudora (as I do), your emails should be found somewhere in your Documents folder and backed up when you process that folder.

Automation Ally
Backing up needs to be a regular activity, best done daily. But who has the patience to sit and burn CDs when life awaits beyond the business doors? Not me; I have a robot do this for me. I have decided that in my particular small business environment, backup copies are best done to an external hard drive, overseen by a software package called Retrospect, in the dead of night. Consider: if you backup to CDs and have to restore your files, you face a full day of patiently feeding disks into your CD drive to bring things back to normal. This is because CDs can hold just 700MB (DVDs hold 4.7GB), which means backing up a full data set can take a lot of disks.

With an external drive, a restore (putting the files back to a drive from backup disks) can be automated to take just a couple of hours and can happen unattended. With the price of a 500GB drive approaching $200, and Retrospect often thrown in for free with the drive, this works for me. If I was more than a one-man show, I could buy a fancier version of Retrospect and backup all my employees' files to a server in the middle of the night. Retrospect is what I use, but there are a lot of other fine products out there that do this, and both Microsoft's upcoming Vista and Mac's new OS 10.5 promise to have such features built into their systems when they arrive.

Checking it Twice
Once you have made your backups, test them. If burning to CD, open the CD and make sure you can read the files therein. If using an automatic system, try recovering a particular file. I've heard horror stories of recoveries that went seriously bad because the backup files were damaged, missing, or the system never kicked in when it was supposed to. I check my Retrospect logs from time to time, and actually used the backup over my Christmas break to restore a mangled email configuration file, saving me a lot of time - my backup system paid for itself that day.

Storing backup copies of files off-site is a good idea, as it makes possible data recovery after a catastrophe - your office burning down, etc. But make sure you store the CDs or whatever in a secure place - a bank vault for instance. Whatever you do, don't store your backups next to your computer; a thief who steals your computer might steal them as well and all your work would be for naught. If you do temporary backups to flashdrives, guard them religiously and consider the newer ones with biometric (fingerprint) authentication means. That way if your drive is lost or stolen, your confidential information is not at risk.

And keep in mind that all storage technologies mature and then die. If you have old, archived files on floppies or older media, you should move the data to some more modern form of storage before it becomes impossible to find floppy drives to read them. Ditto for Zip carts, and other obsolete means of storage.

Mike Gould, is a part-time mouse wrangler for the U of M, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Consulting/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a member of, and welcomes comments addressed to

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