Backup Strategy, Part 2

What is the proper way to backup an entire PC?  Today we’ll explore the methods I use to do a System Backup.

Okay, I’ve been round and round this topic a bunch of times and have tried many methods.  I think I have come up with a very workable solution for having a complete backup of your system.ADHERER

What is a System Backup and why do we need one?

A System Backup is one that backs up the entire computer, or at least the minimum amount of files, to be able to restore a dead computer to a functional status.  Therefore (and this is assuming a Windows platform), this backup should include Windows and all your drivers at the very minimum.  But it also helps to get as much software on it as you can.

I use Norton Ghost.  There are other similar programs, most of which are good.  The main thing to look for is the ability to back up your entire system while Windows is running.  If you have to reboot to safe mode or something to do the backup, then you may find it too cumbersome to keep up with.

The first thing to do is to formulate a strategy for backing up your computer.  This means partitioning your hard drive to makes things easy.  Why is this, and what is partitioning?  Well, partitioning a hard drive is to take a single hard drive and divide it up logically into separate partitions, each of which acts like its own hard drive.  There are many ways to do this.  I typically use Partition Magic.  Basically, if you are trying to partition a hard drive that already has stuff on it, you will need a “non-destructive” partition manager.  Windows does not have such a thing.  But a new hard drive can easily be partitioned in Windows.

Why do we need to partition?  Well, most System Backup programs will only back up entire partitions.  Therefore, you want to set your partitions accordingly.  I think the best way to explain this is to talk about how I do it.

I always have two physical hard drives in every system I own.  This is more for convenience of the backup than anything else.  You could get away with one.  I take the primary hard drive and create a partition of 20-30GB.  That is plenty for Windows and all of the programs you might install.  The remainder of the hard drive is placed into another partition where I place my data.  The second drive is for backups.

Then, when I create a System Backup, I can backup just that 20-30GB and I won’t have to backup anything else.  The reasons for this are pretty simple.  I want to keep the backup as small as possible, which means I keep the data out of it.  That gets backed up separately.  Furthermore, since data changes often, if it is part of a backup, then that backup needs to be done more frequently.  Finally, data isn’t necessary to get a PC up and running.

Most PCs today come with some form of System Backup already done for you.  Some place them in hidden partitions on the hard drive.  Others give a “restore” CD.  These are fine, but there are a few problems with them.  First, they put the PC back the way it was when you bought it.  That means that all the crapware and trialware that PC manufacturers try to get you to buy is on there.  Second, if you make any changes to the hardware of your system (new hard drive, new video card, whatever) then the drivers won’t be correct.

But even so, that is a good place to start.

Essentially, the best thing to so is to have 2 System Backups.  Let’s say you have a barebones system.  You just installed Windows yourself, for instance.  Make sure all of the proper drivers are installed and all of the hardware is working perfectly.  Take a System Backup at this point.

Next, install all of the software you like to use.  Office.  Thunderbird.  Firefox.  Text editors.  Compilers.  Update everything to the current release.  Take another backup here.

Now, from time to time, make another System Backup, but keep those first two always.  Each of the ones after this point can simply overwrite the most recent one.  If you change out any hardware, make another backup before and after, just to be safe.  Once the new hardware is working perfectly, you can abandon the “before” backup.

Now, here’s what you have.  You have a barebones backup, so that if you realize that you have a lot of garbage loaded that you’re tired of and won’t uninstall very well, you can go back to it and then start installing the programs you currently use.  This is helpful if you are constantly trying new programs, shareware, freeware, etc.

Second, you have a backup that will take you back to where you can at least do most of what you need to.  Perhaps some of the programs are old versions that will need to be updated, but at least a problem won’t take you out of commission for too long.

Third, you have a backup that isn’t too old that can get you back up and running reasonably quickly, but it may have some things on there that you wish you didn’t.

Since you paritioned your drive and kept your data separate, that means that these backups are as small as they can be.  The first one may be 6-8GB.  The second one probably around 10-12GB.  And the third one will be 10-20GB, depending on how much you like to install new stuff.

And, occasionally, the best thing a good Windows user can do is to completely reinstall his system to totally de-crappify it.  That first or second backup is perfect for that.  You won’t have to find all your driver disks.  You won’t have to go through the whole Windows installation and find your activation code.  And if you use the second backup, you won’t have to dig up all the old installation disks which, if you’re like me, are pretty near irretrievably buried in a closet somewhere.

But here’s where this strategy breaks down.  Say you change some hardware.  What now?  You just installed new hardware and new drivers.  If you backup now, you will still have all the additional stuff that you may wish you didn’t.  You pretty much have to keep that driver disk handy until you can go back to step one and re-create your clean backup.  Then you can install the new driver and make a new first backup.  Things would be much simpler and better if Windows simply didn’t require a good reinstall every now and then.

But then, for most of you, you won’t replace any hardware unless it’s defective anyway, so the strategy holds pretty well.

Okay, so why the two hard drives instead of one.  Well, if you have one drive and partition it and place the backups on the second partition, two things happen.  One, the backups will take a big part of that drive.  That’s not necessarily such a bad thing, since most hard drives are pretty large these days.  But the second thing is that if that hard drive itself goes bad, you are screwed.  You’ve lost both your primary Windows partition and the backups.  If the backups are on another drive, then you can swap the bad hard drive out and restore from the other drive to get back up and running quickly.

It is, of course, wise to take the backups and make a second copy somewhere else.  I put them on removable drives.  And the reason that placing the backups on only removable drives is pretty simple.  In order to restore, you will have to boot to a special restore CD or diskette.  And unless your BIOS can see and read USB hard drives, the restoration program might not have the software to do so.  So, it is a good idea to test your restore procedures to make sure you are okay.

It is possible to break the backups up into CD- or DVD-sized chunks and burn them there.  But restores from removable media are gawdawful slow!  Plus, if any one of those disks gets damaged, your whole backup is lost.

So, in the end, the safest and fastest place to store your System Backups is on another internal hard drive.

Okay, tell me what you like or dislike about this strategy of backing up your PCs.  If you have better ideas or better programs to do this, please let everyone know.  And here’s hoping that you never need your backups.

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