COMMENT: Backup is boring but essential

We have featured many backup solutions here on Pocket-lint over the last few years and new products appear every month. There are stalwart providers and newbies, software, hardware, combined software and hardware and the area showing the most growth, online. The backup message is being pushed from all angles, with such force that it is difficult to ignore. But how many of us are taking any notice?

If you work in an office or a large corporation, backup is something that happens all around you, but you rarely see any of it in action. Even those remote workers are often covered through VPN access, webmail through an Exchange Server and so on. Occasionally something will fail, your IT bods will swing into action and after a minor hiccup, you’ll get back to work as normal. (That’s the theory anyway.)

Step out of that office, either into your home, or your own small business and backup becomes a real issue. You suddenly become responsible for a whole range of things that you previously took for granted. But this is not only a business concern, it is a growing issue for any one with a digital camera, for example. Where you once had a stack of photos in a cupboard, you now have a dilemma. How do I save these for a rainy day?

Two things are helping people to approach their backup needs, the first is the proliferation of high-speed internet access and the second is falling price of storage hardware. These things provide different solutions to the same problem, but can often be accessed through the same software, such as Bullguard and Webroot.

Whilst backup software is getting more user-friendly, it is still lacking in some areas. You can usually opt for the entire disc image route, or you can select to backup "files" (usually photos, video and documents), but often you’ll find that some critical items are not automatically covered: like your address book and your calendar.

Software companies provide backup services online, into "the cloud", as well as down more traditional routes off-line. The disadvantage of backup online is that you have to share your internet connection with your backup, which can slow things down. Ok, you can schedule your backup for the dead of night, but if you use a notebook, you probably don’t want to leave it on all the time.

An additional problem here is one of cost. You have to pay an ongoing subscription for your online space. If you run your own business, this might seem like a reasonable overhead, but if you are a home user looking to store years of photos, it might not seem like such a bargain, so you may prefer to opt for an offline solution, and only pay out once for your own hardware.

Picking though the options, you’ll find USB drives, network drives, with or without their own software, wired and wireless; you’ll find network drives that you can access over the internet, you’ll find all shapes, colours, sizes and capacities. But once you have your drive home and your backup schedule running, is that the end of the story?

Unfortunately it seems not. I have a home set-up that is not untypical: a router providing wired network access to an old desktop PC and a network drive (predominantly used for backup) and a wireless connection for my notebook. All my computing is now handled by the notebook, but I wanted to preserve the old desktop PC for the data on those drives. It is usually switched off, so not an ideal location for the backup of working files.

However, the weakest link in this set-up was the fall back. The thing that was supposed to sit quietly in the corner and come to the rescue should all else fail was the first thing to go. Searching the Internet will yield a huge number of similar anecdotal stories of external drives gone wrong. Often this is same hardware as you’d find in your desktop PC but in a different box, so I was surprised to see it stop functioning within a few months.

My desktop PC has two drives, one new at the last rebuild (which was in 2005), the other harvested from a previous PC, bought in 2003, both have been trouble free through their entire life. You can’t help but wonder at the contrast: how did external drives go so horribly wrong? Why is this the experience of so many users?

Is there a single solution to back-up?

I’m starting to think not. It looks more like belt and braces is the only approach to take, online and off, a considered selection of services to ensure that all your data is recoverable and accessible, without spending the earth.

The services you pick may take you into the realms of cloud computing (a separate, but not wholly unconnected issue), but the problem you have is how to sensibly manage the masses of data you already have and how to integrate existing processes to make this a seamless existence.

In the meantime I have do concede that the wife was right: we should have printed all those baby photos...


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