Backup! Backup! Backup!

We have all heard the common and trite clichés that the only things that are for sure are death and taxes. For computer users, regardless of operating system or brand of computer, there is a third “truth,” and that is that hard drives will eventually fail. Hard drives, regardless of brand and reputation, are electro-mechanical devices with a lot of very fast moving parts, motors and some type of electronic controller that makes it work. Heat, physical shock (like dropping on the floor), electrical problems (power surges) and normal friction and wear can cause hard drives to deteriorate followed by a likely catastrophic failure.

Many of the more modern hard drives incorporate “SMART” technology (Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology) that monitors the hard drive for reliability issues and notifies the user if it detects a pending failure. Once warned, the user should immediately verify that the drive is properly backed up and then quickly consider replacing the drive. Many of the hard drive manufacturers provide free SMART monitoring software, or a similar utility. Seagate, for example, offers its free “SeaTools” utility that “ ... includes several tests that will examine the physical media on your Seagate or Maxtor disk drive and any other non-Seagate disk drive.” A 17mb download, this free utility will run on almost any brand of hard drive and display its findings such that the user can have real-time information about the condition of a hard drive. There are many other hard drive monitoring utilities available, both free and commercial. For free hard drive monitoring software, consider any of the top rated hard drive monitoring utilities listed at I have been happy using a $15 program (sometimes offered as a free promotional download) “Ashampoo HDD Control,” which provides comprehensive hard drive monitoring services, as well as drive cleaning and defragmentation functions.

One of the earliest fables (with some truth built in) about hard drives is a component of Murphy’s law, which says, “A properly backed up hard drive will never fail; but the first time that you do not have a current backup, it will always fail at the most inopportune time.” This has evolved into the current truism that says, “The three most important words in computing are Backup, backup and backup!” On my computers, I routinely copy my critical data files to USB flash drives, burn them to CDs, and use a file copy backup utility with a high capacity USB external hard drive. Actually, I use multiple backup devices for critical data files because I like the idea of redundancy, and backup media and devices have become incredibly inexpensive. During the hurricane evacuations for Rita, Gustav and Ike, the very first item I packed was my external hard drive with my latest backup, along with some backup CDs with additional copies of the most critical data files from my desktop computer.

There is an abundance of good quality backup software available, and for several years I have been using NTI Shadow (, a $40 product that transparently maintains backups in real-time of all of my critical data files on my external USB hard drive. When first installed, Shadow automatically copies all selected file types to the chosen backup device and then maintains the backup set without any necessary user intervention. As soon as I save a file to my hard drive, Shadow instantly copies the file to my backup device. For sequential files, such as word processing or spreadsheet files, Shadow can selectively save each version, as it is updated or saved, preserving the older versions in case they are ever needed. I use Shadow to automatically maintain or “synchronize” data files, photos, videos, music files, e-mail and other non-system information. Since all of the files are saved in native format, the backed up files can be read, copied, or opened, with no special or proprietary software required. Over the years, I have been very satisfied with NTI Shadow, and continue to use it.

For those who prefer free software, there are many excellent programs available, all with different feature sets and offering different types of backup ( has guidance to help the user select the type of backup program desired. A file backup program does precisely that — maintains copies of files. A full backup is a type of backup where the entire hard drive is copied, often by creating an exact digital image of the hard drive. A differential backup, after a full backup is created, only backs up new or modified files. An incremental backup is somewhat like a differential backup, but only backs up the files that were created or modified since the last full or incremental backup.

Using a free software product, Paragon Backup and Recovery (Advanced) Free edition (, I periodically create an “image backup” which basically creates a bit by bit digital image of my entire hard drive as it is at that instant, and writes that image to my external USB hard drive. The software provides for the creation of a bootable Linux recovery CD that contains the drivers and utilities necessary to restore the hard drive. In the event of a catastrophic hard drive failure, I can purchase a new hard drive, install it in my computer, boot the computer with the recovery CD, and using the image file on the external drive, recreate my hard drive precisely as it was at the time of the backup, with all programs and data files intact. Once the image file is installed, the computer will boot and run just as it did before the hard drive failure, but with a new hard drive. Other than the time, expense of a new hard drive and a little aggravation, my computer will be fully functional just as it was prior to the hard drive failure. This is the primary reason for having a current image backup. This Paragon Backup and Recovery software can also create and maintain file level backups, perform other backup functions, and is a comprehensive backup utility. For most users, this Paragon software will be most adequate, as it is capable of performing all desired backup and restore functions.

Other top-rated free drive imaging programs are listed at I strongly encourage all computer users to frequently create an image backup such that a failed hard drive can be easily replaced and all files and programs restored. Since I use multiple external USB hard drives, I sequentially create an image on one external drive, and then use a different external drive for my next image backup. By doing this, I always have at least one functional image capable of being restored just in case there is a problem on one of the external drives. If that happens, I might not have the most recent image file, but at least I can be back in service with minimal loss. Since my data files are continuously backed up by Shadow (I keep a redundant set of those files as well), between the image file and my Shadow files, it is unlikely that I would lose anything of significance.

There is no need to suffer a hard drive failure with the resultant loss of all programs and data files. With the availability of several excellent free hard drive monitoring and backup utilities, as well as several comparable commercial products, and the declining cost of high capacity storage media, lost data should be a crisis of the past, as it is easily preventable or recoverable.

Listen to Ira Wilsker’s weekly radio show on Mondays from 6-7 p.m. on KLVI 560AM.