Backup! Backup! Backup!

Backup! Backup! Backup!

I am fully cognizant of the level of frustration and anger when a hard drive or other mass storage device fails. While I am personally careful to keep contemporary backups of all of the critical data on all of my computers, all too often I receive calls of despair from individuals whose computer “crashed” and they are convinced that they have lost all of their important information. In some cases the alleged “crash” is not really a catastrophic hard drive failure, but a recoverable error or problem due to either hardware or software issues. Any mass storage device can and will fail, including hard drives (internal and external), USB devices, SSD (Solid State Drives), CD and DVD discs, and other devices

Sometimes the problem can be quickly and inexpensively resolved by replacing a hard drive controller that failed, replacing the battery in the BIOS on the motherboard, or reseating a cable that had worked loose from long-term minor vibration. Some apparent “crashes” are due to software issues including malware (viruses, worms, trojans, etc.) that corrupted the FAT (File Allocation Table), MBR (Master Boot Record), or critical sectors on the hard drive; most of these can be repaired with some effort and appropriate software. Sometimes apparently dead hard drives have corrupted or damaged sectors that were caused by some anomaly or a mechanically failing hard drive. I have had some occasional but apparently miraculous success using an old program, “Spinrite” (, which has a reputation for recovering apparently dead hard drives that had bad sectors on the drive. There are several free software utilities that can explicitly recover data from some damaged CD and DVD discs, USB drives, and other devices (

It seems that almost everyone is aware that they need to backup their files, but many (most) users do not perform that often simple task. There is a wide selection of backup items available, typically at a reasonable cost, especially when considering the cost, financial and emotional, of losing that data. As I type this, I have one of two external USB hard drives attached to my computer. Periodically I swap external drives, connecting one and placing the other in a small watertight container in a small fire resistant, locking box. With this redundancy, it is not likely that I will lose any significant data in the event of a crisis situation. The cost of this level of security is moderate, as each large capacity USB hard drive (1.5TB and 2TB) costs well under $100, or about a nickel per gigabyte. The price of high capacity external drives has been declining; the two that I am using are currently advertised online and at some big box stores for about $70 to $90 each. This weekend, one local big box store advertised a name brand 750MB external USB drive for $39!

While external hard drives are arguably the most popular backup mass storage devices, there are several other popular options. There are many so called “online” backup services, ranging from free to expensive, that allow the user to upload files to a remote server for backup purposes ( Google, Microsoft, Carbonite, TrendMicro provide this service. Many of the security suites, better known for comprehensive malware protection, now also include a large amount of online storage along with their security services, typically from 10GB to 50GB.

Some people prefer to use other devices to backup their data, and they are perfectly adequate for that purpose, subject to their obvious limitations. Almost all computers now have a built-in CD or DVD burner. Since blank CD and DVD discs are relatively cheap, often less than 20 cents each when purchased in spindles of 100, they are a popular and cost effective media for backup purposes. While cheap, thin and lightweight, their primary limitation is the fact that they are generally only recordable once (the “RW” or Rewritable media is slow, more expensive and approaching obsolescence), and have a limited storage capacity. Without using any of the common compression formats such as “Zip,” a CD can hold up to about 700MB, and a DVD can hold 4.7GB of data. These are fine for recording data files, but are generally too small in capacity for some types of backups.

Increasing in popularity as their prices plunge, USB flash drives (also called “thumb drives”) have become widely used as backup media. When on sale at the local big box stores or online, USB flash drives are well below a dollar a gigabyte, with many about 50 cents per gigabyte; recently 16GB flash drives were in the $10 range, and 32GB drives were under $20. USB flash drives are physically small, hence extremely portable. The downside of using flash drives is that while most of them are reliable, there is a moderate failure rate of the devices, which could result in loss of data if not redundantly stored on another device. Flash drives have a limited number of read and write cycles which, while high, may be reached if the drive is heavily written to and subsequently read. Despite their shortcomings, their size and price make them attractive for this purpose.

While native PC (or Mac) utilities can be used to copy files and directories directly to backup media, this is somewhat labor intensive, provided the user remembers to manually create and maintain the backups. There is a wide selection of free software available to create and maintain backups ( While most backup utilities will create and automatically maintain data file backups, some users prefer to periodically create and update an image file, which is a digital image of the hard drive. In the event of a catastrophic hard drive failure, a new hard drive of equal or larger capacity is installed in the computer, and the image file is copied to the new hard drive. It often requires a bootable CD to enable the installation of the image file from the external device, and most of the image backup software can also create that bootable recovery CD. Once the image is installed on the new hard drive, the computer boots and looks just like the now defunct hard drive had never failed, as it is an exact copy of the old hard drive. Some of the better backup utilities will create an image (a huge file) and then automatically create a series of incremental update files such that the backup is up to date, allowing the restored image (if necessary) to also be up to date.

It is not a question of “if” your drive will fail, but a certainty that it will eventually fail. It is far better to be prepared for that inevitable day than face the pain of losing all of your important files.


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