Part I: Backups

Everyone knows that you're supposed to back up your work. But...

Why? 

There are many reasons why you should back up (make copies of) your important computer files. Here are just a few of them.

Where? 

Backing up involves copying files from your everyday working hard drive(s), but what should be the destination for these backups. Hopefully the following table should help.

Destination Advantages Disadvantages Notes
Same hard drive
(different drive letter and/or folder)
Almost trivial to perform backups. Almost no safety. Admittedly partial hard drive failures can occur, but it's more likely that the whole thing will fail. In my opinion, this is not backing up; this is just making extra copies.
Another hard drive
(Beware that different drive letters can actually be held on the same physical disk)
Fast and easy to perform backups, e.g. to a plug-in USB hard drive. Potential hard drive failure is the main driving reason for backing up... ...so why just transfer the risk to another hard drive? Yes, there is some safety in having redundant systems but in my opinion this is a lazy person's backup technique, carrying the highest risk (apart from not backing up at all).
Memory card/stick Convenient and quick for storage. Easy to misplace the media! Poor shelf life compared with more permanent storage media. Good for daily and incremental backups (storing changed files only, rather than the whole set).
CD-ROM & DVD Long shelf life; permanent storage. Takes longer to "burn" disks. Probably the best method in terms of both safety and convenience.
Internet Service
(e.g. ISP provided backup facilities, e-mailing yourself files)
Off-site, therefore good against fire/theft risk. False sense of security. May not be easy to retrieve material. Reliance on third parties. E-Mail and internet "vault" storage is good as an additional off-site method, but I would not trust it as a primary backup method. When your computer fails, you may not be able to get to the internet for some time.
Paper (print-outs) Permanent storage. Pain in the backside to restore files: you have to type them in again. I consider this to be a worthwhile method in addition to others. It could be a life-saver in a "last resort" situation.

I personally adopt a daily backup to memory card strategy, combined with a weekly CD-ROM burn. I also keep monthly CD copies off-site, plus off-site paper copies of my most precious documents.

What? 

So what needs backing up and what doesn't? You might be tempted to play it safe and back up absolutely everything on your working hard disks. The truth is that there is no need for this, and you will very quickly run out of storage if you do. A better strategy would be to back up the things you cannot afford to lose and that are not recoverable from anywhere else. This usually means the documents, images, e-mails and other files that you create and work on. It's worth noting that:

So you'll need to make a judgement call on how much to back up in total. When it comes to your personal documents and files, I recommend backing up all of them, unless you're absolutely sure you don't mind losing them.

A word of warning: not everything is where you think it is! You might think all your precious files live under "My Documents" but you can be sure they don't. What about you e-mails (if you use other than web-mail)? What about all the settings and customisations for your software? Your profile settings, desktop colours, short-cuts? You'll find that these are actually all over the place and sometimes in the Windows registry too. Here are some typical places where things live.

Please not that the above list is by no means complete and exhaustive. Don't forget to consider other users/logins besides the one you use every day, e.g. common stuff in "All Users".

Another thing to note very carefully, is that whenever a new version of an operating system comes out (e.g. Vista), things get moved around to different locations. I've based the above list on Windows XP, which I use currently.

How? 

The obvious way to perform your backups is to manually copy the files from the hard drive(s) to the storage media. For example, by dragging the icons in Explorer using the mouse. This will work fine...

...until you forget some files or folders. The problem with manual methods is that you're relying on your own memory for what to copy and where to. You might also accidentally copy the files in the wrong direction!

A better solution, in my opinion, is to use a script. This is a series of commands written into a small file, usually a batch file (.bat) for Windows. When the script file is executed, it will perform all of the commands to copy your files, therefore backing them up. A script is less forgetful than human memory - certainly true in my case - and it is easy to add more files and folders as your projects grow.

There isn't space to get into the nitty gritty of script writing in this article, but here's an extract from my backup script.

REM Plug in memory stick, which becomes the "E" drive
REM Copy all the files in all the folders in LIST...

set LIST=S:\Docs\Insight U:\Writing\Books U:\Outlook
for %%F in (%LIST%) do call :CopyFolder "%%F"
goto :EOF

:CopyFolder
copy "%~1\*" "E:\Backups"
goto :EOF

When? 

A rule of thumb is to back things up daily whenever they have been changed. This is because there's not much mileage in backing up a file that has already been backed up but not modified since then. Backing up only changed files is sometimes known as performing an incremental backup.

For added security and peace of mind, you can back up all of your files. This is known as a full backup and is often done less frequently than the incremental ones.

It is up to you to make a judgement call about what to back up and how often. I do daily incrementals and weekly full backups.

So Now I'm Safe?

So now you're regularly backing up your important files and documents, using a sensible strategy and onto appropriate media with low failure risk. This means that you're covered, right?

Wrong!

You've done half the job. The whole point of backing up is so that you'll be able to restore your files, should disaster strike. But...

It is my belief that backups are worthless unless they have been tested. You may not be able to test all of the things in the above list every time, but I do recommend that you give some serious thought to just how much confidence your backups are truly providing.