It is vitally important to back up your computer data, of course. Large companies usually have formal procedures for backing up their servers, on a daily basis or perhaps even more often than that. But it is equally important for small companies or freelance contractors to have an appropriate backup procedure in place, and even individual home users will probably have valuable data they would not like to lose.
In this article I will describe an automated way to create a compressed, strong encrypted backup which can be securely stored offsite (for example on an offsite web server, or your gmail account). Your backup will still be safe even if your building is struck by lightning, flood and an earthquake all at the same time.
Backing up your data is simply the act of copying your valuable data files to somewhere else, in case your working files are corrupted or destroyed in some way.
You might want to regularly copy your working files to a separate hard disk (perhaps on a different computer on the network, or maybe an external USB disk). This provides you with a first line of defence against a hard disk failure. If you set up an automated way of doing this, it can be quick and easy and you can back up every day.
You might also want to back your files up to a writeable DVD or other removable media. This provides a further defence against anything which might affect all of your hardware at the same time. For example, if someone broke into your office and stole all of the computers. Or a sudden power outage, if you were very unlucky, could crash several disks. These events are less likely than a disk failure, but it is good to know that you have your backup DVD safe in the cupboard. You might not need to do this quite as often.
Finally, what if disaster strikes and, say, the whole office burns down? Even your DVDs are gone. You obviously would hope that this will never happen, but it is worth insuring against by keeping an off site backup.
If you make a backup DVD, all you need to do is take it home and it serves as an off site backup. The chances that your office and home will both catch fire on the same day are pretty slim (unless you really upset someone). Alternatively, you probably already own some off site storage space where you could upload your backups - free webspace provided by your ISP, or an online email account. Such storage is not necessarily guaranteed to be 100% reliable, but again the odds of your email account being wiped on the same day your office and home burn down … you would have to have really, really upset someone.
There are various ways of performing a backup. You can manually copy all your working files, but this can be a tedious job so you might not do backups as often as you should, and you might easily make mistakes. There are backup programs, which are not necessarily expensive (some are free), but you to find a program which meets your needs, learn to use it, and trust that it works correctly.
Personally I prefer to use a simple batch file which is free, flexible and I understand exactly how it works. It makes use of a couple of open source programs, but they are so widely used that I personally do trust them, rather more than some commercial software. If you want to use this batch file as a basis for your own solution, read on.
Choosing what to back up
Fairly obviously, you will want to back up any documents, spreadsheets, presentations, source code etc that your are working on.
However, you don't want to back up any more than you have to - it just takes longer and wastes space. Avoid backing up files which can be easily replaced. For example, if you create Open Office documents which you export as PDF for publication, you should back up the Open Office document but you probably don't need to back up the PDF, because it can be easily recreated. Similarly if you have downloaded the latest copy of Firefox from the web you probably don't need to back it up because you can just download it again.
It is often easiest to keep all the documents you want to back up under one folder, and make sure you never store any other files there. All you need to do then is to back up the entire folder.