Thursday, 3 February 2011

Backing up

I think a lot of us underestimate the need for regular backup. We know we should, but we can't be bothered. It can be awful to lose all your personal files but it can be disastrous for a small business.

Especially as most of us now use laptops - the hard drive (the part that stores all your data) can be easily damaged if dropped, especially if its switched on - think of a vinyl LP playing on an old record player with a needle. If you bang it, it will damage the surface.

There are also the usual culprits like theft, fire, flood, viruses, spilling tea (or wine) on the keyboard, accidental or malicious deleting of files and power cuts if you are using a desktop computer.

Fortunately, with USB and the internet it is now very simple to do backups, without even thinking about it... I'll talk about "The Cloud" options first then go onto physical backups. All the software and services below are free.


(If you are already using Google mail, Yahoo mail or Hotmail then ignore this bit)

First and foremost, email gets used every day, probably your primary means of communication and has a growing list of important contacts. This should be your priority for backup.

Traditionally, email is pulled down by a program (usually outlook or outlook express) onto your computer. This means that all of your email data is sitting on your computer. And if you are using Outlook, thanks to Microsoft, the files are hidden in obscure directories making backup difficult.

There are a couple of very simple solutions. My preference is to use Google Email for personal use or Google Apps Email for business use - essentially online email with the added bonus of keeping a copy of all of your email and being accessible from anywhere. I have 10 years worth of email and I'm still only using a quarter of the free storage.

If you are not sure about using Google, then its highly likely that your email provider will have a web version similar to Google. Try mail.youdomainname or webmail.yourdomainname.

Personally, I use Google mail online and don't use an email program (other than for backup).  But in either case, you can still use your favourite email program, you just need to change a setting. Its very likely that you will be using pop to retrieve your emails. In the email account settings, change the option that says something like "leave email on server" to yes. This will leave the email on your email server but you will still have a copy on your computer. Here are the set up instructions for Outlook, Outlook Express and Thunderbird. Make sure your email server can cope with this though - some will have a limit on the number of emails you can keep online.

An alternative to pop is to use imap. The advantage is that the email isn't downloaded as such but you can still see it in your favourite email program - useful if you have a slow connection or limited disk space. Instructions for Outlook, Outlook Express and Thunderbird.

Note though that changing the setting will keep email from now on... I would recommend that you use IMAP to transfer all of your email from Outlook back to your server by a simple copy and paste between your local folder and the imap folders.

You can also use pop or imap with Google mail.

documents, spreadsheets, etc.

By far the easiest way to backup your documents is to use a remote backup service such as DropBox. This creates a folder on your computer, then anything you put into the folder is synchronised online. Very very simple. There is 2gb for free, which is enough for most people, and one of the big advantages is that it keeps modifications to your documents for up to 30 days - so if you make a mistake or delete a file, you can revert to a previous version.

Another advantage is that you can use it as a sort of network drive for your business. Create an account, install the software on each computer using the same login details. Then every computer will have the same backup.

There are many alternatives to Dropbox including adrive.

Or better still... don't keep any documents on your computer and go into "the cloud" using Google Docs, ZoHo or if you really need to, Office Live.

photos and videos

Photos and videos are usually a lot bigger in size than documents and can take up a lot of storage space on your computer.

My preference is to use the sync to web option in Picasa. There are many advantages in Picasa, too many to list here, but the main ones for me are face recognition, integration with picnik and sharing photo albums with friends and family online.

There are alternatives to Picasa that offer online synchronisation with Facebook and Flickr such as digiKam.


This is an easy one for me - why have a local collection when you can use spotify or

backup software

If you don't trust "The Cloud" or want a belt and braces approach, then use backup software and/or storage device(s).

Probably the most comprehensive backup software is Bacula - its great for businesses with multiple computers but is a bit tricky to set up. A simpler backup program is DirSync Pro - this simply synchronises 2 folders between your computer and a storage device. Both Bacula and DirSync can be scheduled to backup in the background.

Incidentally, if you have ftp with your web host, then you can create this as a folder on your computer too. Just be careful which folder you put your files in - don't put it in the public folder!

backup devices

If you are using a single computer, then just get a USB portable external hard drive. Currently about £50 for 500gb from PC World - thats half a terrabyte! Then point the backup software to the drive - or just do a file copy.

A big advantage of the USB drive is that you can plug it straight into your Xbox 360 or PS3 and watch video, display photos or play music through your TV.

But please please remember, always "safely remove" the drive - don't just unplug it as there might be data that hasn't been written to the drive yet - Windows, Ubuntu.

For multiple computers, a network drive is probably the better option - from £99 at PC World. This connects directly to your wifi router, making it available to everyone on your network. Most of the recent network drives also allow remote access from the internet - so this can be set up to keep an off site back up.

move your home folder

In Windows, Ubuntu and Mac it is possible to set the home folder to a different partition or an external / network drive. The advantage being that you can re-install your operating system without overwriting your data. It still needs to be backed up though! Instructions for Windows and Ubuntu and Mac.

remote access

I'm not really recommending this but... Many large organisations use Citrix. This centralises all the data and gives organisations complete control over the software that users can use. Its a bit of an overkill for small businesses but the same idea can be used. Have a computer switched on somewhere and access it remotely. There are plenty of packages available but I would recommend TeamViewer. When you are connected, a screen opens up in a window that displays the remote screen. You can then use it as if you were sat in front of it. The downside is the speed - there can be a bit of a delay when moving around.


Okay, so you haven't done a backup, your computer has crashed and you really need that file...

First, get an Ubuntu Live CD, preferably on a USB stick, and an external hard drive to back up to.

Second, switch on your computer with the Live CD or USB. If it doesn't work then you will need to change the boot order on your computer (the bios/cmos settings) This depends on your computer but usually you keep pressing F2 when your computer starts. This will give you a simple text screen. Using the arrow keys, look for the boot order or boot sequence settings and make sure the CD and/or USB is before your hard drive (HDD). Save the settings and reboot. Your computer should now start with the Ubuntu Live CD.

Third, once you have Ubuntu running (choose the try Ubuntu not the install Ubuntu option) you can use Places (Nautilus), which is similar to Windows Explorer, to copy files from your hard drive to an external drive or USB stick.

If its a serious data loss, then download the Ubuntu Rescue Remix CD/USB and follow the instructions for data recovery.

it can happen to anyone

Telia, a rather large telecoms company in Sweden, didn't backup for 2 weeks over Christmas and lost data that affected 300,000 people...

Credit Lyonnais had a major fire at their headquarters in Paris. They had backups on tape but guess where the tapes were...

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