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August 2006; Water
Heraldry, Pt 4: Charges
The Basics of Backing Upby R. Bail
Knowing how many, how often, and how to back up will save you from the unnecessary grief of losing your only copies of important files. Even with a brand new computer and a battery backup surge protector, problems varying from viruses to natural disasters can wipe out your data in an instant. As dire as these situations are, having a number of redundant, frequently-made backups provides a ray of hope instead of added stress.
A Variety of Media
When considering media for your backups, it is wise to use a variety so you have flexible options in regards to portability and cost. Also, some choices are better than others, with benefits outweighing cost or size considerations.
Duplicate files on the same computer: These protect against accidentally saving over important files, but the duplicates face the same risks as your original files. They're not to be relied upon for anything but extremely short-term backups.
Floppy (3.5") disks: These are an old standard, evolved from the truly floppy 5.25" version, but they're unreliable. Their low capacity makes them unsuitable for anything other than text files, and their sensitivity regarding dust, sunlight, and magnetic fields makes them prone to failure. Why magnetic fields? The film inside (which is the floppy bit) is magnetically encoded, so any strong magnetic field nearby will wipe random parts clean! They are also an 'old' technology; many modern computers do not come with floppy drives. However, they are cheap. Floppy disks are okay for permanent backups, but are not optimal.
Tape drives: These are a very old method of storing large amounts of data. Some companies still use them for their backups. For the home user, they aren't usually a good method of backing up data, despite their capacity; tape drives and media are hard to find, and like old cassette tapes, they have to be manually rewound and fast-forwarded to the point you want to put data on or take data off of. As they are also magnetically encoded, they are prone to all of the problems floppy disks are.
Zip Disks: These are better than floppies as they are much higher capacity and sturdier, but prone to the same problems. They are also much more rare than floppy drives, with new media being equally hard to find as well as expensive. These are best when NOT used on a variety of computers. Zip disks are okay for permanent backups, but not optimal.
Web space storage: Storing files on Web space means they are accessible from nearly anywhere and have the added security of being in a separate location. However, Web space storage may be inaccessible at random times due to site problems, and files can be taken down unexpectedly. Large files are unwieldy to back up, even over broadband. A good, low-cost method for small, frequent backups, but a poor choice for permanent backups.
CDs or DVDs: These are much higher capacity than floppy or zip disks (700MB for CDs, 4.1GB for DVDs) and much more universal except for on the oldest computers. These media consist of a substance pressed between two layers of plastic, and the data is recorded by the means of a laser burning pits into the surface of this substance. CDs and DVDs are currently best choice for long-term or permanent storage, especially for large files. Modern computers come with CD- and sometimes even DVD-burning capability for no extra cost, and the media are relatively cheap. Store carefully; scratches can ruin your data as they obscure the tracks, or if the scratches are deep enough, destroy them physically, and as they are made of plastic they can and will melt if left in the sun. Fortunately, CD wallets aren't expensive and store them nicely. Good for permanent backups.
Second hard drives: These are good for redundant backups, but in case of an emergency you need to know how to open your computer and pull out the drive. Loose drives are sensitive to static electricity and movement, and this is not an option for those using laptops. Second hard drives are a medium-term backup solution.
Portable hard drives: Portable drives are good for moving large, frequently modified files around. Their sturdy casing makes them less delicate than their in-computer counterparts, but they still shouldn't be jostled. Like second hard drives, portable drives are medium-term backup solution.
Thumb Drives: These little storage devices, also known as keychain drives due to their small size, plug into USB ports. They are good for relatively large files that need to be moved around often, and are much more affordable and less bulky than a second hard drive. Thumb drives are a good short-term backup or file-moving solution.
Separate computers: Like a second hard drive, but they are unfortunately prone to all of the problems that can plague your main computer. Unless it's a laptop, a second computer is not considered portable, and is a medium-term backup solution.
Hard copies: It's best to always have at least one hard copy of each file, if you can, as hard copies need no computer or electricity to be useable. In the case of art it can be expensive to make a good reproduction if you sell or give away the original, or if the original is digital; written works only need to be in black and white but they should always be printed on acid-free paper so that they don't degrade. Hard copies are permanent backups.
To help ensure that your backups can be used elsewhere, consider using cross-platform, cross-program file formats. It won't do you any good to have a backup of your 350,000-word epic fantasy if that becomes your only copy and the only computer you can use can't open that file type! .txt can be opened by every word processor; .rtf is similarly universal. Nowadays, most word processing programs can also handle .doc format. For images, non-program specific files are best, such as .bmp or .tif, although be aware that these do not allow layers. The Adobe Photoshop file format, .psd, is common with modern programs enough to be safely used.
Verifying your Backups
Just making the backup isn't enough--you need to make certain that the backup works! Floppies and Zip disks fail, and in a batch of blank CDs there are usually one or two that won't burn. Also, sometimes software interferes with the burning process, causing a disk with errors. After you've saved the files or burned them to a CD or DVD, make sure you can open them from the medium you saved them on. If you can't, you need to figure out what happened and try again.
After that, you need to try the backup on another computer altogether. Sometimes backups will only read on the originating computer, and while this doesn't make them totally useless, it does if something happens to the originating computer, and makes them worthless for keeping at another location. Some people find that compressing their files, such as into a ZIP archive, helps ensure that they can be opened later.
Web backups also need to be verified, although you don't need another computer to do so; verifying files backed up via e-mail or Web space is as simple as downloading them and opening them.
For all methods, it's better to be safe than sorry; virus-scan your files when you verify them. If the files come up dirty, you should strongly consider having those viruses removed from the originating computer so that you can make another, clean backup.
Location is everything
Keeping backups in more than one location protects against the catastrophic. It's all very well and good if you keep five different redundant backups, but they won't do you any good at all if they're in your house when a fire destroys it. It's best to keep a backup at one other location, at least, two if you also use Internet storage of some sort.
Inexpensive media is best for backups you will store at locations separate from your computer. CDs and DVDs are your best bet here; floppies and Zip disks are also okay if the computer at your second location can read them. Putting the files on another computer will provide a back up, but remember that that other computer is prone to the same problems that would necessitate a back up as your main one--especially viruses. Backups on separate media that are stored are free from viruses as long as they aren't in the computer, and non-rewriteable backups are immune.
The frequency of your backups depends on two things: how much you would lose if your working file failed and how important the data is. For instance, if you write 10,000 words a week on a story, you would lose quite a bit if you had a data failure and you only backed up once a month. You'd still lose a fair amount if you backed up once a week, but it's a much easier amount of recover from.
For files you are done changing, you only need to make a backup once--but make sure to check your backups every so often, frequency again depending on the importance of the data. If one of your backups seems to be failing, replace it immediately.
Making all of these backups can be difficult and time consuming, not to mention expensive. What's a cost-conscious writer or artist to do? Well, in this case, temporary storage like e-mail, Web space, and thumb/second/portable hard drives are good for incremental backups, and you can save the major backups for once a month.
You should also make a number of backups on different media. Don't be cheap! You may save yourself a lot of headaches in the future if you keep three to five copies of your permanent backups.
Computers can have hard drive crashes, discs can get lost or scratched, and disasters can happen that wipe out a building; this is why it is important to have multiple backups spread across different locations. Please don't chance losing years worth of hard work.
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