Options for Home Computer Data Backup – Part 1

This is the first part in a five part series aimed at helping home computer users ensure that their personal data is safe. Many home users take the safety of their data for granted. In a corporate environment, Network Administrators employ many different methods to ensure data burned_pcviability. Unfortunately, the typical home user doesn’t have backup servers, Storage Area Networks, or mirrored drives to help ensure their data is safe.

Why is backing up your data important? Because no single storage place is really safe. Pictures of first steps, graduations, weddings, vacations, and many more irreplaceable memories are far too important to entrust in a single method of storage. Stuff happens. Taking precautions to protect your digital memories is a responsibility that comes with the digital age in which we now live.

So, what steps do you take to ensure the viability of the data on your home computer? Do you backup your computer? Do you back up your data to CD/DVD? What do you do with the media after you burn it? Do you stick that CD in a sleeve or case?

I use CDs as an example because it’s the most common method used by home users to backup their data. Unfortunately there are many problems with using that as your main backup method. CDs are inherently bad due to their fragile nature. It’s just too easy to damage the media and lose that data forever. Did you know sunlight can make a burned CD unreadable?

Taking the time to actually backup your data is the first step in a comprehensive plan to ensure that your digital memories are not lost forever in the event of a tragedy. Unfortunately just backing it up doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s safe.

So what is there to do? There are a number of options available:

  1. CD / DVD While this option may have its flaws, it’s the cheapest available option, and there are few barriers to start. Most PCs are now equipped with CD burners. Blank CDs are cheap and plentiful. It’s worth considering. Like many other things in life, you get what you pay for. CD media is fairly reliable, if kept properly and in a safe place; however that’s not always an easy feat to accomplish. There is also the issue with write/rewrite in CD media. You either have to wait until you get enough images to burn a CD, or you have to burn a partial disk, therefore generating more cost and a higher need for physical storage space. It can also take considerable time and disks to backup large drives. It would take over 200 DVDs to backup a terabyte (1,000 GB) hard drive!
  2. Online storage services (OSS). There are a number of websites on the internet that will allow you to store your personal stuff on their servers. Some are free, but have a limit on how much you can store. Others cost money, but allow you to store significantly more stuff. This option is flexible, and some offer many features. You do not have to worry about physical storage space. It’s available to multiple computers at once. You can get to your stuff from anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, you are putting your digital memories in someone else’s hands. What if they have a power outage? What if they have a server crash? What if someone hacks into their servers? What if they go out of business? Off-site backups are an important part of any disaster recovery plan, but online storage should probably not be your only means of backup.
  3. Portable hard-drive (PHD). These can be found at many retail big box stores, and internet retailers. They cost anywhere from $75 to $500 depending on size and speed. The PHD is generally a good option, and gaining in popularity. You can purchase one in a large enough size so that you should not need to worry about purchasing another again. You can write to it as often as you have time. It’s faster than CDs. With the recent trend in multi-computer homes, the only real negative is that you have to carry the PHD to each computer to back it up. If you have a lot of data on each computer to backup, it may take a good chunk of your day. Recently added data is subject to loss.
  4. Home server. A home server would give the flexibility to backup multiple workstations at once and would cure the write/rewrite problem, but it would come at a cost. While they offer features beyond backup, this is the most expensive option. A home server is another computer, sitting idle most of the time while still using electricity. This option is  the least physically versatile. With all the other options you can take the storage apparatus and put it away in a safe place. Take it to a neighbor’s house, stick it in a safe, whatever. If your system is lost to fire, theft, flood, chances are your home server would be too.
  5. Network Attached Storage drives (NAS). A NAS is a piece of equipment that connects to your home network, not to an individual computer. A NAS allows multiple computers at once to access the stored files. A NAS is a small, lightweight device that can fit in a safe without taking up much physical space. The price of a NAS is comparable to that of the PHD. This option may be overkill for single-PC homes that have no need for multiple computer access. Not everyone has a home network.

Which option will work best for you? I would love to be able to say that there is one right answer. Unfortunately everyone’s situation is different and requires an individual answer. Cost, physical space, ease of use, durability, portability and many other factors can come into play when making this decision.

Over the next few weeks writers from the Geeks to Go staff are going to review a product from each of the listed categories (except CD/DVD). Each review will add more information about each option to help you make an informed decision on the technology that will best suit your needs.

The following products will be part of this series. Check back here for links to the reviews as they are available. All are now available and linked below:

  1. SugarSync.com (online backup)
  2. NewerTechnology miniStack 750 (network attached storage)
  3. Do It Yourself External Hard Drive Backup Solutions
  4. Windows Home Server