23/01/2012

By Mark James, technical manager, ESET

With technology in abundance these days, sometimes simple things like backing up data gets forgotten about – it’s almost assumed that this will happen automatically.

The fact of the matter is that sometimes you have to actually lose some data that you don't have backed up before you really appreciate how important it is. Replacing stolen or mangled hardware is just a matter of spending enough money. Replacing data that is no longer accessible is another matter, and it can be the difference between survival and non-survival for a business.

While you can always purchase a replacement computer, you’re not too likely to find one at the local computer store that comes preinstalled with your business records; personal documents; and other data you have saved on your computer over the years.

The overall aim of this article is to look at the various data backup strategies and their implementation; if you've never been quite sure of what you need to do in case a fire, burglary, hard disk failure or when other disasters threaten the electronic data that so many of us are dependent on nowadays, then read on.

In order to back up data from your computer, you will need two things: hardware and software.

Part 1 of this article will look at the ‘hardware’ one can use in order to backup data.

Backing up using tangible devices
There are a number of hardware devices that can be used to back up data. All the ones listed below can be purchased quite cheaply from several high-street retail chains.

Firstly and most commonly used, is the USB flash drive – which is available in a range of sizes and is inexpensive at lower capacities, faster than disk/tape, more rugged than other devices, easily portable due to size and can be read on a variety of computers. However, depending on how much data you have that needs backing up, the price of a USB device varies, increasing simultaneously with its size.

Also, in comparison to other hardware mediums, which, given their size, are harder to lose, USB sizes and ease of portability mean they can get lost quite easily. Often users forget to even consider protecting the data they backup to this device. It’s recommended to always password protect the files you save on this device – perhaps as protected zip/rar files. Whilst it may not stop a hardened criminal to go through your data, it will make the data slightly harder to browse for the average person.

An additional concern about the medium is how reliable they will be over time. Some manufacturers offer lifetime or ten-year guarantees on their flash drives, but these only apply to the drive itself, not to any data you may have stored on it.

Another option is to back up data to an external hard-disk drive – a device which is also relatively inexpensive and has been around for some time. It has also proven to be the fastest media for backups. It’s easily portable and often comes with secondary backup software. Like a USB flash drive, it too can be read on several computers. Unfortunately, whilst more rugged-feeling versions are available, the most popular versions are more fragile than any other media available. On top of this, some devices may also require a special power supply.

When purchasing an external hard disk drive, it is advisable to look at the warranty, keeping in mind that warranties only cover failure of the device itself and not the recovery of any data stored on them. Also, check the connections it has for both data and, if applicable, power. USB connections are recommended because they are the most common; however, purchasing an external hard disk drive enclosure with several types of connections will give you some flexibility, in the event that the computer to which you are restoring your data does not have a USB connection. If an external hard disk drive enclosure requires an external power source, buy one that uses a standard “barrel” connector for its power jack, as opposed to the proprietary multi-pin connectors used with some external hard disk drives.

Optical media, also referred to as CDs, are a third option and are faster than tape. They’re also more robust than hard-disk drives. Given its size, this form of media is almost as popular as a USB flash drive and is just as portable. However, this form of backing up requires users to ‘burn’ their data – which often requires additional software – a cost which some forget to factor in during the buying stage.

If you have more data than will comfortably fit on a CD or two, recordable DVDs are probably a better choice. Recordable DVDs cost only a little more than their CD counterparts and hold about seven times as much data as a CD.

Tape is the oldest backup medium, with usage dating back about half a century. As such, it has arguably withstood the test of time. Today’s tape backup systems store from tens to hundreds of gigabytes of data—and even more with compression—and are highly reliable, which is one reason they are still used. A tape backup system is expensive though, with tape drives running from the hundreds to thousands of pounds, and individual backup tapes in the tens to hundreds of pounds range. Tape is no longer widely used as a backup medium on the desktop, but it is still used in the enterprise, where the costs of maintaining tape drives and storing backup tapes is less of a concern.

As you can see, there are a variety of devices that can be used to back up data. They each have their benefits and flaws and what you end up using, will be dependent on your needs. However, before making a decision, it’s worth bearing in mind that there is an alternative method; software is another option that many individuals and businesses use.

To see if software is the “right” method for you, read “To move all your data forward, you need to backup – Part 2”…