23/01/2012

By Mark James, technical manager, ESET

This is the second article in a two-part series which looks at the various ways in which we can protect the data on our computers. Just as there are several methods of backing up data using hardware, there are various software methods too.

Technology is advancing at a rapid pace and, as a result, many software backup methods have been consolidated in recent years. Below is an overview of four currently available methods:

Archiving
“Classic” archive and backup programmes share many similarities — they’re both relatively inexpensive, with some archive programmes even being free.

Classic archive programmes, more commonly referred to as their file types e.g. .7z, .RAR and .ZIP, are normally used to compress a large, infrequently used file into a smaller one or to store a collection of several files in one compressed “container”. The benefit of this method is that it allows users to transfer files over slow network connections or use less media when copying files to a disk (using both a combination of software and hardware backup methods). Many “classic” backup programmes offer incremental backup support with a few programmes even providing very good scheduling - helping save the user a lot of time.

Backup programmes typically have strong scheduling capabilities, meaning that even when your computer is off or files are being used by certain applications, you’re still able to backup your data. This particular method of backing up your data is perfect when backing up a large amount of data; most backup programmes allow you to split the backup across several hardware methods — DVDs, tapes or other media — and then restore files by reloading them in the correct sequence.

With both types of archiving, some also allow you to password protect archive files — something that is useful when emailing files to others. “Classic” backup programmes are fairly rare these days but work well in conjunction with tapes or DVDs.

Syncing up
File copying and synchronisation programmes allow you to move data from one location to another, e.g. backing up data from the computer’s hard disk to an external hard disk drive or even an internal hard disk drive. Synchronisation, or syncing, is a variation on copying, which copies just new or changed files to an external hardware device.

Snapshot data backup
There’s a method of backing up that likens itself to taking photos; disk imaging is a method used when upgrading a computer’s hard disk drive. Essentially, programmes are used to takes a picture of the entire computer system, meaning that if the computer’s hard disk drive fails, you can use the restore disk to boot from allowing all the data to be resurrected in the exact file extensions as they were originally. Depending on the programme you use, you may even be able to back up data across multiple hardware methods.

Cloud-based back-up
The cloud has proven itself to be a popular method of backing up your data, with its uptake increasing in popularity in recent years. When using this method, your data gets stored on a server which is connected to the internet, meaning that you can access or even restore data as and when you need. On top of this, storage costs are also considerably reduced. However, a disadvantage of this method occurs when and if the internet connection is spotty or slow. In this case, it can take a lot longer to back up data and as a result, may mean that you won’t get your data back when you initially wanted.

Nevertheless, the cloud is useful to an enterprise whose business depends on the continuity of their operations. For enterprises, data is often hosted off-site and in many cases, the company may have their own remote facility which it can access data remotely. Alternatively, data is hosted in data centres along with the data from several other organisations. To access it from here may require the help of a specialist.

How often to back up your computer
It’s a frequently asked question, along with “what kind of back up should I do”?

As already mentioned, many backup programmes come with an automatic scheduler which you can set, e.g. once a day or once a week.

But if you still don’t know then have a think about the following:

• How much data can you afford to lose? If you’ve got a lot of sensitive data or data which is updated regularly, then it makes more sense to back that up more frequently.

• How much does it cost to make a backup?

• How long does it take to perform a backup?

Each of these questions raises a financial question — once you have an answer for each, you should be able to answer the question yourself.

A little bit of this and a little bit of that…
It is important to always balance out the pros and cons and see what you need. Do a quick audit of what is currently in place and see if there is a more effective and efficient process. Do you need or prefer to use hardware to back up your data? Would software backups prove to be more fruitful? Or vice-versa? In fact, more often than not, you’ll use a combination of hardware and software backup strategies — this is favourable as relying on one backup method is almost as bad as having no backup strategy.

Another benefit of doing this is that you can test and replace backup mediums if they start to lose their effectiveness. Spotting this early on will negate the need to do a larger and longer backup further down the line.

However, always test whichever back up method you do use. This can usually be done by restoring data to a different computer — allowing you to decide whether or not your backup was successful or not or if you need to use a different method in future.

For a recap on hardware-based backup options see part 1.