By Guy Clapperton

Back-up is something a lot of IT journalists write about at length — and then never quite get right. Guardian readers might have seen my own rant on the subject on the 27th of last month; my system went belly-up and my phone went missing. My back-ups, bar the accounts, had been on a memory stick in the phone.

It’s actually necessary to do a three-stage back-up, even if you’re a self-employed sole trader or an owner-managed small concern. You can divide these into three.

Short-term back-up is the sort I had on my phone. It does what it says on the tin; you take something you’re working on and which you can’t afford to lose and pop it on a memory stick, iPod or something you can carry around with you. Unlike me, you then don’t lose it. Password it by all means so that nobody can get at it if you do.

This isn’t good enough by itself for a number of reasons. You might be in an industry in which short-term bursts just isn’t how you work (journalism is of course very much like that). You might need to add to a spreadsheet, for example, whose value is in the length of time that has been spent entering data onto it. A short-term back-up might do well occasionally but more valuable is the offsite backup option. This is offered by companies including those reviewed by PC Pro magazine in this roundup (link to here). The idea is simple; you set up an account, select the files to back up and let your computer get on with it, preferably when you’re not busy.

The advantage of this form of backup is clearly that you’re not going to lose it; as long as you have the account details you can restore your files back onto any computer at all.

This only leaves the sticky problem of what happens if your system won’t start. In my case there was a network problem half way through an operating system update, which then prevented start-up. This is where a local back-up is essential, not simply of the files but of the applications. The good news is that hard disk space is dirt cheap (after my own mini-crisis I bought a 250 gigabyte hard disk and had change from £100; even for a small network, multiply this buy six or seven times and it’s still inexpensive for peace of mind).

The next trick is to make sure the software the back-up device comes with is up to the job. You need to be able to automate the back-up to a schedule (don’t under any circumstances assume you’ll remember — the one time you forget it’ll be something important). If the software, or any other backup software you find, allows you to make the disk bootable, go for this immediately — it means that even if your own hard disk dies horribly you’ll be able to use the new drive as a hard disk in its own right while your computer is fixed — your business won’t be interrupted (as long as you have a spare PC to which you can attach the backup drive).

Finally, test the backup by restoring a couple of files. You’d be amazed at the amount of people who back up reliably and are then caught by the fact that they’ve been doing it on a duff disk for months without realising…

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