Way back in the past, I remember feeling pretty smug about my online backup setup. After all, I was ahead of the game because I already had a backup routine. But that self-confidence was totally misplaced. That’s because there are three aspects to a robust backup regimen, and I’d only taken care of one of them.
Those three aspects are: how good the backup process is, whether you can restore (this is the key one) and if your data can be moved easily if you need it. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
How Good is Your Backup Process?
For me, there are three important aspects of a decent backup process. It should be easy to setup, should work seamlessly and should backup the files you want.
Back in the bad old days of manual backups for home users (remember floppies and zip drives?), backing up relied on you remembering everything you wanted to duplicate. Since memories are fallible, it was easy to forget something essential and not find out till later. That’s also a problem I experience with OneDrive, where although I have a whopping 25GB of storage, getting the files up there automatically has proved difficult.
That’s why automatic backups rule, but not all of them are alike. In my experience, the more you have to customize, the more likely it is that something will go wrong. That’s why the solutions that automatically select your documents, music and videos (as well as your desktop) are best. It’s not that customization is bad, but I personally find it easier to decide which files and folders to leave out.
You might think that once you have an automatic backup setup, everything’s ok, but it’s not. You still have to check periodically (perhaps in your backup provider’s web interface) to make sure all your key files are being backed up. I once had my backup stall for three days because it was attempting to upload a huge video which ate up my storage capacity. Since I didn’t need to have the video backed up online, my solution was to create a folder to store items I only needed for a short while (it also included things like photos I planned to upload to Facebook) and then I excluded this folder from backup.
Can You Restore?
Setup aside, the true test of a good backup is when you try to restore your files. In fact, until you have tested the restore process you might as well not have a backup at all. This is something I learned the hard way, when using an early piece of online backup software.
When I had a computer problem and needed to restore a file, I found that everything was backed up in a proprietary format and it was next to impossible to extract and restore the file I wanted. That’s a huge backup fail and it taught me the importance of having a backup process you can rely on and a restore process that’s transparent enough for anyone to understand.
My recommendation is that whenever you try a new piece of backup software, the first thing you should do after it has backed your stuff up is try to restore a file. Ideally, this should restore either to the original location or to a special restore folder (as long as it’s clear where on the computer this folder is).
Both of my favorite pieces of online backup software use the first method, and also allow you to restore to a new location, like the desktop. This can be useful if you want to avoid overwriting the old file.
Here are a couple of examples of this in action:
My mom’s computer died suddenly and she replaced it with a new laptop. Since all her desktop stuff had been backed up with Syncplicity, all she had to do to transfer it to her new computer was to download the Syncplicity client, input her credentials and wait. Within a few hours all her key documents were back in the right locations on her new computer (and it worked perfectly even though her operating system had changed from Windows XP to Windows 7.)
The other day, my computer crashed, destroying the file I’d been working on. I decided to check the web version of SugarSync to see if the file was there. Since SugarSync stores several revisions, I was able to get a slightly older version of the file, which had nearly all the content. That meant that I lost only a few minutes’ work instead of a few hours’ work.
There’s one final aspect of a good online backup solution – you should be able to move your data easily if you want to. With so many free cloud storage providers, you might want to change where certain files are stored.
If they are in a proprietary format, then you will need to decrypt them before transfer, which can be a pain. If not, then you should be able to use one of the cloud storage managers to move data seamlessly among major providers.
What I’ve learned from my adventures with online backup is that, in addition to simplicity, there are two reasons that make the backup process work for me: a simple restore process where you can easily identify the file you want and put it back where you need it, and the option to restore an earlier version of a file, just in case the version you have lost is damaged.
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But the biggest lesson of online backup is worth repeating: until you test your backup solution, you might as well not have one. So if you haven’t tested the restore process yet, do it today. It could save a lot of grief later.