Listen to your mother-- back up your hard drive regularly!

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Vancouver Computes, January 1999

Admit it?a lot of you aren?t backing up your computer regularly.

It?s the old dentist analogy. We all know we?re supposed to go in for regular checkups, but it?s easier to put them off then to do them.

But like going to the dentist, if you regularly ignore making backups, you?ll eventually regret it. There will come a time when the pain right now is much greater than the inconvenience and hassle of taking care of things in an ongoing manner.

Okay?maybe a few of you really don?t need to backup your system. If all you use your computer for is playing games, and you have all the original game CDs and floppies, along with your operating system software, what?s the worst that can happen?

But most of us create documents, and customize the user environment and our applications. And many of us rely on our PC for our day-to-day work or studies. If its contents should vanish, it could be anything from a minor irritation to a major time and money-losing disaster.

And there are a whole range of scenarios where that disaster can strike.  You could come home and find the computer stolen. Or have it (and the whole house or apartment) literally go up in smoke. Or less spectacularly, face a hardware or software-based meltdown.

In the past few months, I?ve had to work through both a hardware and a software disaster. First, the software-meltdown.

I had installed a game demo from a reputable company, downloaded over the Net. I?d tried it out, found I really didn?t care for it, and ran the game?s uninstall utility. Perhaps because I?d chosen to install the game in a folder different from it?s default, it didn?t just uninstall the game?I watched with amazement, as it seemed to delete files at random, from all over my hard drive.

Suddenly, most of the applications on my computer no longer started up!

(?What was this evil program?? I hear you ask. Okay?I?ll give you the name? they deserve the bad publicity; I?m not the only one damaged in this way. It was Sierra?s Caesar III).

More recently, I suffered a hardware meltdown. For no good reason, the hard drive on my notebook crashed. Yes, drives crash? less often then they used to, but often enough so that you should take precautions. Simply put, it stopped working. The computer would no longer boot?instead of the hum and purr of a normally working drive, all I heard was ker-chunk, ker-chunk as the drive heads repeatedly tried to move over the same spot on the drive.

Luckily, I had recently replaced the drive, and still had the old smaller, but still usable drive sitting on a shelf.

In both cases, as well, I had a recent backup. In the case of the hard drive crash, I?d made it only two days prior to the disaster.

Some people prefer to just back up their documents, prefering to re-install operating system and applications from scratch, if needed. In that case, they may be able to use something like a 100 meg zip disk for storing their backups. I prefer to back up my whole system? that way, I can simply reinstall the whole thing with a single click.

For that, zip disks are too expensive. At $15 each, backing up a single gig of files requires over $100 in media. As well, I don?t want to have to baby-sit my backup, feeding it disk after disk after disk.

Instead, I purchased a parallel port tape drive. The drive cost about $250, but I can use it with multiple computers (internal models are faster and cheaper, but limited to one machine). Tapes hold several gigs of data, and cost about $30 each. Because backing up and verifying a drive can take 4 hours or more, I tend to start it at night, and let it run while I?m asleep.

I?ve replaced the software that came with the drive with Seagate Software?s Backup Exec Desktop 98. This well-written product has a couple of advantages over the typical freebies that ship with Windows 9x or with hardware like my tape drive.

? It works with a wide range of hardware. It can be used to backup to zip drive, tape, CD-R, or even to another partition on your hard drive (though this is not very helpful if the computer gets stolen or the drive crashes).
? Best of all, it can be used to create a one-floppy emergency disk. I used this in both of my recent disasters and it is a real time-saver. In the case of my drive crash, for example, if I?d used a freebie backup program, I would have had to install the new hard drive, install the operating system, and install the backup program. Only then, after an hour or more of work, would I be ready to restore my backup.

Instead, I simply booted to the emergency floppy, formatted the drive, and typed Restore at the DOS prompt. Instructions to do this even appeared on screen when I booted! The DOS-based restore program located my tape drive and restored the contents of the hard drive?including the long file names and Windows System Registry that are often mangled by DOS-based backup and restore programs.

In both these cases, absolute disasters were turned into minor irritations.

Your mother was right?go to the dentist every six months. And backup your precious data much more frequently then that? though backing up as often as you brush your teeth may be overkill!

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan