Users know that backing up is hard to do

but it's better than losing essential data May 6 1997

A couple of questions, if I may. How dependent are you or your business on computers? If your computer, computers, or network were to suddenly break down, or completely disappear owing to fire or theft, what would be the effect? (Imagine a scale ranging from liberating on one end, through mildly irritating, then to disastrous on the other end.)

Assuming that the loss of your computers would entail some degree of bother, how prepared are you and your business for this sort of disaster? No, not insurance -- a cheque in the mail is a minor consolation if your customer records, your accounts receivable or the unsold screenplay to a major motion picture have all disappeared.

Instead, let's think about backups.

Backing up your data seems to be the computing equivalent of going to the dentist. We all know we should. We all know it's good for us. But most of us manage to make excuses to put it off as long as possible.

If you work for a big company, this probably isn't an issue. Hopefully, your computers are on a network, and there's an ongoing backup strategy in place, backing up machines across the network in the background or after hours. Presumably your data is safe. (Though not necessarily the data on that notebook that you're travelling around with!) But the majority of us may be working for small businesses, or have important, work-related data on a home machine. In too many of these cases, there's no backup strategy unless we make one up ourselves.

Some people only back up their data -- since they have all their original software, they claim they don't need to back up the programs installed on the machine. That will work in a pinch (it's certainly much better than no backups at all!), but most of us have customized our software settings, and it will take a while to get the system back the way we had it, and even reinstalling all your software will probably take the better part of a day.

A new generation of tape drives has provided a solution for me, however.

I've recently purchased an Iomega Ditto tape drive. There are various models, designed for tapes ranging from 800 megabytes to 3.2 gigabytes. I got the mid-sized two-gig model, which is available in an internal version (open the case to install it), and a slightly more expensive external version that plugs into a PC's printer port. Since I need to back up multiple computers, I got the external version for about $300. Tapes are about $20 each.

Finally, it's easy for me to back up regularly. While it takes a couple of hours to fully back up a system to tape, it can now happen unattended -- let it run overnight, and in the morning, it's all done. Regular incremental backups only take a couple of minutes -- I'm getting into the habit of doing them every week. (Those of you with more critical business data -- sales records, for instance -- may want to back up at the end of every day, part of a regular closing routine.)

A few things to note, however:

* Watch out for the advertised capacities of backup units and tapes.

So-called two-gig tapes actually hold one gig of uncompressed data. Backups can be compressed, so two gigs of compressed data can be held on one of these tapes -- sometimes. It depends on the sort of data on your drive. And you'll probably have to explicitly set the software to get that maximum compression rate, which will make your backups take longer. (This is not a problem if you're running a full backup overnight.)

* Make sure you've set the software to verify your backup. Again, this will make the backup take nearly twice as long, but there's not much use to having a backup if you discover, when you need it, that it's full of errors, and perhaps won't run. It's not a bad idea to do a test restore from your backups now and then.

* While I'm happy with the Ditto, it's a PC-only solution. Mac users will have to look elsewhere. And even on PCs, Iomega has only written software to support DOS, Windows 3.1, and Windows 95. Users of OS/2, NT, and other PC systems will also have to find their own solutions.

Nevertheless, you need to have an ongoing backup plan, and to actually follow through with it. For many home and small-business users, a new low-cost, high-capacity tape system is probably the most painless way to go about it for now.

And make that dentist appointment, too.*

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