What is the Best Backup? Well, Depends...Will it never go away? “What is the best backup for me?” The issue of what is a good backup procedure for computers and their relatives just keeps erupting. The issue goes well beyond operating system preferences and nature of personal or professional computer usage. It affects everyone with something of value stored digitally. It even affects telephones. Have you ever heard of someone who dropped a smartphone in the toilet? Having a backup of your contacts is a really good thing. Effective backup applies to everything digital.

A senior friend emailed me this week to ask about backup for his computer. He wanted to know the difference between a backup, a restore disc, and system image. The nature of the question tells us a lot about his knowledge and his likely response to suggestions. Another friend of his who knew his habits was appalled at his total lack of backup and strongly suggested that this is a very bad thing, particularly if you have a lifetime of family photographs on your computer — which he does.

So my friend asked about commercial backup programs he had heard of such as Acronis and others. My response was that any one of them could be a good investment if the built-in Windows functions were not satisfactory, but before making a recommendation, we needed to assess his needs — and by that I mean provide adequate security, but in a way that would not be a burden to him. The best system in the world is useless if you do not keep up with it. Individual systems that require a lot of operator actions tend to fail simply because the operator (we) may be lazy or distracted. Systems that work great in a commercial enterprise with paid IT personnel are not always beneficial for home use. We need an intermediate solution.

In addition to the ongoing maintenance of a backup system, there is the problem of initialization. A powerful system that requires some thought and effort to set up could be a waste. Commercial stand-alone backup systems can be very powerful, but that very power is their weak point for the casual user. Protecting some photographs in a mostly static collection is totally different from protecting the constantly changing history of a business. Businesses and private senior users need different tools. I have had clients who simply gave up trying to install programs to execute automatic backups and resort to occasional manual copying. A typical complaint might be, “What is an incremental backup anyway? I just want to be protected.”

My advice to my friend was to buy an external HD, which probably would come bundled with some backup software, but to simply use Windows 7’s built-in facilities to make both a system image and start the automatic backup process. I am not one to ignore Windows functions simply because they are in Windows. Some people assume that a built-in Windows function is, by definition, second-rate or worse. Like anyone else, I have my share of biases and I can be a snob with the best, but let us not overlook perfectly fine tools that we have already paid for.

Next, I advised him to make a restore disc if he had not already done so. Finally, I said that he should get some flash drives and store his personal data (mostly photographs) on them. At this point, he would be almost done.

My last suggestion was the third part of the 3-2-1 policy that is promoted across the Internet for backup safety: three copies on two types of media and one offsite storage.

The last part, offsite storage, is more important than you might suspect. An IT specialist friend had a home network of seven computers of which one was a server that backed up the others. It was a secure system, more like a commercial setup than a home network, reflecting the owner’s tastes. However, his home was in the back country of San Diego county. For those who live elsewhere, we have more than the usual number of seasons here. In addition to the normal ones, we have a fire season. His house burned down while he was at work. All his computers were destroyed. He had neglected to have offsite storage. He knew better, but how many houses burn down?

What is offsite storage? It can be as simple as a Dropbox or SkyDrive account. It can be as formal as a Carbonite account. It can be a flash drive left in a safety deposit box or other remote safe location. The only point is to at least have your data somewhere else. You might remember to grab the external backup drive when you flee an oncoming tornado, but you might be more busy getting some quick essentials for life. While the point of offsite storage for a business would be to get back up and running as quickly as possible after a calamity, the goal of offsite storage for an individual might be to simply save data for later recovery. These are quite different needs.

Some people will quibble with me on this. Cloud storage is not private is one complaint. The provider might go out of business or sell to an unscrupulous buyer is another. Okay, both comments are part of the risk analysis. Is the risk of losing your data due to a tornado or fire greater or less than someone hacking into your personal photographs? How valuable is your data to other people? Passwords and bank account information need more protection than photographs. Can you handle them separately?

Obviously there is no simple answer to the question of effective backup just as there is no simple answer to how much life insurance you should carry. But there are some simple guidelines to both questions that can protect you, give you peace of mind, and not be a burden.