Network Backups

Originally published in The Clarion | May 25, 2011

Our third of four simple and relatively inexpensive backup solutions for the home and small office is one that is most likely my favorite. Of all the advantages to this solution, probably the most attractive is simply that it costs nothing. Today, many of us have home networks. One reason for having a small home network is to allow more than one network-enabled device access to other devices on the network as well as the Internet simultaneously. With just a few simple steps, we can easily back up our data to other devices on the network, both reliably and automatically. If you have a network in your home or small office with more than one PC, all of the necessary pieces are in place for you to backup your data both easily and reliably. While having a server or some sort of Network-Attached Storage device is advantageous, it is absolutely unnecessary as you can simply use your personal computers to replicate data from one host to another.

As I have mentioned previously, all modern operating systems include some sort of backup utility which can be configured to copy selected files and directories to a backup device or media on a set schedule. With many homes and most small offices having multiple PC’s attached to a network, a few basic steps can be taken to make use of unused disk space on each host for data replication.

Probably the best and easiest way of accomplishing this is to create a new shared directory on each device which other hosts can access over the network for replicating data. Once the network shares are properly configured, a backup routine can be configured on each device which will specify the files and directories to be copied, the routine (time of day, days of the week etc.) and the destination directory where the data is to be written. For efficiency, usually the best backup option is to only copy new and/or changed data from the existing backed-up data.

Obviously, the first backup will copy all data to the remote storage location (which could take quite a bit of time depending on the amount of data to be copied), but each subsequent backup should be much more efficient as only new or changed data is copied. This routine uses very little system and network resources and, if scheduled for after hours or off-peak times, will occur essentially unnoticed. Making use of existing hardware on the network for data replication is not only sensible and monetarily efficient (free), this solution essentially gives us no excuses for losing valuable data on our home or small office machines.


Flash Drives

Originally published in The Clarion | May 18, 2011

This week we will take a look at a second backup solution for home and small office users – flash drives. Also known as jump drives or thumb drives, flash drives are small enough to fit on your keychain yet have enough capacity to be used as on-demand operating systems. These drives are easy to use by simply plugging them into your PC’s USB port. They are also compatible with all modern operating systems, enabling files to be shared across platforms including Windows, Mac and Linux. With 32 gigabyte models available today for under sixty dollars, flash drives could be the perfect solution for not only backing up your important data files but also easily taking your data wherever you may need it.

Once a flash drive is connected to your PC and recognized by the operating system, the drive appears on the PC just like any other available disk. Directories can be created just like on the PC’s hard drive and file backups can be done manually or even scheduled like when using CD/DVD writable media. One thing to be aware of when using flash-type devices is the wear and tear continued use puts on the internal media. It is highly recommended to only connect the flash drive to your PC when it is to be used, leaving it connected to the PC results in unnecessary access which over time will quickly degrade the device.

As good as flash drives may sound, there are of course some downfalls to the technology. One downfall is also one of the nicer features of flash drives – their size. Because flash drives are so small, approximately the size of a small cigarette lighter, they can be easily misplaced or destroyed. While some models are available in a more hardened design with a metal outer casing, most flash drives are constructed almost entirely of plastic on the exterior, deeming them quite fragile especially if dropped or trampled on.

Another downfall to flash drives is their security (or lack thereof). While some may be password-protected or use some sort of encryption, odds are good that a typical user will not make use of these security features. Again, because of their small size, losing an unprotected flash drive could be detrimental, depending on what sort of data is stored on the device. Overall, flash drives are a very convenient, inexpensive and handy way to not only back up files but also carry them from place to place. That said, there are almost definitely better backup solutions for home and small business users’ critical data.

The Clarion and I are going to be giving away a flash drive at the end of our look at backup options. To enter, please email or mail your name, address and phone number to the attention of TechTalk Giveaway to the Clarion. One entry per household please.


CD and DVD Backup Options

Originally published in The Clarion | May 11, 2011

After introducing four relatively simple, inexpensive and reliable backup options for the home and small business user last week, this week we will look at the first of four options – CD or DVD writable media. Often referred to as “burners” or “writers”, drives for creating permanent or rewritable data discs on CD’s or DVD’s have been available for personal computers for many years now. Today these drives are so common, odds are good that the personal computer you use on a daily basis came with one already built in. Like most any other technology, these drives and the media which are used in them were quite expensive when they were first introduced. As their popularity grew though, CD and DVD writable drives and media have become much less expensive, exponentially faster and more reliable seemingly overnight.

A typical CD writable disc, commonly known as a CD-R or -RW (rewritable) will hold approximately 650 megabytes of data. While this may not seem like much, keep in mind that it wasn’t too long ago that a hard drive with a capacity of over one gigabyte was almost unheard of. Since DVD writable drives and media came to the market, a home user can now store up to approximately 4.7 gigabytes of data on one single disc. The newest Blue Ray technologies allow for even more storage per disc, up to and even beyond 100 gigabytes each. It goes without saying that with the passing of time, technology really does improve and become less expensive. A decent DVD drive, capable of both writing and rewriting discs, can be purchased for not much more than twenty dollars. Another ten dollars or so will get you a 50-pack of writable media, enough for you to store over 200 gigabytes of data for a total sum of about thirty dollars.

Most modern PC operating systems include some sort of backup software utility which can be easily configured to copy your important data to your writable media on a set schedule. This is convenient if you update your data frequently, especially for financial and bookkeeping software applications. One major drawback is that you must be sure your PC is turned on with the writable media in the drive at the scheduled backup time. Another obvious drawback to this scenario is the location factor – using backup media in a PC where the original data is stored is a recipe for disaster as any event (fire, theft, natural disaster) could destroy both the original data (on the PC’s hard drive) and the backup (the writable media). All of these features and benefits should be considered when choosing an appropriate backup solution.


Simple Backup Solutions for the Home

Originally published in The Clarion | May 04, 2011

As humankind becomes more and more dependent on data retention in all aspects of our lives, never before has it been more important to ensure that our files are both safe and secure. Even if you only casually use a personal computer or other Web-enabled device, odds are good that losing the data on that device would at-best be a hindrance. Losing simple things like your bookmarked websites or eMail address book can be quite burdensome, other items including family pictures, movies and music even more so. The loss of personal or business financial records can be the ultimate catastrophe, something I personally wish on no one. Fortunately, there are several simple and relatively inexpensive methods by which you can protect your valuable data. A little time and monetary investment can go a very long way in insuring such catastrophes do not hinder you when you least expect it.

Last summer I introduced Network-Attached Storage technologies, devices which are more tailored to business environments yet serve the same purpose as the devices and technologies we will consider today. Ensuring an up-to-date backup copy of your personal data is more than spending a few dollars on a device though. We must all make pointed efforts to actually back our data up on a regular schedule to ensure that data is available as needed. The best backup solutions in the world do us no good if we don’t utilize them in a smart and consistent fashion.

I want to introduce four backup solutions for both the home and even small business user, in the coming weeks we will look at each in more detail. Of the four technologies, two can be considered physical solutions while the other two are better classified as network solutions. The two physical solutions we will consider are CD or DVD writable media and USB drives (typically referred to as flash, jump or pen drives). Most modern computers include some sort of CD or DVD writing device, also known as “burners”. These burners provide both a simple and convenient mechanism for routinely backing up our data. Flash drives are an inexpensive and handy way to both back up our data and to take it with us from place to place. The newest of these drives have impressively large storage capacities for very reasonable prices.

Our second group of personal data storage solutions both utilize the network. Today, many of us have home networks. One reason for having a small home network is to allow more than one network-enabled device access to other devices on the network as well as the Internet simultaneously. With just a few simple steps, we can easily back up our data to other devices on the network, both reliably and automatically. Our second network storage solution is a relatively new technology commonly referred to as the “cloud”. Cloud services are offered by several companies for file storage attached to the Internet, making your data accessible to you anywhere at any time.