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Life before a backup...
It still amazes me the number of times I have found people at work who save data on the hard disk of their laptop and seem surprised that if the hard disk crashes or the laptop is stolen there data could be lost. On top of that I can't even keep count of the number of friends and family members who have turned up at my front door with a computer that no longer works that apparently contained thousands of pictures of their kids, weddings and that unforgettable holiday etc. And I must admit I too have been guilty in the past of not keeping a copy of all my data and nearly lost the contents of a web site once after a virus attack. Basically you really do have to do some sort of backup of your data and documents one way or another if you have anything important and with plenty of software, physical and online backup solutions there really is no excuse not to. If you're not doing any backups at the moment read on - if you are well read on anyway. I personally now use a utility called Second Copy at both home and work and I will describe why using both my scenarios. Of course other options are available to protect your data - some of the online backup solutions (such as Mozy for instance) are excellent and can now replace utilities like this to certain extent. However these online solutions do come at a cost and can actually be added to your backup solution to make it even better. I will explain more on this later. Anyway let me first explain how I was previously saving my data at work and home.
At work I use a laptop and have traditionally saved all of my documents on my laptop. I could have just saved them on the company network but for me the whole point of having a laptop is for taking your documents with you and not having to reach them over a slow connection when needed or copying what you need to the laptop before going somewhere and having to copy them back up when you return. We had a system in place that used the built in Windows backup to copy the data from the laptop to the network manually. A bit of a pain to remember each week and also it did a full backup each time - i.e. all of your files and this could take ages.
At home we have a couple of laptops and a desktop PC. Until recently data was all over the place on each one and none had any sort of backup. At the end of the day any data lost wouldn't have cost me anything but it was the usual collection of documents and particularly photos that I wouldn't really want to lose.
What I wanted was an automated utility to make a copy of my data to a safe location using the most user friendly interface and with the options I needed. In theory you already have a tool built into newer Microsoft operating systems that will allow you to synchronize data to a network, in the case of Windows XP "Offline folders and files" but in my testing I found it to have a bit of a mind of its own. I tried a few of the obvious candidates for this - Vice Versa, SyncBack, Microsoft's free utility SyncToy etc. and each had its own merits but I eventually settled on Second Copy for its ease of use and features. I will quickly explain how Second Copy now works for me and then go into a few more of the technical options for those who may be interested.
At work Second Copy now synchronizes the data from my laptop to the network once an hour and also when I shut down on a night. When it synchronizes it only needs to do this for files that have changed. So this takes seconds rather than the minutes or hours the way we previously backed up. In other words if I only worked and updated 5 documents these are the only ones it needs to update on the network. Another advantage of this is if I forget to bring my laptop to work (it has happened!) I can work on another PC and get to all of my documents on the network. When I eventually remember to bring my laptop the synchronization goes the other way so I get the updated documents back on my laptop.
At home I now have a bit of a software and hardware solution going on. I now have both laptops and desktop synchronize to a large USB drive that is plugged into the PC. All of the data now ends up on there. If you don't want to purchase any extra hardware and have more than one more machine you could of course just synch between the machines so each has a copy of the others data. With the advent of online backups I now also sync some of the more important data from this USB drive to a couple of providers online. You may well ask why not just synchronize all of your data to the Internet? Well from my point of view I have a lot of data all over the place. So it's handy to use Second Copy to get all of the data in once place to start with so I don't have to backup to online systems from each machine. However the main reason is because I have a lot of data it would cost quite a bit to upload. At the moment I just tend to use an online provider which allows a 2GB of backups for free and copy my most important data up - at the end of the day even with a backup to a USB drive my house could get flooded still and all would be lost. What I would add however is with prices coming down for online backups this will no doubt be the way to go in the future. Having said that not everyone has an Internet connection of course!
As I have said I use Second Copy for data backups. It's not just for backup though. For instance maybe you rip music CD's on one laptop but want to make these available to other people when you have done this - again you could synchronize to other laptops in your house. So that's how Second Copy works for me and could work for you. A bit more of technical stuff now.
Under the hood
After you have installed the software you need to setup a "Profile" which is what each Second Copy synchronization or copy is called. For instance you might want one directory to synchronize once a day while another only once a week with certain files. You would therefore create a profile for each.
You can at this point choose between an "Express" and "Custom" setup. Choosing a custom setup you a start a "What", "Which", "Where", "When", "How" process - with express you don't have to worry about the "Which" and "How" part.
What - Firstly you are asked for the "Source folder" which is where the data is currently stored - in my case this was generally "My Documents" on my laptop and you can choose by default to include sub folders also.
Which -You then choose to synchronize either all files or include/exclude selected files and folders. The default is all. However in my case I wanted to exclude certain files types (in my case music files which take loads of space but I could rip again as I own the CD's anyway).
Where - The name of the destination folder. This is where you want a copy of your data to end up. So in the case of my work a network drive. At home a USB drive on another computer.
When - You now need to select a frequency of how often to copy your data. You can choose by any number of minutes, hours, once a day, every few days or actually "When files change". You can choose certain days not to run and also choose to run at Startup and Shutdown.
How - A number of options are available here some of which copy data one way and one two way. By this I mean most of the options are based on one way such as "Copy" which would copy your data to another location. However for me the most powerful option is "Synchronize" the source and destination both match. This has the benefit that you can choose if you delete data from your laptop it is also removed from your backup. Just in case you delete something accidently there is also an option to keep a number of versions of deleted files in another folder.
Under "How" you also have a number of advanced options such as "Copy" which allows you to set things such as "Try to copy files that are in use by other applications". In other words still try and copy a file even if it's currently open. You can also "Run Programs" - you may want to run a certain application before or after the profile runs. One useful option is - "Hardware Profiles" - You can choose that the Second Copy profile only runs under certain hardware profiles. You may not know it but your Windows has different hardware profiles - for instance a different hardware profile exists for if you have a docking station or just run a laptop on its own. So you can choose to run the profile only in a docking station with a network connection for instance.
I should add Second Copy also has an option to copy to an FTP location. FTP seems to be dying a bit of a death at the moment with the increase in online backup solutions but it is just that really - for years its has been a way of uploading files to a storage site on the Internet. So if you have the ability to upload to either your own or another FTP server on the Internet this is a good option.
How do I get it and how much does it cost?
You can download a 30 day evaluation of the software from the Centered Systems web site. It's around 2MB in size. If you choose to buy the software you don't need to uninstall it and just enter a registration key.
The software costs roughly £20 (it's sold in $) for a single user. I guess it depends on the value of your data or if you want to do your backups manually if this is good value for money. If you don't want to pay I would recommend looking at something like Microsoft SyncToy which although having less features can do a job for you. The bottom line is you should be looking at doing a backup of some description.