If you haven't already done so, please back up now!

I’ve been putting off writing this article for a while now, which is appropriate because that’s unfortunately what most people and organisations do with their data backups.

Let’s face it. We keep a lot of important information on our computers and network servers these days. At work it’s our all the data that is critical to our day-to-day operations, including client databases, email and groupware data, financial documents, and personnel records, but the information on our home computers is no less valuable to us, including digital photos, home videos, music and more.

Unfortunately, all this valuable data is vulnerable to being wiped in an instant, as all computers are vulnerable to mechanical failures like hard drive crashes, software problems like virus and file corruption, outside threats like thefts, fires and other disasters – not to mention the occasional accidental use of the delete key!

There is nothing I stress more to computer users than the need for a complete and secure offsite backup of their valuable data, yet no matter how many cautionary tales are told, statistics show that fewer that one in ten people regularly back up their computer data.

If these statistics like ‘6% of PCs suffer an episode of data loss in any given year’ or ‘companies that aren’t able to resume operations within 10 days of a disaster are not likely to survive’ weren’t scary enough, most of us by now are familiar with at least one horror story of someone who has lost all their files due to events beyond their control, a fate that is estimated to befall as much as a third of all PC users at some stage.

And yet most people still don’t back up their data, for a myriad of bad reasons. It’s just too cumbersome or time-consuming. It’s too expensive. It just doesn’t seem as important as getting on with real work!

While in the days of costly and difficult-to-use tape drives and other backup systems, you could be forgiven for thinking backups were hard, it’s no longer the case, with a range of easy and inexpensive options available to us to create backups.

The first step in any network environment is to ensure that all network data is stored centrally on a file server or network attached storage device, rather than on individual PCs or laptops. That way a single backup will protect the entire network, and the failure of any of the network PCs or laptops will not cause any disruption to your organisation.

Next you need to back up the centralised file server and while traditional server tape drives may be fast, external hard drives connected by USB2 or Firewire offer many times the capacity at a fraction of the cost. These days you can get a 1TB (that’s 1000GB) drive for around £100, which should be large enough to keep several backup copies of an entire network’s data. Better yet, buy a pair of the drives and alternate them so that one of the drives is kept in a secure, offsite location in case of theft or fire.

When combined with automated software, such external drives offer a painless backup solution that once set up, you don’t have to think about, apart from rotating the drives. What’s more, in case of data loss, they are very easy to restore from as, unlike specialised backup tapes, they can be connected to any other computer.

Another increasingly popular backup solution is to subscribe to an online backup service. The best ones offer highly secure storage in state-of-the-art data centres, and they encrypt both the transmission of data as well as the files on their servers. Depending on the size of what you are backing up, the first backups can take a while, but after that only the file changes (normally less than 5% per day) are updated, so internet traffic is kept to a minimum.

Like external hard drives, online backup services are also very easy to restore from, and even the complete loss of your network’s central file server will not set you back longer than the time it takes to download the information from the backup servers to any other computer.

A lot of the popular backup services offer a small amount of free storage for ‘personal’ backups, but if you sign up for a professional service and are paying by the GB for data storage, it is recommended to reduce the size of your online backup set by only including your current data. Historical data that you store on your computer or network for archive purposes can then be backed up to more permanent forms of storage such as optical media (eg DVD-Rs) and stored offsite.

Now, reading this article has delayed you long enough. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking ‘it will never happen to me’. Please go and back up now!