More About Backups

Should I schedule continuous or daily backups?

My brother, Laurie, has requested a credit for inspiring this week’s blog by asking this question, so “thank you, Laurie, consider yourself credited”. What does the question mean?

Backup Drive on a Laptop
If you leave it connected, how often should you back up?
Actually, this is a different slant on a recent blog post called “Should you leave backup drives connected?

A lot of external hard drives now come complete with their own backup software. Unfortunately, they are never “plug and play”. They need to be configured according to your own preferences. We are talking of Windows computers, here. If you have a Mac then just use the inbuilt “Time Machine” option in System Preferences.

One of the choices to be made on a Windows PC is “how often do you want the backups to happen?” The usual options are:

  • Continuous – files are backed up as soon they are newly detected or whenever they are updated
  • Hourly (not always available as an option) – additions and the latest version of changed files from the last hour are all backed up at once
  • Daily – as above but only once per day
  • Weekly – as above but only once per week

Seagate External Drive in a Box
Seagate include backup software with this 1tb USB 3 external drive.
Let’s dismiss the “weekly” option to begin with. Why would you go to the trouble of buying a backup drive and then configuring it, only to leave your data exposed for anything up to a week? There is hardly any more cost or effort required to back up daily than weekly.

If you’ve got a new(ish) computer that’s very quiet, you may not like the external drive whirring up every few minutes or so. If you have it on continuous or hourly update the noise might irritate you.

Continuous update will also use up the drive space on your external drive faster, of course, than a daily backup, but if the drive is at least twice as big as the initial (full) backup then that’s unlikely to be a problem.

Another argument against continuous (or hourly) backups is that the process of backing up might slow down your computer for anything else you are doing at the time. This isn’t a problem with daily backups as you can schedule the backup to take place at a time when the computer is switched on but you are unlikely to be using it (during a mealtime, for instance). In practice, a new(ish) mid-specification or high-specification machine is unlikely to be bothered by backups going on, but an older machine might be. If you think your computer is already slow, don’t hamper it further with continuous or hourly backups.

If you tend to do a lot of work in one day on the same file or several files, you may prefer continuous or hourly update to prevent losing loads of actual work all done on one day. However, my own way of dealing with that (when putting together proposals for computer support clients, for instance) is to keep saving different versions of the file as I go along (using “save as” instead of “save” and giving each file a different version number as part of the name). I then delete the interim ones when I’ve finished. Yes, this does mean that all the versions are equally exposed to hard drive failure, but that’s a risk I will take in exchange for ease of use.

Backup Strategy Joke - version 2Something else you may need to consider is how your backup software deals with backing up your emails. If you use webmail it’s not a consideration, of course, as your data is all at the server end and not on your computer. If you’re using an email client (program) – and particularly if you are connecting via POP – then you will have large data files on your computer and, since these constantly change throughout the day, you could end up with your backup program spending all its time backing up the latest version of a “pst” file (for instance). Some backup programs get over this by only backing up such files a maximum of once per day. With other programs, your email backup might not happen at all anyway as some backup programs can not back up open files. So, you would only have a backup if you remembered to close your email for at least 90 minutes at a time (if performing continuous or hourly backups) or if you closed it some time before the scheduled backup time (if performing daily backup).

All computer backups are analogous to insurance policies in that the more you pay in premiums (or the more time and effort you put into backups) the better the cover (or the less data you are likely to lose).

If setting a daily schedule actually works most of the time (ie the computer is switched on and capable of doing the daily backup most of the time) then I would probably favour daily backups.

Whichever method you decide on, I would strongly recommend checking the contents of the backup drive a few times to make sure that what you think is being backed up actually is being backed up. In particular, check for email backups if you use an email client (program) to handle your email.

Finally, I think I’m right in saying that some backup programs can work while the computer is asleep. By all means test this out if you prefer to do daily backups, but do make sure that you check to see that the backup is actually happening.

Checking your backup files may be simply a case of viewing the contents of the backup drive in Windows Explorer (now called File Explorer), but if the backup program has created its own proprietory backup file type then you would need to check the backups using the backup software itself. I’m afraid there’s also another potential complication in that Windows may be hiding from your view the folders that contain your emails and/or their backups on the external drive. There’s no room to go into that today, but give me a call if it’s a problem.